Dalhousie researchers team up with military to conduct right whale study

Wed, Sep 26: With fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales left in the world, the species is considered to be critically endangered. As Alicia Draus reports, Dalhousie researchers and the military worked together over the summer in an effort to better protect them.

A team of researchers at Dalhousie University has teamed up with organizations across Canada — including members of the Canadian military —  to provide new insights on the endangered North Atlantic right whales.

After 17 right whales died last year – 12 of them in Canadian waters – the Canadian government imposed new measures to protect the species. These included reducing ship speeds and closing fishing areas where right whales were spotted.

The new measures rely on knowing where the whales are, which is a problem.

READ MORE: Fisheries department announces new fishery closures, openings in bid to protect Right Whales

“One of the recurring themes in right whale research is no one really has any idea where a lot of these whales are at any given time,” said Major Dugald Thomas, an Air Force officer with Defence Research and Development Canada.

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That was in part behind the idea of a study conducted over the summer to better monitor and track the whales.

WATCH: Aerial survey on endangered right whales to be conducted

Aerial survey on endangered right whales to be conducted
Aerial survey on endangered right whales to be conducted

Dalhousie University researchers and their military partners collaborated on a two-day study that used underwater gliders, marine vessels, airplanes, sonobuoys and satellites to collect data on right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

“With the glider itself, we just hear a [whale] call. We don’t know exactly where it came from,” said Ph.D. candidate Hansen Johnson.

That’s where the Air Force came in, offering their expertise using sonobuoys — equipment typically used for tracking submarines.

“When many of them are deployed together, it can triangulate the exact position of anything making a sound within a particular area,” said Johnson.

“They could have certainly deployed sonobuoys on their own and recorded sonobuoys,” explained Thomas.

“The issue they were having is they could only deploy a single sonobuoy at a time, where we were able to deploy a field of 32 sonobuoys and look at the targets in real time.”‘

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READ MORE: Royal Canadian Air Force down 275 pilots as demand increases for military missions

Using the combined technologies will allow the researchers to better analyze from how far away the gliders can pick up sound.

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In addition to the technologies, they were also getting visuals on the whales from both planes and boats.

“The dataset provides us with an incredible ability to compare between what we see with the photo ID surveys and what we hear from the sonobuoys,” said Johnson. “So we can start to piece together some context about specific calls that these whales make.”

The study took part over two days in July and now researchers are working to compile their findings by early 2019.

WATCH: Right Whales, Right Stuff

Right Whales, Right Stuff
Right Whales, Right Stuff

Johnson said one of the hopes is to better develop the gliders to be used without the sonobuoys because currently, information on whale locations typically comes only from planes and boats.

“We hope to also have acoustic gliders out there providing the same kinds of information but at a much lower cost and at a more persistence way because they can be out for months at a time and they can survey in any weather, any conditions.”

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