Backgrounder: Subsea glider peers into secret lives of BC whales

Ocean-going ships pose a threat to all large whales worldwide. To help reduce collisions, especially with whales from threatened and endangered populations, maritime commerce needs information about whale locations and vessel-whale risk.

The three-year Whales, Habitat and Listening Experiment (WHaLE) is pioneering the use of remote sensing techniques to measure whales and their habitat use and to develop technologies and programs to help prevent whale-ship strikes and minimize acoustic interference with large baleen whales, many of which are listed by Canada as threatened or endangered.

To gather information on whale distribution and hot spots at key locations on Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the WHaLE project is using autonomous ocean gliders equipped with acoustic sensors to listen for and record whale sounds, and sonar and other instruments to measure whale habitat. Gliders are torpedo-shaped subsea robots that can safely collect data in remote locations at a relatively low cost.

Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), a UVic initiative, supplied scientific components for the glider and will provide hydrophone data from its nearby seafloor observatory. ONC has also offered to archive data on its world-leading Oceans 2.0 data management system.

The long-term goal of the WHaLE project is to develop, test and implement a Canadian whale-alert system where regional vessel traffic and other stakeholders will be notified of whale locations in near real time via satellite communication and mobile devices.

The project has already met with initial success in known habitats of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, and is now expanding its efforts into the poorly understood whale habitats of the Pacific coast.

The WHaLE project team includes a mix of physical and biological oceanographers, whale ecologists, conservation scientists, acoustic experts and skilled technical staff centred in Victoria and Halifax.

The WHaLE project is a partnership with researchers at Dalhousie University and UVic, with collaborators from the Ocean Tracking Network, ONC at UVic, UBC, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Pacific), the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Government of British Columbia, as well as shipping, conservation and oceanographic organizations. More info

The WHaLE project is supported by a $700,000 grant provided by MEOPAR as announced in August 2014 and by an additional $2.67 million in matching contributions and support from the private sector. 

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Keywords: whales, wildlife, oceans, Ocean Networks Canada

People: David Duffus

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