The lives of right whales

Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Editor’s Note: In this first-hand account, Fisheries and Oceans Canada researcher Andrew J. Wright explains how he and his colleagues are working to save right whales.
What do tiny crustaceans, whale mucus, and oil spills have in common?
Last summer all three got an up close look from a group of Fisheries and Oceans Canada researchers from Nova Scotia and Quebec who crisscrossed the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence for a four-week science mission to support three related research programs.
The goal was to collect information on the ecology and physiology of North Atlantic right whales, gather data on factors affecting the distribution of their prey (mainly copepods, a small crustacean), and assess the potential impact to right whale marine habitats through ship-based oil spills. The Gulf of St. Lawrence was chosen for the work as it is becoming an important summer habitat for right whales, but is also an active shipping and fishing area. The data will help us better understand the impacts of these activities on the whales.
My focus was on the whales themselves and how noise might impact their health. The biggest challenge in conducting this research is convincing the whales to come in for regular blood draws. (Let’s face it, nobody likes needles.) Instead, we had to get creative and took to the air.
First we used an off-the-shelf drone and camera system that we equipped with an additional custom-built laser ranging unit. That additional LIDAR system lets us accurately determine how long and fat (and thus healthy) the whales are. Effectively we were getting a body mass index from above.
We also needed to check-in on the whales’ stress hormone levels. For that, we reached out to the drone racers of Team Canada to custom-build a drone for us based on an Australian design. The result was essentially an airborne petri dish that proved extremely capable of flying into the blow of the whales to collect mucus samples for our analyses, at least in the hands of our drone racer, Liam Olders. As a result, we could collect our samples while provoking no discernable reaction from the whales.
The plankton team also had some high-tech gear on board: their visual plankton recorder. We tow this nifty piece of kit behind the boat, bobbing up and down through the water as we move forward.
It collects pictures of the material in the water column using a high-resolution camera system connected to a strobe light, allowing researchers to get close-up images of the tiny, less than four millimetres long Calanus zooplankton that, amazingly, make up the bulk of the diet of the whales in the area.
Finally, the team studying oil spills had their on-board experiment and filtration system. This allowed them to test how the environment would respond to an oil spill using constantly-refreshed local seawater and microbes, without any test oil reaching the ocean.
Now we all now have a lot of data to go through, but already these efforts are providing us with new perspectives on the whales and the ecosystem. Freshly inspired, the teams are already planning another cruise next summer. Science never sleeps!

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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