With help from the Office of Naval Research, a right whale pied "Piper" shows the way to recovery for this highly endangered species

December 21, 2000

ARLINGTON, Va., Dec. 22, 2000 - Thanks to new technology sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, for the first time ever, a female Northern Right Whale has been tracked every step of her journey between northern feeding grounds off New Brunswick, Canada, and southern breeding grounds off the Georgia and Florida coasts. In late July, a rare female right whale, earlier named Piper by researchers from the Right Whale Consortium, was outfitted with a satellite tracking tag while she was on her summer feeding range around the Bay of Fundy.

Female right whales like Piper are the future of this species; and that future just got a little bit brighter thanks to the ONR-sponsored technology for tracking the whales on their migrations over thousands of miles of open ocean. The tags are just one indication of the high priority placed on environmental stewardship by all components of the U.S. Navy.

"We have high hopes that Piper is a pregnant female who will calve in the breeding grounds off the coasts of Georgia and Florida near NAVBASE Jacksonville, and thus help to solve a centuries-old riddle concerning where breeding female right whales go during the three or more years between calves," said ONR Program Manager Bob Gisiner. "This species has mysteriously failed to recover since the end of commercial whaling, and poor breeding success may be one of the culprits."

Fewer than 12 calves are born to right whales each year on the breeding grounds and the most recent years have been among the worst; only three calves were seen each year in 1998 and 1999. This species is down to fewer than 350 total individuals -- probably fewer than 50 breeding age females -- and is still declining; one of the great mysteries about this species is where the reproductive females, so few in number and so critical to the recovery of this species, come from each year and where they go when they leave the breeding grounds.

The tags, about the size of two "C" batteries and snugly implanted in the whale's blubber layer (except for an external antenna) are strong enough to send one or more signals per day for more than a year to ARGOS satellites passing miles overhead. The tags were developed by ONR-sponsored researcher, Dr. Bruce Mate of the University of Oregon.

The ARGOS satellites relayed the whale's position to Dr. Mate and his colleagues on the shore as Piper made her way past Cape Cod and Long Island, past Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay, and on south past Cape Hatteras and Savannah, at a steady pace of about 3 miles an hour until, 130 days later, she came within range of the Early Warning System (EWS) spotter aircraft.

On December 19, Early Warning System aircraft, guided by the satellite tag position data, found Piper as she entered the Northern Right Whale Winter Critical Habitat Area. The EWS is a consortium of nongovernment researchers, state wildlife agencies, the U.S. Navy and other partners in the Northern Right Whale Southeast Recovery Implementation Team. The EWS uses spotters on shore, on ships and in aircraft to detect and keep track of right whales on the breeding grounds.

The Navy Base at Jacksonville has been active partner in supporting the EWS surveys. The base uses a fax and pager communications network to instantly disseminate sightings throughout the area, and has developed an innovative and highly successful sailor training program to aid Navy ships in spotting and avoiding the whales. These and other innovative conservation actions won the Navy and its implementation team partners a Coastal America Partnership Award in 1997.

The Navy has successfully avoided collisions with right whales in the area and would like to keep it that way, despite the vulnerability of this species to collision with ships -- the number one known cause of human-caused injury and mortality. Knowing when and where the whales are at any given moment is difficult, although the use of new technologies like the ARGOS tags developed by Dr. Mate is helping scientists do a better job of tracking them.

"Even untagged whales benefit from a knowledge of which areas are frequented by tagged right whales at what times of year. An extra ounce of caution and vigilance in those places and times will go a long way toward reducing the potential for collisions between vessels and whales," Gisiner said.

ONR has provided a critical technology that has linked observers near Jacksonville with their counterparts more than 3,000 miles and 120 days away "as the whale swims." Scientists are hoping that this tag on Piper will make part, if not all, of the round trip between summer feeding and winter breeding grounds. Even if the tag doesn't last that long, it has already served two important tags on blue whales in the Pacific Ocean have lasted more than 250 days and scientists purposes: first, documenting for the first time the southward migratory path of a female northern right whale; and, second, delivering that whale to the waiting Early Warning System observers.

Piper's position, along with the positions of other untagged whales found in the area, will continue to be relayed immediately to all Navy and commercial ships in the region, greatly reducing the chances of an inadvertent collision.
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Office of Naval Research

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