As a non-migratory species, the northern bottlenose whale’s Scotian Shelf population spends approximately 57 per cent of its time at the entrance of the Gully. The six- to nine-metre mammal is the most curious of all whales and often approaches stationary vessels. As history would have it, its innocent and inquisitive nature has gotten the whale into hot water before. Between 1850 and 1973, whaling dramatically reduced the Scotian Shelf population and, to date, only 210 whales use the Gully. With a laundry list of hazards threatening its survival, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed the whale as endangered in November 2002.
The Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Endangered Species Program is giving $36,000 to Hal Whitehead, a research professor of the Department of Biology at Dalhousie University, to monitor the population size, trend and distribution of the northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus).
With oil and gas companies chomping at the bit to garner more natural resources, the Scotian Shelf has seen an increase in shipping traffic. Just five kilometres away from the Gully, one such field, the primrose field, has been primed for drilling. Such a close proximity to the northern bottlenose whale can harm the mammal on a number of levels.
It is through the acoustic channel that these whales communicate with one another and sense their environment. When this channel is disturbed by the noise of drilling and other operations, it may force the whale’s feeding and mating rituals, behaviour and even movements to adapt.
Moreover, whales can find themselves immersed in oil spills or trapped in discarded strapping, plastic bags or other pollution. And the more shipping traffic, the more debris and pollution spill into the waters.
Sink or Swim
The northern bottlenose whale’s habitat lies just 30 kilometres north of the east-west trans-Atlantic shipping route. And some commercial ships (not including fishing vessels) visit the core area where the whales reside about once a day. Not only do the commercial ships that travel these waters contribute to noise, chemical and debris pollution, they can also collide with the whales. Every year, whales are found dead in their habitat due to colliding with ships; however, none has ever been reported.
Fishing vessels looking for groundfish and red fish also frequent the area bordering on the Gully. The draggers used to pertain the fish are incredibly loud, which can throw off the whale’s behaviour, and whales can also get caught up in fishing gear.
Where Whitehead’s Research Fits In
To date, researchers don’t have a concrete idea of the current population size of the northern bottlenose whale’s Scotian Shelf population or how it’s changed in the past decade. Along with a research team, Hal Whitehead intends to track the size of the northern bottlenose whale’s Scotian Shelf population and monitor its distribution using mark-recapture analysis. For a six-week period in the summers of 2010 and 2011, Whitehead and his team will collect photo identifications to help garner accurate information on the whale’s numbers. They’ll also examine the whale’s distribution in the Gully, as well as their behaviour.