Members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) were in St. John’s briefly Monday afternoon, but in a break from tradition, they didn’t have anything to say about the seal hunt.
The Song of the Whale, IFAW’s purpose-built whale research vessel, was in St. John’s to fuel up and get supplies before heading for Greenland and Iceland to look for right whales.
Historically, right whales were hunted in the area, but after the harvest decimated their population, they’re rarely seen.
On the European side of the Atlantic, they’re even more rare.
“They’re basically so rare that there’s about a sighting every 10 years on (the European) side of the Atlantic, and no one has any clue whether they’re recovering or not, no one has any clue whether these are just stray right whales that have just gone across by accident,” said Vassili Papastavrou, whale biologist working aboard the Song of the Whale.
IFAW boasts that as a sailboat, the vessel is among the quietest maritime research vessels in the world, and it specializes in “passive research.” Its main function is to tow hydrophones — underwater microphones that hear whales communicating with each other.
It’s a technique for tracking whales that the IFAW has been using for 25 years, and it’s passive in contrast to the way other people research whales, Papastavrou said.
“Japan, particularly, argues that the only way to study whales is to kill them, and has a big program of scientific whaling,” he said. “Part of what we’re doing is to show the kinds of techniques that can be used to study live whales.”
One of its big successes was a series of acoustic buoys outside Boston harbour which listen for whales and help route traffic away from whales, to stop animals from getting hit by vessels.
Papastavrou said he wasn’t too worried about the IFAW’s seal campaign reputation preceeding the research group when they arrived in St. John’s harbour. He said they’re just interested in doing passive research, but they’ve faced a hostile welcome before.
“When we first turned up in Iceland, it wasn’t just our reputation that preceded us, it was mainly the reputation of another organization — Sea Shepherds — which actually sank four whaling boats in Reykjavik harbour,” he said.