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2006 Research Grant Recipient - Heather Penner

Watching the watchers
Heather Penner spent her summer vacation last year snorkelling with belugas — for a good cause. If the Brandon University geography student has her way, visitors to Churchill, Man., will soon be able to observe the whales in their natural habitat without altering the animals' behaviour.

The high concentration of belugas in the Seal, Nelson and Churchill river estuaries during their spring migration to western Hudson Bay has made whale-watching the region's fastest-growing tourist attraction. But there are no protocols in place in Churchill to prevent boats from veering too close.

With funding from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, Penner set out to measure the distance between the animals and the boats, monitoring clusters of whales and recording their actions.

She found that juvenile animals are more likely to approach tour boats, but they risk being injured because "they're big mammals, and it's hard for them to move out of the way quickly," says Penner. "We want a more controlled environment, such as a travelling corridor, where tour boats move in straight lines." Penner will present her research to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which plans to review its marine-mammal watching regulations.

— Ashlee Starratt

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