How drones uncovered a mystery about Arctic whales that were nearly hunted to extinction

Click to play video: 'UBC researcher solves bowhead whale mystery' UBC researcher solves bowhead whale mystery
A UBC researcher has discovered the answer to a mystery about the behaviour of bowhead whales in the Northwest Passage. As Linda Aylesworth reports, her discovery was made possible by drone technology – Nov 23, 2017

The bowhead whale has had a rough go of things.

It’s an Arctic species that can break through ice that’s as much as 20 centimeters thick.

And it’s a species still recovering from decades of whaling activity that only ended when the sea mammals were close to extinction, according to WWF Canada.

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Today, there are about 10,000 around the world, and still, not much is known about their lifestyle or their biology.

But a UBC PhD candidate in zoology happened upon a discovery about the whales while researching what they feed upon in Nunavut’s Cumberland Sound.

Sarah Fortune was tracking whales when, one day, a device she used to research them went silent and then showed up in a bay.

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There, she found bowhead whales showing strange behaviour — they seemed to be turning around and around in shallow water.

Fortune used a drone to figure out what was happening.

“And that is when we saw clearly whales rubbing their bodies on rocks like pumice stone,” she told Global News.

The whales, it appeared, were moulting, using the rocks to shed dead skin.

“For me it was really important to know bowheads use Cumberland Sound for moulting because it changes our understanding of why this area is important,” Fortune said.

And that was crucial because it helped her identify an area that could use protection at a time when the planet is warming, and when higher temperatures are breaking up sea ice.

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Critical habitats need to be identified and protected, she said, “so that we can manage human activity like oil and gas, fishing and shipping.”

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