RCAF supports North Atlantic right whale conservation efforts

A whale’s tail is visible above the water.
In the summer of 2018, researchers from a number of organizations, including the Royal Canadian Air Force, tracked the endangered North Atlantic right whale. PHOTO: Submitted (Dalhousie University)

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Royal Canadian Air Force

The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) recently supported North Atlantic right whale (NARW) conservation efforts by collecting unique data that will provide valuable information about the whales and their behaviour.

The ultimate goal of the project is to improve researchers’ ability to track individuals of this endangered species.

The conservation efforts are a collaboration among several organizations, including Defence Research and Development Canada, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Transport Canada (TC), the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network (MEOPAR), headquartered at Dalhousie.

The NARW is a species of particular concern in Canada, with 12 of an estimated population of 500 whales killed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2017.

The objective of this specific research trial involving the RCAF was to deploy remote underwater acoustic sensors, known as sonobuoys, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with autonomous underwater gliders from MEOPAR and concurrently with a DFO/NOAA aerial survey.

This was carried out over two five-hour flights on July 30 and 31, 2018 by a CP-140 Aurora long-range patrol aircraft from 14 Wing in Greenwood, Nova Scotia.

The aim of the trial was to improve the ability to detect, classify, localize, and track right whales by applying cutting edge anti-submarine warfare techniques to a unique ecological problem.

“The approach we’re taking has never been used to study right whales, so if we could localize [even] one individual I would be pleased,” said Major Dugald Thomson, DRDC’s project leader and a Dalhousie University PhD candidate.

“The interesting part will be correlating our results to the visual and acoustic detections gathered by our collaborators, to help improve the tracking capabilities of the autonomous gliders”.

Canada’s Ocean Protection Plan outlines the whole-of-government strategy to defend the health of Canada’s marine environment, with particular focus given to protecting three endangered whale species: the NARW, the southern resident killer whale and the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale.

Similarly, Canada’s Defence Policy highlights one of its goals as Bolstering Academic Outreach using collaborative approaches. Both of these objectives were prominently fulfilled throughout this collaboration, with highly-skilled defence analysts currently working with Dalhousie, MEOPAR, and DFO to analyze the rich data set that was collected.

Using sonobuoys to track right whales presents an interesting opportunity to repurpose existing approaches to a new problem. With DFO researchers onboard to help with visual and acoustic identification, the Aurora deployed an array of 32 sonobuoys around a cluster of right whales and recorded acoustic data. Sonar analysts will use the data to rebuild geospatial tracks for individual whales in the group.

The product of this analysis will provide unique information to NARW researchers, which can be used to help develop and prove their own localization technique for the MEOPAR gliders, and advance their understanding of NARW behaviour without the need for invasive tagging.

In addition to the value of this effort to the NARW conservation community, the RCAF will benefit from this collaboration by using the recordings to test a marine mammal monitoring capability that is being investigated to ensure whales are not harmed during RCAF training events.

DRDC has acquired software from Nova Scotia-based Jasco Environmental Services that is being integrated into the Aurora and CH-148 Cyclone helicopter acoustic processors to notify aircrews when a whale is present in the waters below. The software must be tested using data acquired from in-service sonobuoys, in real-world conditions against a verified data set. This interdepartmental collaboration has provided a robust, rigorously analyzed data set against which this capability can be tested by researchers at DRDC, ultimately helping Canada achieve its aim of protecting our marine environment.

Image gallery

  • A whale’s tail is visible above the water.
  • A large gray aircraft with four propellers in flight.
  • The head and one fin of a whale is visible above the water.
  • The backs of two whales, showing their blow holes, above the water.
  • A whale's tail visible above the water.
  • Two whales partially visible above the water. The fin of one is raised.
  • A whale partially visible above and below the surface of the water.
  • A whale’s tail is visible above the water.

About the North Atlantic right whale

From Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Named the “right whale” by whalers, because it is slow-moving and easy to catch, this whale was hunted to near extinction by the late 1800s. In 1935, the League of Nations banned hunting of right whales in all oceans.

The North Atlantic right whale is listed as an endangered species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). A Recovery Strategy has been developed for this species. The whale is also protected under a number of other acts, regulations and agreements.

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) has a large head that takes up nearly a quarter of the length of its body. Right whales, which can grow up to 18 metres in length, can be recognized by:

  • wide tail flukes and narrow tailstock, large flippers and no fin on its back (no dorsal fin);
  • black skin, though some right whales have white patches on the throat or belly; and
  • rough white patches of skin called callosities on their head, chin and sometimes on the edge of their lower lips. Each whale’s callosity pattern is unique, allowing scientists to recognize individual whales.Right whales usually feed on one kind of food: tiny crustaceans called copepods. They may also feed opportunistically on other types of zooplankton. Like other baleen whales, such as the humpback, the right whale has no teeth; instead it has a series of fringed plates—called baleen plates—hanging from each side of its upper jaw. During feeding, a right whale swims slowly with its mouth open. When the whale closes its mouth, the water is forced out and the baleen plates act as filters, trapping food on the inside that they then swallow.
  • The right whale is a migratory species that frequents coastal waters. Right whales come to Atlantic Canadian waters to feed on rich supplies of their prey. They may be present here in the spring, summer and fall. In winter, female right whales migrate to coastal waters off the coasts of Florida and Georgia, which are important calving areas. At any time of year, some portion of the population is in unknown locations.
  • Right whales live at least 75 years. They are curious and acrobatic, often breaching and smacking the surface with their flippers and flukes (tails). Right whales generally dive for about 20 minutes at a time.

Image gallery

  • A large and a small whale swim at the surface of the water, photographed from above.

RELATED LINKS

Royal Canadian Air Force

Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan

Canada’s Defence Policy

MEOPAR

Transport Canada: Protection of the North Atlantic Right Whale

Fisheries and Oceans: North Atlantic Right Whale

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): North Atlantic Right Whale

CP-140 Aurora

14 Wing Greenwood

Defence Research and Development Canada

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