In the summer of 2015, a research team from Dalhousie University in Canada sailed their boat near an ocean region called the Flemish Cap, towing an underwater microphone behind them. There, in waters about 500 kilometers east of Newfoundland, researchers recorded telltale sounds of an unexpected animal: the northern bottlenose whale. At the time, the team was unable to spot the whales, so last summer they returned.
“This summer we sailed right over there, and they were there,” said Hal Whitehead, whale researcher at Dalhousie. Radio-Canada News. “They appeared around the boat, and once the fog cleared a bit we had a lot of whales, at least 50, more like 100 or 200 in the area.”
Seeing over 100 whales in one place would be exciting enough in itself, but this encounter was particularly surprising. This is because the population of Northern Bottlenose Whales in this region has been estimated at only around 150 individuals, and they are known to be found closer to Nova Scotia, around a large submarine canyon called The Gully Marine Protected Area, where they hunt tasty squid in the depths of the ocean. This new group of whales appear to be a different, previously unknown population.
Bottlenose whales are somewhat odd members of the beaked whale family. “Some people have described them as a dolphin on steroids,” said Laura Feyrer, a Dalhousie student who studies these animals. “Pretty dolphin face, but they are tall and sturdy, almost the size of a killer whale.” As part of his research, Feyrer will compare these new whales to populations closer to Nova Scotia, which will allow him to determine how closely related they are.
The discovery is somewhat bittersweet for researchers. It’s no doubt exciting to find an unexpected population of a rare species, but the team’s microphones picked up more than the chatter of the whales – they also detected the deep, resonant boom of the seismic testing equipment used. to detect underwater reserves of gas and oil. The prevalence of such noise in the region could mean that these newly found whales are already in trouble.
Bottlenose whales, like many marine animals, have not had the easiest time living alongside humans. Estimates suggest that nearly 100,000 of these whales navigated the oceans in the early 1800s, but more than a century of intense hunting pressures reduced those numbers by more than half, and large mammals never did. fully recovered.
These days, we humans are a little more considerate of whales. For example, seismic surveys along the east coast of Canada are generally halted if animals are spotted close enough to be physically injured. But many researchers point out that the noise alone from this kind of activity can have harmful effects. Whales use sound to communicate, search for food, and find their way around their habitat. Loud noises can interrupt this behavior and can even lead to injury or death, Whitehead said.
It may not be as visually dramatic as an oil spill or floating pieces of plastic, but noise pollution is a very real, very serious problem for many ocean species. In addition to underwater seismic surveys, humans make a lot of noise with military sonar, as well as the daily activity of hundreds of ships. “There are no internationally recognized standards for noise pollution in our seas,” says Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).
This is something that scientists and scientific organizations like NOAA are actively trying to address, and for researchers at Dalhousie – and their newly discovered whale neighbors – a solution cannot come soon enough.
“Without understanding the status of this particular new population – we don’t know if they are endangered, we don’t know if they are part of an existing population,” Feyrer said. “I think it’s likely that these whales are threatened by this seismic activity.”