A remote undersea glider equipped with acoustic sensors is patrolling deep water canyons off the west coast of Vancouver Island in a bid to set up a traffic-alert system to prevent large ships from crashing into whales.
University of Victoria researchers launched the glider off Flores Island north of Tofino to measure whale traffic in an area near shipping zones for vessels using ports in Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Alaska and Washington.
The glider has enough battery power to spend three weeks in the ocean gathering data, said geographer David Duffus, director of the university's whale research lab.
"The idea behind the gliders is they can work in real time, or near real time," Prof. Duffus said. "The glider rises at a certain interval and sends a signal to a satellite."
Ships can pick up the signals through an automatic identification system that can read whale locations and allows ships to change course or speeds in an effort to avoid collisions, he said.
The glider's current route stretches 70 kilometres north of Tofino to the continental shelf, then patrols the shelf's southern waters before returning northwards through an area near Ucluelet called La Perouse Bank in Barkley Sound, Prof. Duffus said. Both regions are believed to be major habitats for grey and humpback whales, but endangered blue, fin and sei whales can also be found in the waters.
He said two highly endangered Pacific right whales have also been reported in the waters, the first such sightings in more than 60 years.
"Big whales are subject to ship strikes from big ships," Prof. Duffus said. "On the East Coast, it's one of the major mortality problems for some highly endangered species. "
The glider project is a collaboration with Dalhousie University in Halifax where the underwater devices were launched almost two years ago to research migratory paths and habitats of endangered Atlantic right whales.
"The data on the West Coast here is extremely sparse," Prof. Duffus said. "We don't know the magnitude of the [ship strike] problem. On the West Coast, we're still in unknown territory, but we do know that ship strikes do happen and it's been named in all the species-at-risk reporting on the big whale species as a potential but unknown hazard."
He said whale-warning systems are already in place in some U.S. waters where vessels are required to change course or speeds if whales are in the area. There have been some Canadian shipping-lane changes in waters known to be whale habitat, he added.
Data from the first glider patrol should be available later this spring, he said.
"I'm a whale ecologist and it's terribly exciting," Prof. Duffus said. "This is our pilot run and we're pretty excited about just the act of discovery of the whales."