Nova Scotia

App allows the public to follow whales off Atlantic coast

Underwater drones can tell different whale species apart by their calls.

Underwater drones can tell different whale species apart by their calls

The underwater gliders allow scientists and the public to follow large baleen whales as they swim off the coast. (Courtesy: New England Aquarium)

Unmanned deep diving gliders equipped with voice recognition software are allowing scientists — and now the public — to follow large baleen whales as they swim off the coast of Atlantic Canada.

Since the summer, gliders deployed by Dalhousie University have travelled thousands of kilometres off the coasts of Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St. Lawrence in northern New Brunswick, sending back real time locations of whales and the ocean water conditions where they are detected.

"We can now track them far offshore in any weather by their sounds in all kinds of weather," said Kim Davies, a researcher at Dalhousie University.

Gliders cost about $150,000 each

The gliders can dive to a depth of 200 metres, detect whale calls up to 100 kilometres away and stay at sea for up to three months.

They were deployed at Davies direction as part of a large scale marine mammal survey off Atlantic Canada in 2016. 
Davies is studying the endangered Atlantic right whale — whose population is down to about 500. 

Tracking showed right whales congregating off the Gaspe Peninsula and not in traditional grounds in the Roseway Basin off southern Nova Scotia.

"They are showing up in places where we didn't expect or not showing up where we do expect. Now we have a way to search for those animals in a cost effective manner," Davies said.

'Oh, there's a Blue whale'

The breadth of the technology intrigued Sean Brilliant, manager of marine program at the Canadian Wildlife Federation. Brilliant also works out of Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"One day I was in Kim's office and she was working on the computer and she said, 'oh there's a blue whale in the Roseway Basin.' And I thought, how amazing is that? We wanted to give everyone a chance to be able to follow along with this," Brilliant said.

The result is an app launched this week by the Canadian Wildlife Federation that — with a click — allows the public to follow the whales.

Although the Dalhousie researchers get real time locations, the glider data will be uploaded to the app weekly. Brilliant and Davies said they are waiting for feedback to see if there is a demand for more frequent updates. 

Whales heard 'all the time'

The gliders do not say how many whales are out there. They only ping each time there's an encounter. Still the results so far have impressed Brilliant.

"It is a bit surprising, you put these gliders in the water and they hear whales all the time, everywhere. It's a bit encouraging that way," he said.

Not just a 'novelty' 

Brilliant said the data could be used help avoid whale-ship strikes or gear entanglements, which is suspected in the death of a 13-metre, 40 tonne right whale found off the coast of Maine last Friday.

"It's more than the novelty of where these animals exist. This has a lot to do with how we use the ocean, how we manage activities in the ocean," says Brilliant.

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans is buying two of them. 

Davies said researchers put a glider in the water in support of the recent NATO Cutlass Fury naval exercise off Nova Scotia.

The Royal Canadian Navy was interested in the physical properties of the water for their sound models and to detect if there were whales in the area.

Bay of Fundy waters too turbulent

Gliders will remain in the water until November, and are expected to rack up 6,000 kilometres in total. 

The effort also includes surface wave riders. Next year four gliders will be deployed.

Davies said the churning waters of the Bay of Fundy are too turbulent for the gliders. She said she is pleased with the program and the new app.

"The challenge for us as scientists is to make the data available in a way that is easily accessible to the public," she said.

About the Author

Paul Withers


Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.