Grey whale research halted due to COVID-19 concerns
The whales are undertaking their annual northern migration between now and May
At this time of year, scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada would be out on their boats studying the grey whale migration north, but like many other things, their research has been stopped by COVID-19.
Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, a research scientist who leads the federal government's cetacean research program, says the annual migration — which occurs every spring — is a good window of opportunity to check on the condition of the individual whales.
This year was also an important one for his team because the grey whale population suffered big losses last year, with several — including at least eight in B.C. — being found dead or stranded on beaches along the Pacific coast.
"We were all eager to see this year if they were doing fine, but because of the situation, obviously, [we are limited] to what we can do," Doniol-Valcroze told host Kathryn Marlow on CBC's All Points West.
Listen to the full interview with researcher Thomas Doniol-Valcroze:
Typically, research teams go out together on small to medium-sized boats to take photographs and measurements of the whales. But because of physical distancing measures, all field work has been suspended until at least May 1.
"A boat is a small place and teamwork is a big part of what we do, so it's very hard for us to do this and respect all the guidelines for social distancing."
But there are other ways of gathering interesting data, Doniol-Valcroze says. These include methods like acoustic mooring, where hydrophones are dropped underwater in specific locations to record sounds from passing whales.
And since grey whales migrate close to the coast, the team could potentially work from the shore, using drones to fly over the whales and gather measurements.
There is one silver lining to all the forced physical distancing, however.
There are fewer ferries, ships, and whale watching boats — and correspondingly, less marine noise.
"And that's a good thing for these animals," said Doniol-Valcroze, adding that there have been anecdotal reports of whales swimming closer to shore in areas where they are not usually seen, like a group of killer whales spotted in Indian Arm, near Vancouver.
Watch a pod of killer whales surface off Barnet Marine Park in Burnaby, B.C.:
But there's no way of truly quantifying the effect.
"We can't really monitor what they're doing right now, because we can't be out there for the same reason."
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With files from All Points West