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Unprecedented experiment aims to improve conservation outcomes for critically endangered North Atlantic right Whale

Posted by Media Centre on September 25, 2018 in News

(HALIFAX, N.S. September 25, 2018) – A Dalhousie University research team has coordinated an unprecedented scientific experiment with a number of partners to study North Atlantic right whale (NARW) activity in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.  

For the first time ever, underwater robots, marine vessels, aircraft, military sonobuoys, and satellites were successfully used  simultaneously to collect data concerning the whales in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence on July 30 & 31, 2018. The data will inform scientific studies to produce novel insights on monitoring NARW distribution and behaviour.

“This dataset is entirely novel; we’ve never had so many monitoring technologies overlapping in the same time and place. I’m hopeful that the many facets of this dataset will provide us with new insights that lead to improved monitoring and conservation outcomes for this endangered species,” said Hansen Johnson, a PhD candidate working with the Whale Habitat and Listening Experiment (WHaLE) team in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie University.

The workhorse of the military system used in this study is the sonobuoy. These small, disposable buoys can be dropped from a plane into the ocean where they transmit underwater sounds back to the aircraft. Multiple sonobuoys allow pinpointing the exact location of an underwater sound source—in this case, whale calls. The Canadian Armed Forces typically use sonobuoys to detect, identify and track submarines. Sonobuoys have been used to listen for marine mammals before, but never on this scale or in combination with so many other efforts.

"This collaboration has united a diverse group of talented specialists, each passionate about their respective fields and united by a common goal—trying to understand and preserve these endangered whales,” said Major Dugald Thomson, an Air Force officer with Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and PhD Candidate in the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie. “The government has made considerable efforts to take action on this national imperative, and this trial is just one example of inspired people coming together to use the skills and tools they have to make a difference.”

In this two-day experiment, DRDC arranged for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) scientists to board a Royal Canadian Air Force CP-140 Aurora Long Range Patrol Aircraft that dropped 32 sonobuoys in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence over an area of roughly 1,500 square km each day. At the same time, scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center on board a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plane and scientists from Dalhousie, Canadian Whale Institute and New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life on board fishing vessel Jean-Denis Martin surveyed the area to document and photograph the right whales. Below the surface, two autonomous underwater vehicles called slocum gliders from Dalhousie’s Ocean Tracking Network and the Marine Environmental, Observation, Prediction and Response Network recorded right whale calls and measured the ocean conditions. Above it all, DFO scientists arranged to capture satellite images to map the ocean surface.

The WHaLE team aims to have findings from this experiment compiled by early 2019.

“This simply would not have happened without the support of all the survey groups, particularly the Canadian military,” said Johnson. “The success of the experiment demonstrates the outstanding level of commitment to right whale conservation across agencies and borders. It’s this kind of collaborative action that will give the species its best chance at recovery.”




Niecole Comeau
Communications Advisor
Faculty of Science, Dalhousie University
Tel: 902-494-8443 / Mobile: 902-223-2446

Media Relations
Department of National Defence
Tel: 613-996-2353



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