Why do bowhead whales rest their heads against large rocks in the Arctic? Getting an aerial view helps one research team find some answers.
Using Drones to Solve 170-Year Bowhead Whale Mystery
Published: December 13, 2019
Onscreen: Year after year, bowhead whales gravitate toward the shore of Cumberland Sound, Canada and hang around the big rocks there. No one knows why.
Sarah Fortune is hoping this drone will solve this mystery.
Narrator: Ricky Killabuck, an Inuit fisherman, brings them to the site.
Sarah Fortune: So, have you seen any whales in this bay this year?
Ricky Killabuck: Oh, yeah.
Fortune: Yeah? Okay.
If you go back to the whaling records, dating back to 1845, whalers had made note that these whales would go near shore and they’d rest their heads or their chins upon these large rocks.
Killabuck: Going along this coast, we’ve been seeing whales along the rocks in this area.
Some people thought that they might be feeding; others thought that they’re resting.
Narrator: Without a clear view, it was to impossible know.
Fortune: Around our 11:00.
Bill Koski: So, we have a whale up ahead. We’re heading towards it now.
Resarcher: Got that camera out to the aft, all powered up.
Fortune: So, then I think you’re going to want to bring it to our 11:00 here, maybe to the bow.
Resarcher: It’s starting to come shallow.
Fortune: Mmhmm, it’s coming in.
Narrator: This whale seems to be scratching his back against the rocks.
Fortune: Now we know that the whales aren’t just coming here for feeding purposes, they’re also coming here for molting purposes, rubbing on these large boulders as exfoliation, so, to help expedite the molting process.
Narrator: The best guess is they’re trying to keep their skin healthy and free of parasites.
The drone reveals Cumberland Sound, with its shallow rocks and plentiful zooplankton, to be a critical bowhead habitat.Yet it’s also a place destined to change.
Fortune: These are whales that will be impacted in one way or another by environmental change. We don’t know if it’s going to be detrimental, we don’t know if these whales will be very adaptable, but we know that things are going to change, just like they’re going to change for the people in the north that are living in these communities.
Narrator: For now, keeping a close eye on these giants of the Arctic is critical.
Fortune: The really big win about drones is that we’re able to collect a lot of data about the whales with zero impact to them. And so, I think this is a very positive step forward.
Great, awesome. Thanks so much, guys.
Produced and Directed by: Scott Harper
Digital Producer: Ana Aceves
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2019