Unlocking the Secrets of the Ocean with the Whale Research Collective

Unlocking the Secrets of the Ocean with the Whale Research Collective

5 minutes

In the vast expanse of the Atlantic, a group of dedicated biologists—the Whale Research Collective (WRC)—seek to unravel the mysteries of marine mammals and fill the gaps in our understanding of these majestic creatures. Comprised of six skilled members with decades of combined experience, their expertise spans population dynamics, bioacoustics, foraging ecology, habitat use, migration patterns, and social structures. 

The WRC, a non-profit organization, was born out of a shared vision to conduct impactful research, mainly focusing on Canadian waters. The diverse backgrounds of its members equipped them with a deep understanding of conservation issues and the key role of science in shaping evidence-based policies. 

Driven by a realization of substantial gaps in knowledge and conservation efforts, the WRC aims to address unanswered questions and shine a light on endangered species that are slipping through the cracks. Their motivation is rooted in a desire to create an NGO that allows them the flexibility to design studies addressing critical research questions, ultimately justifying protection measures and redirecting focus towards under-studied species. 

 Researchers at work


Bridging Conservation Knowledge Gaps  

The WRC's approach is multi-faceted. They focus on building collaborations within the research community, designing scientific studies, conducting field research, disseminating findings, and supporting the preservation of whales and their habitats. Their efforts are specifically directed towards species lacking fundamental biological and ecological data, intending to inform threat mitigation and conservation measures. 

Enter the sei whale project in 2023, a pivotal undertaking to unlock the secrets of Canada's Atlantic sei whale population. In 2019, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC,) an independent advisory panel to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada, classified the sei whale as endangered. However, this classification is currently being reviewed by the Species at Risk Act (SARA), a branch of the federal government that assesses whether they will benefit from increased protection through conservation and management measures to ensure their recovery.  

Researcher using harpoon

Researcher wearing the Taku waterproof bib

"The main challenge is that there is currently not enough data on sei whales to allow for an in-depth assessment," says David Gaspard of the WRC. "For example, we do not know how many individuals are in Canadian waters." 

The WRC recognized the urgency of the situation—a suspected low population, coupled with threats from human activity such as underwater noise, ship strikes, and entanglement and undertook a two-year study to collect data on sei, fin and blue whales in the Labrador Sea. This decision was grounded in the shared data gaps among the three species. Despite little survey attention in the area, acoustic detections during a two-year monitoring program off eastern Canada hinted at the importance of the southern Labrador Sea. 


Collecting Scientific Data at Sea  

The WRC's first research expedition, a 35-day journey spanning over 3,000 nautical miles, took them through the unpredictable waters of the Atlantic. Aboard their 41ft sailing vessel, Andromède, they set sail from St. Anthony, Newfoundland, on August 3rd, 2023. Their course was carefully charted, heading straight offshore to the continental slope–a potential habitat for sei, fin, and blue whales. 

Aboard Andromède

Working in the Meris Sailing collection



Despite the exceptional weather that allowed them to survey from the southern Labrador Sea to the Scotia Shelf, the expedition presented challenges. The small crew size meant long days collecting data, managing the vessel, navigating, and making meals, as well as long evening shifts sailing to the next area of interest, which left everyone exhausted.  

"There were also some environmental challenges, which are quite natural when you are over 200nm offshore, that made it harder to collect data," says David. "The strong Labrador current and waves made it difficult on the acoustic part, where the flow noise of the water disrupted our ability to detect whales." 

Unfortunately, sei and fin whales were elusive and only a lone blue whale was spotted on the Scotian Shelf, and a handful of fin whales south of Newfoundland. 

However, the lack of large rorquals was compensated by an abundance of sightings of toothed whales. They had almost daily encounters with long-finned pilot whales, several meetings with northern bottlenose whales, two pods of orcas, and even sightings of sperm whales, including a cow-calf pair. The northernmost sighting on record of such a pair. The expedition also encountered various species of dolphins, sea turtles, and sunfish. 

Northern Bottlenose whale

One notable aspect of the journey was the collection of environmental DNA (eDNA) samples at regular intervals. These samples can detect the presence of whales through the DNA they leave behind as they swim through the water. This added layer of data could help in confirming the presence or absence of sei, fin, and blue whales in the areas they traversed. 

The shared sightings data and photos captured during the expedition became invaluable contributions to ongoing research projects. The WRC's novel data, collected in areas that were not previously well-documented, promise to unlock new understandings of the diverse marine life inhabiting these waters. 

dorsal fin


What’s Next 

As the team gears up for their next expedition this summer, they look forward to returning to the Labrador Sea, where they'll be using the same research methods to detect the presence of sei, fin, and blue whales. They'll also be collecting data on other species like northern bottlenose whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, killer whales, and humpback whales. All the valuable data collected will be shared with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Dalhousie University, helping everyone learn more about these amazing creatures and how to protect them. 

Tail fin

"Not seeing sei whales is also a meaningful result from the survey," says David. "Less exciting data, but data nonetheless." 

The WRC remain steadfast in their mission. Their journey is not just a scientific endeavour but a testament to the spirit of exploration and the pursuit of knowledge that could ultimately safeguard the future of these incredible creatures and their habitat. 

To learn more about and donate to the Whale Research Collective, please visit their website or follow their updates and adventures on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.     


Author: Danielle Baker

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