Interactive tool makes for easier tracking of North Atlantic right whales

Tracking North Atlantic right whales may be easier now than ever, thanks to WhaleMap, an interactive map developed by a Dalhousie University graduate student that pools data from various whale surveillance methods and is updated in real time.

Program combines surveillance data on endangered whales from 9 sources

WhaleMap combines visual surveillance of whales with acoustic detection from underwater gliders. (Lisa Conger/Northeast Fisheries Science Center under NOAA Permit #17355)

Tracking North Atlantic right whales may now be easier than ever, thanks to WhaleMap, an interactive map that pools data from various whale surveillance methods and is updated in real time.

WhaleMap was developed by Hansen Johnson, a PhD student in oceanography at Dalhousie University. 

Johnson is a part of the Dalhousie MEOPAR Whale Project, which uses underwater gliders to detect whales acoustically. They wanted to combine that data with visual tracking from various data contributors. MEOPAR stands for marine environmental observation, prediction and response network.

Dalhousie graduate student Hansen Johnson, left, and glider specialist Adam Comeau hold a Slocum Glider, one of the tools used by the MEOPAR's WHaLE project team to collect acoustic data. (MEOPAR, Dalhousie University)

"I just started making maps and sharing them with our research group and then it just slowly grew from there," Johnson said.

Last year, 18 of the endangered right whales died off the coast of Eastern Canada and the United States. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans closed six fishing areas indefinitely this May in an effort to protect the 450 or so whales that remain.

Hansen Johnson is a PhD student in Oceanography at Dalhousie University. He developed the WhaleMap that can be found at: whalemap.ocean.dal.ca 8:38

"The urgency of the situation has gotten substantially higher, so now we just needed a new tool to organize all the information coming in," Johnson said.

WhaleMap uses grey markers to identify definite visual sightings and red markers to identify acoustic detections. Users can click on dots to learn more information about each sighting, including the method and the number of whales spotted. (WhaleMap)

The map allows viewers to zoom in on specific areas and click on sightings markers to learn more information. The interactive version also allows users to set date ranges and filter the sightings based on the method of observation, such as acoustic glider, plane or vessel.

Johnson said sightings tend to be clustered because the whales socialize in large pods and feed on prey that also travel in dense groups.

"That's part of the reason they tend to be so vulnerable to things like ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement, is they can cluster in one place."

Necropsies on some of the whales that died last year showed entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

While traveling in large groups can sometimes put the whales in more danger, Johnson said it also makes them easier to track.

"It's very difficult to detect these single whales as they are migrating," Johnson said.

WhaleMap combines data from nine contributors. Johnson said many surveyors use services such as Dropbox and Google Drive to share data internally. WhaleMap is set up to pull data directly from those banks.

"The nice thing about that is if they make any changes, they realize they made a mistake or they want to update the information, they can just change the information on their Google Drive and the map will update and reflect that change automatically."

The interactive version of WhaleMap allows users to narrow date range and filter by type of surveillance method. This marker shows 10 whales were sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 10 off New Brunswick's Shippagan Island. (WhaleMap)

Johnson said the goal of the map is to improve communication among research groups, industry and the general public, with the hope of helping preserve the whales.

The most recent map data indicates 10 right whales were spotted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on June 10 off Shippagan in northeastern New Brunswick.

With files from Information Morning Moncton