Sarah Fortune, a researcher from the University of British Columbia, used drone technology to uncover mysterious behavior exhibited by bowhead whales in the Northwest Passage. The bowhead whale is an Arctic species that has had a hard time in recent years. Whaling nearly decimated the bowhead populations, and according to WWF Canada, they are still recovering from coming near extinction. Scientists estimate that there are around 10,000 bowhead whales in the world’s oceans, and very little is known about their biology and behavior.
Sarah Fortune, a PhD candidate studying zoology at UBC, happened to make a grand discovery while researching bowhead feeding habits in Cumberland Sound in Nunavut. She was tracking a group of bowheads, but she noticed that a tracking device’s signal disappeared, only to be found in a bay at a different location. At that bay, Fortune found the whales turning around repeatedly in shallow water—something that had never been witnessed in this species before. She decided to use a drone to take a closer look at the whales, and she was able to see whales using rocks in the water like they were pumice stone to scrape off dead skin, as if they were molting.
The fact that the bowhead whales appear to use the Cumberland Sound for molting is an important discovery for science, because it redefines how and why the region is important for bowheads’ lifecycles. The discovery was also important to Fortune’s own research, because it helped her pinpoint a region that may need protection in the future, especially as the planet is facing rising water temperatures due to global warming. Habitats that are in danger must be found and protected from human damages, so that human activities, such as fishing, can be controlled to protect the habitat and the species that live in it.