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article imageAdapted technology gives insight into endangered whales and orcas

By Elizabeth Batt     Jan 17, 2013 in Environment
Through adapted technology such as marine robots and satellite tagging, researchers are tracking and gathering data on endangered cetaceans.
Research scientists Mark Baumgartner and Dave Fratantoni from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), are using the marine robots to detect and relay information to other researchers on the whereabouts of endangered whales.
According to an WHOI press release, the ocean-going robots, also known as gliders, are equipped with a digital acoustic monitoring (DMON) instrument and specialized software that allows the vehicle to detect and classify calls from four species of baleen whales – sei, fin, humpback, and right whales.
Once the whales are detected, a call is issued to relevant authorities who can then alert others to the presence of whales. Just last month reported, the equipment actually "detected nine North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of Maine." With the information in hand, researchers then relayed it to NOAA's Fisheries Service who alerted passing ships and other marine craft, warning them to slow down.
But detecting whales is not the only function of these marine robots, they also carry a bevy of environmental sensors that record temperature, salinity, and estimates of algae populations. Baumgartner told National Geographic:
They even have an instrument that gives us a crude sense of how much of the zooplankton that right whales feed on is in the area, so they have an enormous capacity to help us understand not only where the whales are, but why they are there.
Facts about the technology
According to WHOI, the environmentally friendly robots:
- Are six-foot-long, torpedo-shaped autonomous vehicles with short wings
- Can move up, down, and laterally
- Are battery powered (the size of an iPhone battery) and exceptionally quiet
- Return to the surface every few hours to get a GPS position and transmit data
- Can work at sea for 4-5 weeks before the batteries need replacing
- The torpedos were adapted from existing technology used by oceanographers for around a decade.
Baumgartner, who helped to write the software for the robots with WHOI engineers Mark Johnson and Tom Hurst, said it is hoped the software can be expanded to allow detection of other whales species. The gliders were operated by Fratantoni, a physical oceanographer.
Satellite tag tracks a member of the endangered Southern Resident orcas
On December 29, 2012, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, (NWFSC), a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Admininstration (NOAA), tagged an adult male orca, K-25, in Puget Sound with a satellite-linked tag.
The tagging was a continuation of a project begun last year to track where Southern resident killer whales go in the winter. Having initially tagged a member of J-pod, J-26 named Mike, researchers resumed their observations by tagging Scoter (K-25).
The tagging caused some controversy in the Puget Sound orca community. Candace Calloway Whiting, a volunteer with the Center for Whale Research questioned the success of the agency's first tagging of J-26. "NOAA’s last fail whale attempt," said Whiting, "stayed on the orca "Mike" (J 26) all of three days, and revealed nothing new about the whale’s distribution."
Scoter's tagging then was met with trepidation given the endangered status of the Southern Resident orca population.
The tag attachment site on the dorsal fin of J26.  These photos were taken 32 days after the last tr...
The tag attachment site on the dorsal fin of J26. "These photos were taken 32 days after the last transmission and show that the tag and darts are absent" said NWSFC. According to Candace Calloway Whiting, the tag lasted "all of three days."
Following the trail of K-pod
The Puget Sound community of whales consists of three distinct pods, J, K and L pods. Still recovering from being decimated after being raided by the captive marine industry, J, K and L pods are facing new threats now from overfishing of their primary food (chinook salmon), to pollution.
With every member vital then to the pod's existence and survival, orca conservationists were devastated to learn that a dead killer whale calf that recently washed up near Sequim in Washington state, was a member of the endangered Southern Residents.
Since Scoter was tagged last December, he has been tracked by NOAA and the Center for Whale Research', Ken Balcombe. On Dec. 31, K-25 (who it's presumed is traveling with the rest of K-pod), was off Pt. Renfrew, Vancouver Island. He then traveled south for awhile before heading north.
So far, Scoter and his pod have been tracked hugging the coastline near:
Jan. 2, near Quinault Canyon
Jan. 4, off Tillimook, Oregon
Jan. 5, Newport, Oregon
Jan. 6, Cape Arago, Oregon
Jan. 9, Eureka/Arcata, California
Jan. 11, near Bodega Bay, California
Jan. 13, the whales traveled south from the Bodega Bay area and then reversed course off of Pt. Reyes and started heading north. They were 5 miles north of Pt. Arena
Jan. 15, off Crescent City, California
From Crescent City, the whales headed north to Cape Blanco, then reversed course and traveled back to Pt. Orford, and were off Cape Blanco this morning:
Being able to satellite tag these whales says NWFSC, can help NMFS accomplish "designating Critical Habitat" for the orcas. In the case of J-26, the agency noted that "while it is rare for a tag to detach after such a short period of time, it is important to note that the minimally invasive nature of the tag design allows for its relatively easy removal, as well as minimal tissue impacts and quick healing."
Still, Whiting is reserving judgment for now. "If the tag stays on it will be interesting to see how Scoter (K 25) uses the environment," she said, "but I’m not sure how much the researchers will be able to extrapolate to the entire population." Furthermore Whiting added, it is not evident "that the information is going to be put to use to protect the whales and not commercial interests."
Still, as the Center for Whale Research volunteer suggests, tracking Scoter does offer a fascinating look into how these Southern Resident pods travel.
Updates on K-25's travels can be followed via the NWFSC website.
More about Endangered species, Right whales, southern resident orcas, tracking endangered species
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