New marine robot to help scientists track movements of endangered right whales

The newest glider will carry a hydrophone, which can identify the calls of the right whales and report their locations, the Ocean Tracking Network said Monday.

Equipped with a hydrophone, which can identify right whale calls and locations

A North Atlantic right whale mother and calf in waters near Cumberland Island, Ga., earlier this year. Since June 2017, an unusually large number of right whales have died and fewer than 400 now remain. (Georgia Department of Natural Resources/NOAA Permit #20556/The Associated Press)

A new marine robot, part of a fleet of underwater gliders operated by the Ocean Tracking Network and Dalhousie University in Halifax, will help monitor endangered North Atlantic right whales to keep them from colliding with ships.

The newest glider will carry a hydrophone, which can identify the calls of right whales and report their locations, Fred Whoriskey, executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network, said Monday. The University of New Brunswick and Transport Canada are also partners in the $3.6-million project that will span the next five years.

"There is no one way to effectively determine where the whales are at any given moment when they are in the Gulf of St. Lawrence," Whoriskey said in an interview. "So we need to start blending our approaches."

Aerial surveillance is only good on sunny days with few waves, he said, adding that hydrophones mounted on fixed buoys have their limitations.

"This year we are deploying gliders into the shipping channels," he said. "They go down, listen and detect whale calls and come up to the surface periodically and broadcast information whether there are whales there or not."

Whoriskey said the gliders are about a metre-and-a-half in length. "They're banana yellow, and they are shaped like a torpedo with wings."

Three gliders are being used in the Gulf this year, and the newest one, now being built, will replace one of those. Whoriskey said aside from listening for whale calls, the gliders are able to record water temperatures and oxygen levels, as well as measure chlorophyll and algae.

This North Atlantic right whale, spotted northeast of the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on April 25, was the first right whale in Canadian waters this year. (DFO Science-Aerial Survey Team)

Since June 2017, an unusually large number of right whales have died, reducing the population to fewer than 400 animals — a number that has some experts warning that the species is on the brink of extinction. Ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements account for most of the deaths.

Whoriskey said he believes his team's research, which includes analyzing the animals' movements and the location of food sources, will help the species bounce back.

The whales have traditionally spent the summer months in and around the Bay of Fundy, but in recent years they have migrated further north to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, raising concerns about their presence in shipping lanes. Speed limits for ships and a number of fishery closures have been ordered in recent years after whales were detected in the region.

"You can see the species fighting back," Whoriskey said. "We've had calf production this year. It absolutely behooves us to do everything in our power to let them bounce back."