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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seeking state-of-the-art solutions for tracking North Atlantic right whales (NARW) using satellite telemetry tools that present minimal health risk and provide near real-time data of their location for the period of months or longer.



North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are endangered marine mammals found along the East Coast of the United States and Canada. Despite international efforts to protect the whales from entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with vessels, the species remains at risk of extinction with approximately 360 remaining.

Additional efforts to protect North Atlantic right whales would benefit from information on distribution and habitat use, as well as behavior, which can be informed by satellite telemetry data.

Current non-invasive tagging technologies, which typically use suction cups for attachment, provide adherence for short periods of time (hours). These tags penetrate the blubber layer only. Because blubber, a loose spongy layer of collagen fibers and adipose tissue, often lacks the ability to hold a barb, these tags tend to pull out within days to weeks.

Any tag that holds the potential to remain in the whale for a month to a year, cannot be vulnerable to impacts caused by whale to whale interactions (which happen often during social activity). This means that tags with much surface profile will be knocked off or pulled out when one whale rubs against another. The tag also needs to tolerate water depths of ~300 meters. For a long duration tag, the battery life or ability to regenerate power while on the whale is needed.

NARWs have a very unique physical characteristic. They have roughened skin patches on their heads which erupt through the smooth skin. These patches, referred to as callosities, are stable enough that individual animals can be identified throughout life by the patterns of these callosities. Attached to these callosities are small crustaceans called cyamids. The body of a cyamid is distinctly flat and considerably reduced at the rear.

Its legs, especially the back three pairs of legs, have developed into claw-like protuberances with which it clings to its host. Its length ranges from 5 to 25 millimeters depending on the species. It has been suggested that some sort of robotic cyamid could be a tagging solution. To date, no tags have ever been deliberately attached to the head of a whale.

These whales are very large (50-100 tons) and free swimming in the ocean. Deployment of the tag will require a precision technique performed at sea. These animals cannot be contained (like smaller cetaceans), nor can their natural behaviors be influenced.


Solutions will:

  • Secure the satellite tags to the whales for long periods of time. At least one month, but preferably closer to a year.
  • Be resistant to potential impact events during tag life such as whale to whale body contact.
  • Deployment/attachment should cause minimal disruption to the animal.
  • The attachment mechanism needs to be relatively instantly secure. The attachment will happen when the animal is at the surface. There will only be a moment before it is underwater again.
  • Ideally be non-invasive, but minimally invasive tags could be considered.
    • Minimally invasive tags could penetrate the skin into the blubber as long as they do not pierce the fascia (10cm or less depth).


Possible Solution Areas:

  • Adhesives
  • Suction pads
  • Novel tagging methods (e.g. robotic taggers)


Related TechNeeds:

Seeking: Solutions for North Atlantic Right Whale Detection and Avoidance

Seeking: Real-Time Whale Detection & Monitoring Technologies 

Seeking: Software for Real-Time Geo-Referencing of Aerial Video


Image by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

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