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A Whale’s Perspective: Using Tags to Understand North Atlantic Right Whales

April 24, 2023

NOAA Fisheries and our partners are always seeking ways to monitor and track endangered North Atlantic right whale movements to better understand whale behavior and mitigate threats impeding their recovery.

An endangered North Atlantic right Whale (#3503, “Caterpillar”) swims close to the water’s surface An endangered North Atlantic right Whale (#3503, “Caterpillar”) swims close to the water’s surface. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (NOAA permit #20556-01). Aerial survey funded by US Coast Guard, US Navy, USACE, and NOAA Fisheries.

NOAA Fisheries and our partners are working to conserve and rebuild the North Atlantic right whale population. Tracking—or monitoring—their population and health and effectiveness of conservation measures is crucial to our recovery efforts.

Scientists can observe right whales and other marine mammals from the air, the shore, or from a boat. To monitor them underwater, researchers use a variety of technologies and methods. Attaching tracking devices is one way scientists and researchers can learn more about animals that spend the majority of their lives out of sight. These small instruments, called tags, may be attached to whales via suction cups or implantable darts. Tags are often applied to whales’ backs and can document the animal’s location, behavior, movement, swim speed, habitat use, dive depth, and health. Some tags can record sounds made by the whale and even capture environmental measurements such as ocean temperature. These data collectively provide insights into an animal’s movement and behavior that are critical for addressing conservation challenges.

Tag Design

Tags for large whales are relatively small and lightweight, ranging from the size of a cell phone to a small textbook. The technologies researchers design and use to study large whales are constantly evolving. They rigorously test each new tool before it is approved for use in the field.

Suction cup tags do not harm the animal and are applied to the whale’s back as it surfaces to breathe. The amount of time this type of tag remains attached to a whale varies, but most are designed to stay attached for several hours to a few days and release when the suction is lost. Suction cup tags are designed to float, so once the tag is released scientists can locate and retrieve the device and download the data. 

North Atlantic right whales are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. This means that all research in U.S. waters on this species must be authorized under a NOAA Fisheries research permit.

“Smoke” and “Caterpillar” Journey South

In November 2022, a U.S. Fleet Forces Command-funded aerial survey team sighted two endangered North Atlantic right whales near Virginia Beach. The two adult females, identified as 27-year-old “Smoke” (#2605), and 18-year-old “Caterpillar” (#3503), were migrating towards the Southeast U.S. calving grounds. Working with the Navy team, researchers from HDR Inc. deployed a drone to capture aerial footage of the whales and attached a suction cup tag to Smoke. The tag was equipped with a camera, hydrophone (to record sounds), and several sensors; it remained attached to her for 10.5 hours. The camera filmed the journey from Smoke’s perspective as the two whales traveled south. Smoke’s trip to the calving grounds was successful, as she gave birth to her first known calf in December!

Orange suction cup tag attached to the back of endangered North Atlantic right Whale "Smoke" (#2605)
The orange suction cup tag is attached to the back of endangered North Atlantic right whale "Smoke" (#2605). The inset shows the details on the tag, which includes 4K video, hydrophone, and several sensors to document the whale's location, behavior, movement, swim speed, and dive depth. These data will provide a better understanding of habitat use. Credit: HDR Inc. (NOAA permit #21482).

Researchers continue to analyze the other data collected by the tag, but preliminary results provide interesting information that may be important for management actions. For example, Smoke was silent during this portion of her journey to the calving grounds, which emphasizes that pregnant females may be difficult to detect with acoustic recorders. We shouldn’t assume whales are absent from an area when we do not hear them on the scientific listening devices we deploy, when they may just not be vocal. This is one reason why NOAA Fisheries urges vessel operators to go slow to avoid collisions with whales, even when it may seem like they are not present.  

Bar chart showing different depths of North Atlantic right whale "Smoke"
Using a suction tag, researchers recorded the length of time North Atlantic right whale “Smoke” (#2605) spent at different depths. She spent most of her time within a few meters of the surface. Credit: NOAA Fisheries.

Tagging Challenges

Many partners use tag data to better understand North Atlantic right whales throughout their range, but it is not realistic or feasible to tag every individual. Tagging North Atlantic right whales with suction cup or implantable dart tags is complex:

  • Applying tags to any whale requires a NOAA Fisheries’ scientific research permit that includes specific methods and safety precautions for the humans and whales
  • NOAA Fisheries typically does not authorize the tagging of certain individuals, such as calves and whales in poor health
  • It is not possible to locate or approach every North Atlantic right whale, as some portion of the population is not seen each year
  • Even with all the correct equipment and permits, the whales must be located during calm weather conditions and then closely approached from a boat to apply a tag, which causes stress
  • North Atlantic right whales are wild animals that do not always cooperate—their movements can be unpredictable and close approaches are risky even for trained, experienced responders
  • Tagging is expensive, time-intensive, and tag batteries and attachments only last days to months

Slow Down for Right Whales

To save North Atlantic right whales and keep boaters safe, NOAA Fisheries strongly urges all mariners to slow down to 10 knots or less in times and areas where whales are likely to be present. This is mandatory for most vessels 65 feet or longer during certain times of year.

Report all right whale sightings to NOAA Fisheries. Federal law requires vessels, paddle boarders, and aircrafts (including drones) to maintain a safe distance of at least 500 yards (five football fields) from right whales.

Yellow caution sign with the words "Go Slow" and a whale tail

Visual observations and insightful tag data from North Atlantic right whales indicate they spend a lot of time near the surface. This makes these whales highly vulnerable to vessel strikes. This is especially true for mothers and calves, who are critical for stabilizing the population decline; they spend nearly all their time at or close to the water’s surface. In the past 3 years alone, NOAA Fisheries has documented three young calves struck by vessels in their first 6 months of life.

NOAA Fisheries declared an Unusual Mortality Event for the species in 2017 following elevated levels of deaths resulting from vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. The UME is ongoing and has been expanded to include dead, seriously injured, and sick or ill individuals. More than 90 individuals have been included in the UME to date. We need your help to protect and recover this important species. Slowing down is one easy way to help save right whales.


NOAA Fisheries would like to thank our important partners including the U.S. Navy Marine Species Monitoring Program, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Atlantic, and HDR Inc