Deep diving drones search for endangered right whales off East Coast

WATCH ABOVE: It’s a mystery baffling scientists on the East Coast. Endangered North Atlantic right whales have not been showing up in their usual habitats in great numbers. Turns out, they have been migrating the wrong way. Now, researches at Dalhousie University are trying a high-tech approach to track the whales down. As Ross Lord reports, it could help save their lives.

HALIFAX – Researchers are taking a high-tech approach to track endangered whales off the East Coast, to find out why they’ve been migrating the wrong way.

“They can survey for 24 hours a day, in good weather, in bad weather [and] in the fog when we cannot get out there on a ship to survey for these animals,” says Kim Davies, an oceanographer at Halifax’s Dalhousie Univeristy who conducts research for the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response Network.

The gliders resemble torpedoes and dive up to 200 metres deep, using a wide range of sensor and a new microphone to detect right whales. The devices surface every two hours to report their findings via satellite to a research website.

Davies said the ocean gliders could save whales by using that information to notify ships, so they can avoid collisions — a leading cause of death of right whales.

“Half of all the known mortalities of these highly endangered animals are due to ship strikes, she said. “If we don’t know where these whales are, we can’t protect them.”

But, knowing their movements doesn’t always mean understanding the mysterious whales.

“They come up to our coast in the summer to feed and, in the last few years, they have not been showing up for long periods in places where they have traditionally had their feeding habitats.”

Rather than their usual summer habitat, in the waters off southwest Nova Scotia, they are hanging out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

And it’s there that they’ve encountered trouble: the carcases of three whales were discovered in a three-week period, with no obvious cause of death.

That’s even more disturbing when you consider there are fewer than 500 right whales remaining in the western North Atlantic.

With 24-7 tracking, the gliders could help save whales and allow the stocks to re-build.

At a cost of about $250,000 each — paid for with federal funding — the gliders are actually less expensive than hiring research vessels.

“They’re doing the work for you, while we’re onshore doing other things, analyzing data and prepping other gliders,” said Adam Comeau, of the Ocean Tracking Network, another partner in the glider project.

He hopes the gliders will soon be year-round fixtures — submerging for a deeper understanding of Right Whales, and, giving guidance for their future.