North Atlantic right whale monitoring and surveillance activities
We monitor North Atlantic right whales to better understand where they go and what they do while in our waters. This information helps to inform the measures we take to protect this endangered species. We do this work in collaboration with other government departments and non-governmental organizations.
For the most up-to-date information on North Atlantic right whale sightings and detections, visit Whale Insight. This interactive map integrates and displays whale sightings and acoustic detections from multiple sources in Atlantic Canada and Quebec onto a single online platform.
On this page
- Our monitoring and surveillance activities
- Our research activities
Our monitoring and surveillance activities
In some areas of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean, North Atlantic right whales spend most of their time underwater and can be highly mobile. They are known to travel up to 80 kilometres in 1 day in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This can make it difficult to observe the whales from the air or on the water. Our ability to visually detect them depends on:
- whale movements
- whale behaviour
- weather and ocean conditions
Similarly, our ability to acoustically detect right whales depends on:
- where they are in relation to our listening devices
- whether or not they are calling
- ocean conditions
We monitor and detect right whales using:
- aerial surveillance
- at-sea surveillance
- acoustic technology
Visual sightings and acoustic detections of right whales reported in near real-time and validated by trusted sources will trigger the North Atlantic right whale fisheries and vessel management measures where applicable in Canadian waters.
Aerial surveillance is our primary means for detecting right whales in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. From the aircraft, our marine mammal observers look for whales that are at the surface of the water. If right whales are observed, the marine mammal observer:
- counts them
- notes their condition
- takes photos of them whenever possible
- records the time, ocean conditions, and the location of the sighting
The location and timing of each sighting are uploaded to Whale Insight and the sighting may trigger management measures put in place to protect them.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has multiple aircraft that fly several times a week, weather permitting, over Atlantic Canadian waters, including over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in search of North Atlantic right whales.
The objectives of the flights are to:
- conduct scientific surveys in various areas to better understand right whale distribution and abundance
- monitor whale presence around active fisheries
- monitor any fishery closure areas to ensure compliance with the law
Aircraft from Transport Canada’s National Aerial Surveillance Program monitor designated shipping zones and certain areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
At-sea surveillance is observing right whales from a vessel. Our marine mammal observers may be aboard Canadian Coast Guard vessels. When they are, they visually scan the water in a predetermined way to look for whales that are at the surface of the water. They confirm the species of whales and number of individuals with binoculars as necessary, in addition to taking photos, noting their condition and recording the time, ocean conditions, and the location of the sighting.
Hydrophones are underwater microphones that can be used to detect whale calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Passive acoustic monitoring systems are equipped with hydrophones which can be attached to the sea floor, mounted onto surface buoys, deployed from a vessel or mounted onto mobile gliders.
Depending on ocean conditions, passive acoustic monitoring systems can detect the presence of whales that are tens of kilometers away. Currently, they cannot provide the exact location, number of whales or differentiate the call of one individual whale from another. They can tell us that there is at least one whale calling within the detection range of the hydrophone.
We use both archival and near real-time passive acoustic monitoring systems to detect right whales. Archival passive acoustic monitoring systems listen and record whale calls for several months before being retrieved and analyzed. This helps us to better understand right whale distribution throughout the year in Canadian waters. Near real-time passive acoustic monitoring systems transmit detections over satellite or cellular tower system to marine mammal experts for validation in near real-time.
Near real-time acoustic technology: Viking buoys
Viking buoys are scientific buoys equipped with sensors that collect information on ocean and weather conditions. This information helps to validate and interpret data from satellites and enables us to follow oceanographic conditions in near real-time.
Our researchers have mounted hydrophones onto 9 Viking buoys in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. These hydrophones transmit right whale calls in near real-time to a team of marine mammal acoustic experts for validation. Detections are displayed on the St. Lawrence Global Observatory Viking Buoy Detection Portal and Whale Insight. This is the fourth year that near real-time acoustic detections are triggering North Atlantic right whale management measures.
Near real-time acoustic technology: Gliders
Gliders are autonomous, underwater vehicles equipped with sensors to monitor and collect information on ocean conditions. They can travel long periods of time and into less accessible areas of the ocean.
We recently acquired new gliders equipped with hydrophones that will be deployed in Eastern Canadian waters to detect North Atlantic right whales in near real-time. In addition to these gliders, the Department and Transport Canada continue to partner with the University of New Brunswick and Dalhousie University on the deployment of gliders equipped with hydrophones to detect right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including areas like the Laurentian Channel and Cabot Strait. As with Viking buoys, this is the fourth year that glider detections will help inform North Atlantic right whale management measures.
Our research activities
We survey and monitor right whales and their food sources to better understand whale distribution, movements, behaviours and the environmental stressors that are affecting them. All of this research informs how we protect them with fisheries and shipping management measures and the strategies we implement to help their recovery as an endangered species. Scientific work on identification, counting of individual right whales, as well as necropsies, are done in collaboration with our partners.
We provide science advice on North Atlantic right whale issues, such as timing of their arrival and their distribution in Canadian waters. This helps inform our fishery management measures, species recovery measures, and mitigation strategies for environmental stressors.
Identifying and counting North Atlantic right whales
When a North Atlantic right whale is sighted in Canadian waters by one of our marine mammal observers, whether by air or at sea, they take photos of its features and markings whenever possible. The photos are catalogued and sent for identification to the New England Aquarium, as it maintains the North Atlantic right whale catalogue.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration personnel may also fly over our waters to identify as many different individual whales as possible, to estimate the total number of animals that have visited Canada in a season. This also informs the North Atlantic right whale database managed by the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium.
When a North Atlantic right whale death is reported, steps are taken to determine if a necropsy is warranted and if the carcass can be towed to shore for analysis. Tagging the carcass helps to track where the carcass is drifting and informs where to find it later for towing or sampling purposes. Decisions to tag a carcass or conduct a necropsy depend on factors such as:
- state of decomposition
- weather and ocean conditions
- availability of a suitable necropsy site and staff
We work closely with marine mammal response partners and veterinarians from the University of Prince Edward Island and the Université de Montréal (in French only) to conduct necropsies and/or other sampling methods. Marine mammal necropsies are the primary method for researchers to inspect the carcass and collect samples to analyze and determine how and why the whale died. The information contributes to our overall understanding of the species and the threats affecting it. This helps to informs how we can protect them.
Science advice and research
- Large circular hydrophone arrays for long-range monitoring of North Atlantic right whales : first deployments and testing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
- North Atlantic right whale abundance, demography and residency in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence derived from directed aerial surveys
- Updated information on the distribution of the endangered North Atlantic right whale in Canadian waters
- A mechanistic approach to predicting suitable foraging habitat for reproductively mature North Atlantic right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
- Significance of dominant zooplankton species to the North Atlantic right whale potential foraging habitats in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: a bio-energetic approach
- Review of North Atlantic right whale occurrence and risk of entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes in Canadian waters
- Science advice on timing of the mandatory slow-down zone for shipping traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to protect the North Atlantic right whale
- Recovery potential assessment for right whale (western North Atlantic population)
- Performance study of passive acoustic systems for detecting North Atlantic right whales in seaways: the Honguedo strait in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
- Optimal passive acoustic systems for real-time detection and localization of North Atlantic right whales in their feeding ground off Gaspé in the Gulf of St. Lawrence
Latest right whale detections
- Oceans Protection Plan: Preserving and restoring marine ecosystems
- Underwater Noise: Marine Environment Quality Projects
- Whale Detection and Collision Avoidance Initiative
- smartWhales Initiative
- Whale Science for Tomorrow
Species information and recovery measures
- North Atlantic right whale species information
- North Atlantic right whale: recovery strategy
- Action Plan for the North Atlantic right whale in Canada
Review for recovery potential and effectiveness
- North Atlantic right whale summary report
- Report on the Progress of Recovery Strategy Implementation for the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Canadian Waters for the Period 2009-2014
- Review of the effectiveness of recovery activities for North Atlantic right whales
- Engagement on the science-based whale review
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