British Columbia

Grey whale research halted due to COVID-19 concerns

Grey whales are undertaking their annual migration right now from Mexico to the Arctic, but the DFO researchers who usually study them won't be there to record it.

The whales are undertaking their annual northern migration between now and May

A grey whale emerges from the waters off the coast of Mexico in 2015. Every year, the whales travel along the Pacific coast from Mexico's northwest Baja California peninsula to Alaska. (Omar Torres/AFP via Getty Images)

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

A dead grey whale is shown washed up on a California beach in May 2019. Dozens of grey whales were found dead along the Pacific coast last year. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Listen to the full interview with researcher Thomas Doniol-Valcroze:

It's that time of year when gray whales pass by Vancouver Island as they migrate from Mexico to the Arctic. Scientists would normally be out studying the whales, but COVID-19 is interrupting research plans. To find out more, Kathryn Marlow reached Thomas Danielle-Valcroze, a research scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 7:34

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."

An aerial shot of migrating grey whales. DFO scientist Thomas Doniol-Valcroze says drones might be a good way of studying the whales if researchers can't observe them via boats. (Kyle Munson/Shutterstock)

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.:

A group of two adults and three babies were seen jumping in and out of the water for about fifteen minutes. 0:31

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."

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

With files from All Points West

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