New Brunswick

How drones could help save the North Atlantic right whale

Researchers hope a new technology will give them greater insight into what's happening with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Researchers try to figure out if sounds from vessels are causing stress for right whales

The drones will collect footage that will help scientists figure out how healthy the whales are. (Center for Coastal Studies/NOAA permit #14603)

Researchers hope a new technology will give them greater insight into what's happening with critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Andrew Wright has been using drones to study right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. 

"Views of the whale are impossible to get from the surface and that's why we're doing it," said Wright, who is also a marine biologist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography

"We need to get above the whales to get a true picture of their size."

With drones, the researchers can obtain particular footage to help them understand how healthy a right whale needs to be to survive an entanglement and how unhealthy a survivor might be.

"The fatter they are the better," he said.

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The role of ship sounds

Wright said drones will also help researchers learn more about whether noises in the ocean affect right whales' health and stress levels. 

"The concerns that we have may be that the whales are responding to ships, and they may be disrupting their feeding," he said.   

"Ship noise travels quite extensively throughout the North Atlantic … the sound levels in the entire ocean [are] actually slightly raised compared to what they used to be." 

Since the drones will be in the air, the sound from the technology won't travel as easily. 

"There is not too much impact from drones flying over marine mammals, especially whales and dolphins in the water," he said.  

No North Atlantic right whales were found dead in Canadian waters last year, but six have already died this year. (Michael Dwyer/Associated Press)

Only about 400 of the endangered whales remain.

Since early June, six North Atlantic right whales have died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Now, three entangled right whales have been spotted in the gulf, where whale rescue crews are hoping to disentangle them.

All three whales were spotted in areas already closed to fishing, officials said. Certain zones of the Gulf of St. Lawrence have been closed to fishing to lower the risk of whale entanglement.  

Saving a species 

Wright just finished a series of field trials on the closer-to-shore minke and fin whales to test the gear before his team starts on right whales. 

His team sampled the new technology on minke and fin whales because right whales are farther offshore and require more expensive equipment, including a bigger boat that will allow the researchers to travel a greater distance.

"It's quite exhilarating when you see a whale on the screen, especially for a new program," Wright said. "It means we're succeeding in what we're attempting to do." 

Collecting whale snot

Another part of the program will include collecting blowhole spray, also known as "whale snot," to track a whale's health.

This will allow scientists to look at a whale's hormone levels, learn how stressed it is, and whether it is pregnant.

He said a lot of work has been done with similar hormones in whale feces, but they are not easy to access.

"The whale [blowhole spray] will be a little more reliable," he said.