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Dispatches from the field

Rare Opportunity to Study the Critically Endangered North Pacific right whale in the Bering Sea


North Pacific right whale
North Pacific right whale  Photo: L. Morse

North Pacific
right whale
North Pacific right whale survey image
What's Happening
July 27
August 10
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Setting sail

July 27, 2017 -- It was a beautiful sunny day when we left Dutch Harbor, AK, bound for the northern portion of the Bering Sea. We were off, for 60 days on board the Yushin Maru #2 as part of the Pacific Ocean Whale and Ecosystem Research (POWER) program, a collaborative effort spearheaded by the International Whaling Commission, to survey for whales and porpoises in the eastern Bering Sea.

Although primarily a visual line transect survey to gather information on whale populations, for my part, I will be conducting a passive acoustic survey – that is listening for whales – using sonobuoys, a passive listening device that allows us to monitor in real time for any vocalizing marine mammals.

Carey Kuhn deploying sonobuoy
Deploying sonobuoy 
Photo: B. Rone

My main goal is to locate animals from the eastern North Pacific population of the North Pacific right whale, arguably the most endangered large whale population in the world. The survey trackline to be taken by the vessel will pass directly through their critical habitat in the southeastern Bering Sea, providing us with an excellent opportunity to survey for this species.

A highly vocal species, the North Pacific right whale is both incredibly rare and extremely elusive, making passive acoustics an ideal method for locating them. Using sonobuoys with directional capabilities, I hope to be able to localize on a calling animal - triangulate its position - and direct the vessel to that location.

With luck, the visual observers will be able to spot the animal, at which point we will attempt to photograph and obtain biopsy samples; these will provide crucial information on the current population status. With only an estimated 30 individuals remaining in this population, it's a bit like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Starting in the north near the Bering Strait and working our way south, it will be a while before we reach the right whale's critical habitat, but we've been staying busy. So far during the survey we've encountered multiple gray whales, minke whales, and humpback whales, though only a handful of calls have been detected on the sonobuoys.

Although currently stymied by rough seas and thick fog, the forecast is calling for clearer skies and decreased winds. Here's to fair winds and following seas!

North Pacific right whale
Fully deployed sonobuoy  Photo: J. Crance


Meet the Blogger

Carey Kuhn
Jessica Crance

Jessica Crance is a research biologist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory.

She joined the Lab’s Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program in 2009 after completing her M.S. at the University of San Diego on killer whale vocal development.

Her research focuses on marine mammal passive acoustics, with an emphasis on population monitoring, spatio-temporal distribution, vocal behavior, and call characteristics of Arctic and sub-Arctic marine mammals.


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