Scientists from the United States and Canada will take part in an unprecedented survey of marine mammals off Atlantic Canada this year.

A big part of that effort will be trying to solve a mystery surrounding the endangered northern right whale. There are only 500 right whales left and their migratory patterns have recently shifted, leaving scientists wondering where the whales have gone.

"When you are dealing with a population of 500 animals that is slow to reproduce this is a cause for significant concern," said Sean Brillant of the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

'Shock and surprise'

Brillant is impressed by the upcoming effort to solve the mystery.

"There's a full court press. We have aerial surveys, on the water and in the water with autonomous underwater drones, listening," he said.

In 2015, very few were seen in their traditional summer feeding grounds near New Brunswick's Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy and the Roseway Basin off southern Nova Scotia.

"This caused a lot of shock and surprise," Brillant said. "People want to know where did they go. We have the Americans asking where are the whales? They are in your waters."

It's believed the behemoths are chasing food, specifically a variety of zooplankton called copepods. Several dozen right whales were spotted off the tip of Gaspé, Que., in 2015. American scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be up in the air over the Gulf of St Lawrence in 2016.

There's an app for that

Citizen scientists who want to help track whale movements can do so with the Whale Alert App, which can be used on any mobile device.

The app allows users to send photos and data in real time where there is cellphone coverage.

It also provides updates on where right whales have been spotted.

The app started in the U.S. where it is used around the shipping lanes near the Port of Boston.

Most effort ever

On Monday, researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Dalhousie University took part in a workshop at the offices of marine acoustics company Jasco Applied Sciences in Dartmouth, N.S.

The workshop was to understand and coordinate the whale call data they will gather this summer.

Kim Davies, a marine biologist at Dalhousie, said the survey is unprecedented.

Serendipitous survey

"This is going to be the most effort, most coordinated effort for marine mammal surveys that's ever been undertaken in Atlantic Canada," said Davies.

She said it is also serendipity. Surveys planned long ago are coming on stream this year, just as the right whale mystery deepened.

"This year is different than any other year we've seen in terms of effort. Some of that is focused on the right whale because of the abandonment. Some of it is because we just want to know more about marine mammals across Atlantic Canada."

Davies is optimistic the whales will be found.

'Every year we know less and less'

Jasco's science director Bruce Martin is hopeful, while also appreciating how elusive the whales can be.

His company manufactures fixed and floating listening devices that record whale calls. Nearly two dozen are positioned off the Atlantic coast.

"I've been following the right whale for about four years now ... and every year we know less and less about what's going on," said Martin.

He said the search for whale food is part of the solution.

"It's a really interesting problem to figure out where are they going. We know they are following food, that's what Kim studies, but we don't know where that food is. So we have to range broadly."

Habitat protection order

On May 14, the federal government issued a critical habitat protection order for the endangered right whale's key territory near Grand Manan and the Roseway Basin. The measure enshrines protections already in place, but was welcomed.

Davies said the order has been sitting on the desk of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans since 2010.

Brillant said the order is another sign the new Liberal government is taking environmental issues more seriously than their Conservative predecessors.

Also on May 14, Ottawa issued a critical habitat protection for beluga whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.