Nova Scotia·Q&A

Marine biologist discusses investigation into 6 dead right whales

Tonya Wimmer, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University and the director of Marine Animal Response Society, estimates there are a little more than 500 right whales left.

'To lose even one is quite critical and devastating,' says marine biologist Tonya Wimmer

Researchers from the Marine Animal Response Society examining one of the dead right whales. (Marine Animal Response Society)

Since June 7, six North Atlantic right whales have been discovered dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between New Brunswick's Miscou Island, Quebec's Magdalen Islands and northern P.E.I.

Tonya Wimmer, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University and the director of the Marine Animal Response Society, was part of a team that took a boat out to see the remains floating in the ocean.

Wimmer was interviewed by CBC News about the experience. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Tonya Wimmer is a marine biologist and the director of Marine Animal Response Society. (CBC)

CBC: Losing half a dozen right whales, what kind of a blow is that to protection and conservation of that species?

Wimmer: A species like this, it's critically endangered so we're looking at a population of just over 500 animals. So to lose even one is quite critical and devastating, to lose six at once is something we're going to have to wait to see how the population deals with that.

CBC: Thursday you were out on the water getting samples from one of the animals. What was that like?

Wimmer: It was interesting, I mean it was quite amazing to see the collaboration of effort that went into making sure that could happen.

We went with vets from the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative based in P.E.I. and it was with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the coast guard, and so from that perspective it was quite a really good experience because everyone was very much there to do that particular job.

But then seeing the animal itself, and then collecting samples from it but then knowing there was another one a little ways away, and there was another one, and another one. That itself, the weight of that, was quite interesting.

CBC: You had a vet actually on top of one of the whales — tell me about that.

Wimmer: There were certain samples that we wanted to see if we could collect and basically you would have to get inside the internal, the inside of the animal and the only way really to do that at sea is to have someone do it from the top.

That's the most stable. And what it meant is that somebody had to basically be put up on top of the whale and our most experienced person doing necropsies, which is an autopsy on another species, is our veterinarian who works at the Atlantic Vet College, Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, and so he was up for giving it a try and seeing if he could get those samples.

CBC: Have you ever seen that done before?

Wimmer: I've never personally seen that. It's nothing that we've actually tried through the people in our maritime network. Normally the animals we work on are on shore or they're brought on shore. So that was a first time and it was a lot of lessons that we learned about what you can do, what you can't do and the best way to collect some of those samples.

CBC: So any inkling what might be causing these deaths?

Wimmer: At this moment, no. It's a different scenario, it's very different for us in terms of having this many animals from one species all at the same time, so we don't know exactly what's going on.

The main thing is there was nothing really obvious from the outside looking at the animal, except in one case there was some fishing gear on it but we don't know if the animal was compromised before.

We really don't have the whole picture until we can actually look at the animal from the outside and the inside.

CBC: How are you going to be able do that?

Wimmer: That in itself is a whole other experience. These animals are very large. They can be almost 50 to almost 60 feet long, weigh almost you know, 60 to 70 tonnes.

They're very large animals. They're floating way out to sea quite aways from shore. It really is going to be a major collaborative operation to tow the animal ashore using a boat, which is a very slow process, and then having the teams on shore ready to basically conduct the necropsy, which will take dozens of people.

CBC: Is there a chance you could lose some of the ones that are out there?

Wimmer: For sure. I mean, that has happened in the past when we've had animals that have been floating because at that stage they're at the whim of Mother Nature.

You have storms. If their blubber mass, which is kind of the part that helps them float a lot, if that dwindles, they could sink and that has definitely happened in the past.

CBC: Where do you go from here?

Wimmer: The main thing right now is … that we're working as part of this big team to lay out what it is we want to do.

The goal is to bring one animal, if not more, ashore. We don't know exactly yet where that will be.

DFO and some of the provincial agencies are working to figure out where that could be and at the same time we're working to figure out how many people we need on our team, who do we need, do we need to bring in some of the experts?

We have expert colleagues in Quebec and we have people in the United States who have been doing this stuff for a long time. So really this is the planning stage just to say, "How are we going to do this and what do we need to do it?"

CBC: How did the right whale get to this stage with critically low numbers?

Wimmer: This species in particular was one of the key focuses for whaling centuries ago.

It's name actually comes from being the right whale to kill because they floated, they had a lot of blubber, they have really long beautiful baline, which was the precursor to plastic.

They really were sort of that prized whale to hunt years ago and we decimated them, we dropped them down to only a few thousand individuals from tens of thousands.

And then since that time they didn't really get a reprieve because now we've had other activities like shipping activities and fishing. There's noisy environments and these animals pretty much live in the entire Eastern Seaboard of Canada and the U.S., and that's some of the busiest ports and fishing areas and some of the noisiest places on the planet.

With files from Amy Smith