Tim Cole '88, aerial survey researcher.Tim Cole '88, aerial survey researcher.

The past year has been devastating for North Atlantic right whales, whose population is endangered with only an estimated 450 individuals remaining. 18 moralities have been observed since 2017 and no new calves have been seen this year. NOAA and partners are working to bring attention to this conservation challenge.

North Atlantic right whales are critically endangered, with a current population estimated to be about 450 individuals. Aerial surveys—where scientists aboard planes locate groups of whales to count and capture images of individuals—are one of the key ways NOAA and our partners gather scientific data on the status of the population and get real-time updates on individual animals.

What can you learn about North Atlantic right whales from aerial surveys?

The primary mission of the aerial surveys is to photographically “capture” as many individual right whales each year as possible, in order to monitor the population as a whole. Using the unique rough skin patches on the head of each whale (known as callosities), we can track their presence over time. These data are used in models that estimate the total number of whales in the population. 

Because North Atlantic right whales move over a large range—along most of the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada—finding them in order to record their numbers is a challenge. Aerial surveys aboard NOAA’s Twin Otter aircraft allow scientists to stay offshore long enough, and over large enough areas, to sight significant numbers of whales each year. The flight crew from NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations are also integral to this mission.

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