The Secret Life of Arctic Whales – Extensive Aerial Survey to Count Their Numbers and Distribution

 By Robert J. Galbraith for the Montreal Gazette, April 2014


The whale watching season that gets under way next month along Quebec’s North Shore region will draw hundreds of thousands of tourists who will soak in the beauty of the area and catch site of the great whales of the St-Lawrence Estuary.

The tourism industry around whales contributes $100 million annually to the local economy, but there is another benefit to the hundreds of trips that head out each summer from May to October to that magic location near where the Saguenay and St-Lawrence Rivers collide with the ocean’s currents: knowledge.

Many of the vessels have a whale researcher on board who makes observations on the number of whale sightings and their location, as well as the type of species and their daily activities. Thirteen species of whale can be seen, including the blue whale, (the largest animal ever to exist on earth) and the pearly-white beluga, the acrobatic humpback whale and porpoises and dolphins). This information is then shared with the larger research community through a network of contacts and interest groups, which adds to the growing knowledge base of the whales of the Estuary and the Gulf of St Lawrence. And this knowledge base is expected to grow considerably in the coming months.

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In the summer of 2013, 1,900 kilometres north of the tourism hub of Tadoussac, scientists conducted a survey on bowhead and narwhal numbers that aims to go well beyond any previous study, and the results are just starting to trickle in. The final results are to be published in October or early 2015.

The study began in August 2013, when scientists from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans conducted the most intensive aerial survey ever undertaken on whale numbers in the Canadian Arctic. Results from the High Arctic Cetacean Survey will give researchers a clearer understanding of the size and range of northern whale populations and how climate change, sea ice loss and native hunting of whales could affect their numbers and distribution.

The survey results could also help dictate the quota of whales that native Inuit hunters are allowed to harvest yearly from their small boats, as part of their right as a traditional hunting culture.

The bowhead whale population in particular was nearly exterminated by commercial whale hunting in the mid-19-hundreds, when ships from many nations plied the frozen Arctic waters, bring about the industrial-scale slaughter of the whales for their oil; this before the discovery of petroleum rendered the whale hunt unprofitable.

The study focuses on two species of whale in particular; the narwhal and the bowhead. Little is known about how the population of either type, given the huge expanse of territory they roam and that they are largely out of sight for a good part of the year, hidden beneath shifting ice and fog. Despite this focus, other species of sea mammals, including beluga whales, killer whales, walruses and seals were also surveyed.

RJG04 0821 Whale Survey7.jpgKiller whales are a growing interest as they were once very rarely seen in the Arctic. Now they are being seen much more frequently as the sea ice shrinks, allowing them into formerly inaccessible areas where they are mainly preying on bowhead calves and narwhal. How this growing type of predation will affect whale numbers in the long term is all but guesswork at this time. Walrus and seal populations are a regular part of the Inuit diet, and any information on their distribution and numbers helps scientists better understand their status.

Little is known of Arctic whale populations because of the region’s remoteness, its harsh environment and the small window of relatively stable weather for studying them — basically the month of August. The weather can change in an instant in the Arctic, and fog, high winds and changing ice coverage can instantly shut down any type of research for days. Because of this, the scientists could count on being airborne only one in every three days, which gave them a cushion should they be grounded for a day or two. 

The last survey done before the 2013 study was carried out over a decade ago, and is known to be incomplete. Conducted in different areas at separate times, these inconsistent data left scientists uncertain as to whether the animals previously documented had moved from one area to another, and possibly been counted twice.

The trove of information expected from the 2013 survey will have numerous applications aside from possibly modifying the number of whales that Inuit hunters will be permitted to hunt each year. Scientists hope to learn much more about how climate change might be affecting whale numbers and movements, and what effect the increased thawing of Arctic ice could have on whale and other animal populations.

But before these issues can be addressed, they first need a credible estimate of how many whales are out there.

RJG04 0823 Whale Survey11.jpg“We planned the timing of the survey to avoid missing the least amount of whales possible, (and to avoid) the double-counting of whales which may have occurred in previous studies,” explained study coordinator Dr. Kevin Hedges, with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

“By getting a robust estimate of population sizes, it will give us a modern day baseline to observe population, distribution and also possible environmental changes. We have a native hunt for narwhal and bowhead in Canada (Arctic beluga are also hunted by the native people) and we have a quota system based on previous estimates of population,” Hedges said. “So it is important to understand the population status of these marine mammals.”

A lack of surveys, or incomplete surveys, he said, “leave us with the uncertainty of how many whales there are actually out there, and since we provide science advice, then inform Nunavut fisheries management, who decide how many whales to hunt, we need a better estimate of numbers, to make the best choices for both the whale populations and the native hunters.”

The timing of the study is crucial, as both narwhal and bowhead territories overlap in the month of August, during the short Arctic summer when they gather together along the same shorelines, bays and fiords of this Arctic Archipelago. By flying over the area in a short period of time, with a greater saturation of observation, the researchers are hoping to get a more accurate understanding of the two main cetacean species that live year-round in Canada’s Arctic.

Inuit knowledge of the Arctic and its animal life goes back more than 1,000 years, something the scientists benefited from in conjunction with previous surveys and satellite tracking data (which involved tagging and tracking whales using radio telemetry) to draft the routes the planes would take, and to conclude the best timing for last Augusts’ survey.

“The native hunters have great vision for spotting animals in this type of environment. They also have a vast understanding of the land,” Hedges said. “They are very good at picking up patterns and this can help them locate whale spouts or blows before we see them. Our eyes are good for what we see in everyday life; they are used to picking out patterns. This highlights the importance of native observations to us.”

The native observers who participated in the study also helped with the logistics of contacting other hunters for their observations and input.

“Two of the hunters helped us in the past with caribou and other animal studies. This detailing is important for the context of science advice,” Hedges said.

The study was conducted using three Twin Otter aircraft, with each carrying five DFO scientists, two crew members and a local Inuk observer. Equipped with two bubble windows on each side of the plane and a large belly window, four observers were stationed at the windows, with a fifth team member acting as a navigator and digital camera monitor.

The simultaneous aerial surveys left from the Polar Continental Shelf Program base in Nunavut’s Resolute Bay.

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On August 1, the day the survey began, the three planes flew north from Resolute Bay simultaneously, methodically documenting the coastal waters off Ellesmere, Devon and Somerset Islands; an area where large concentrations of bowhead and narwhal congregate during the Arctic summer. The planes followed in a grid-like system at 1,000 feet, indexing any whale sightings and taking high-resolution digital photos continuously every few seconds of any whale or groups of whales seen.

Then, flying separately, they extended their flights south from the Northwest Passage for the next weeks. This took them into the last two weeks when they shifted their emphasis as far south as Repulse Bay in the west, and Cumberland Sound in the east. The study ended on Aug. 26, with the three planes logging a combined total of 241 hours in the air.

The information from the visual data, the grid indications and photographs, (totaling a staggering 120,000 images), are presently being evaluated and the information gathered from both sources will allow the scientists to arrive at an accurate estimate of whale numbers.

“That analysis is going on now. The population estimates will be available for peer review by this October and for the scientific paper in early 2015. At present, researchers are wading through the mountain of digital photographs to validate the observations of the groups,” concluded Hedges.


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