Interactive tool makes for easier tracking of North Atlantic right whales
Program combines surveillance data on endangered whales from 9 sources
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.
"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.
"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.
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."
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."
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