Researchers monitoring North Atlantic right whales were able to spot at least 100 of the endangered animals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer.
Most of the whales were found in the southern half of the gulf, just east of Miscou Island, following their food source, said oceanographer Kim Davies.
"That was our first observation, that there were a lot of animals out there," said Davies, an assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John who led a team of students out to monitor the whales.
"Some of them were really healthy animals, and some of them weren't so healthy."
Whales present one day, gone the next
There are only about 400 right whales left. Vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear have been blamed for some of the whale deaths in recent years.
Davies said it's hard to predict where the right whales will be because of the distribution of calanus, their primary food source.
There used to be an abundance of the tiny creatures floating in the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy. Without calanus, the whales don't have as much energy and have a harder time producing more calves.
"They're responding to a food resource … that are moved around by ocean current, and so that habitat, those good foraging areas, can shift really quickly in response to changes in ocean current," Davies said.
Forty right whales might be found in one area one day and be gone a day later, she said.
"The food resource in any particular area can dry up very, very quickly, and the right whales will be gone."
Then the whales will find an aggregation of whales in another area of the gulf, again based on where the food is.
"The whales really do move around a lot, their habitat moves around a lot … that has big implications for trying to manage the area for fisheries and for fish strikes."
The whales can also be difficult to monitor when they're not found in their known habitats.
"They travel individually," Davies said. "They have a very low profile when they're at the surface and they don't surface that often.
"That means that it's just really difficult to see them."
Whales travel fast
Davies said her students are still at sea observing the whales off Miscou Island in northeastern New Brunswick, to see whether they're getting enough food energy to produce calves for the next season and how their food distribution is changing.
This summer, Davies and her team also assisted the Campobello Whale Rescue team in disentangling three North Atlantic right whales.
"Our role, as a research vessel, was to search out the entangled whales and keep monitoring them," she said.
"When the whale rescue team comes out they're just in a tiny Zodiac. They don't really have any ability to actually find the whales."
Fishermen trained in the practice were able to satellite tag an entangled whale whose signal then showed the animal moving south.
"It actually left the Gulf of St. Lawrence and went all the way down into U.S. waters within a couple of weeks," she said.
"We actually learned how fast those animals can move."
She said the whale was partially disentangled off Massachusetts a few weeks later.
Keeping the whales alive
Eight have been found dead in Canadian waters since June. No right whales were recorded dying in Canadian waters last year, but 12 were found dead in the Gulf of St. Lawrence the year before.
Davies is trying to stay positive.
"We need to work much harder and keep working very hard to reduce entanglements and ship-strike mortality. That's extremely critical to ensuring the survival of the species."