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Harbor Porpoise Movement

Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites Understanding of latitude and longitude, reading maps; Longer project times if monitoring currently tagged animals.
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues


In this project you can use archived satellite tracking data to learn about activity patterns of harbor porpoises. How far do they travel? Can you find patterns in the routes individual animals take? Can you correlate their route with environmental factors such as currents or ocean temperatures? If you're interested in marine mammals, this might be a good project for you.


The objective of this experiment is to determine what influences the movement of harbor porpoises. Is there a pattern to their route? Does the animal follow a pattern consistent with a current, ocean temperature, or other environmental factors?


By Beth Jewell, Einstein Distinguished Fellow, Office of Education, NOAA

Edited by Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Harbor Porpoise Movement" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 30 June 2014. Web. 16 Sep. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/OceanSci_p004.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 30). Harbor Porpoise Movement. Retrieved September 16, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/OceanSci_p004.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-06-30


Harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in eastern Canada are listed as threatened due to gill net fishing methods. The most recent National Marine Fisheries (NMFS) estimates suggest that as many as 4.3% of the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine population are killed each year in gill nets. Satellite telemetry is used to study the movements of harbour porpoises. A better understanding of their movements can lead to conservation methods and help to restore the harbour porpoise population.

The movements of harbour porpoises are studied by attaching small satellite transmitters to animals. Data are downloaded from the NOAA weather satellites to the ARGOS Global Processing Centre in Landover, MD and then accessed via the Internet. We are able to collect more or less continuous distribution and movement data from tagged porpoises.

Through the use of these satellite tags, we can follow harbor porpoises. What triggers these movements? Are they following food sources? Does the bottom topography guide them? Does temperature play a role? Or are they out there simply exploring the ocean?

In this project you will attempt to determine what guides the movements of harbor porpoises, by correlating porpoise movement with other map data.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:

  • satellite tags and how they work,
  • ARGOS,
  • drifter buoys,
  • whales (cetacea),
  • pinniped,
  • bathymetric maps.


Materials and Equipment

To do this experiment you will need the following materials and equipment:

  • Computer to download data
  • Access to the internet
  • Map generator: WHSC, 2006. "Map-It—A GMT3 Map Generator," Woods Hole Science Center, US Geological Survey [accessed April 28, 2006] http://stellwagen.er.usgs.gov/mapit/.

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Experimental Procedure

The examples below take you through the process of making various tracking measurements for a single harbor porpoise. In order to test a hypothesis about porpoise movements, you will need to repeat the measurements for as many porpoises as possible. You will find additional data on the WhaleNet website (Williamson, 2005a).

Calculating Distances between Satellite Fixes

  1. From the Archived Satellite Tagging Project page, (http://whale.wheelock.edu/whalenet-stuff/stop_cover_archive.html) click on a harbor porpoise. "Gus" has been chosen for this example.
    1. Track Map: you will need to print this map out to use later. It shows the locations of "Gus" where satellite fixes were made.
    2. Data Sheet - Satellite Fixes: this is a data table with the latitude and longitude of each satellite fix on "Gus". You will need to use this information with the Distance Generator.
  2. Open the Distance Generator by clicking on the link at the bottom of the "Gus" page. The Distance Generator page has a form where you can enter latitude and longitude data. The form will calculate the distance between the two points.
    1. From the Satellite Data Sheet, copy and paste the latitude and longitude from the first sighting of "Gus" into the "From" box on the Distance Generator form. (You will need to remove "Lon1 :" from this entry.)
    2. Repeat your steps for the "To" location.
    3. To calculate how far "Gus" has traveled during this study, copy the latitude and longitude from the last entry (23.03.04) and paste this information in the To box. (Again, you will need to remove "Lon1 :" from this entry.)
    4. Click on the "Look it up!" button. You should come up with 632 miles. The problem with this calculation is that it is as the crow flies and any side trips "Gus" takes aren't taken into account. To be more accurate you will need to do the calculations between each sighting and add your results.

Productivity and the Movement of "Gus"

  1. From the Archived Satellite Tagging Project page, (http://whale.wheelock.edu/whalenet-stuff/stop_cover_archive.html) click on a harbor porpoise. "Gus" has been chosen for this example.
  2. On this page you will need to obtain data about "Gus" in two places: "Gus" Track Map and Productivity Map. Print both of these maps.
  3. The redder colors on the productivity map indicate areas of higher concentrations of chlorophyll. Compare the two maps for correlations between productivity and the location of "Gus".

Bathymetry and the Movement of "Gus"

  1. From the Archived Satellite Tagging Project page, (http://whale.wheelock.edu/whalenet-stuff/stop_cover_archive.html) click on a harbor porpoise. "Gus" has been chosen for this example.
  2. On this page you will need to obtain data about "Gus" from the Track Map. Print this map.
  3. Compare the contour lines and the movement of "Gus" for correlations between bathymetry and the location of "Gus".

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  • Use the map scale to estimate the total distance the harbor porpoise has traveled. What is the average daily distance it has traveled? What has its average daily speed (mph) been?
  • Do you see points on your tracking map which seem suspicious? Which ones, and how do you explain them?
  • Why is the harbor porpoise traveling along its current path? What environmental factors might influence the track? To answer this, you will need additional data. For example, you can look at buoy data for wind direction, speed, gust, significant wave height, swell and wind-wave heights and periods, air temperature, water temperature, and sea level pressure (NOAA, 2006a; NOPP, 1998). Some buoys also report wave directions. You may also want to look at bathymetric maps to get an idea of the topography looks like below the surface (NGDC, 2005).
  • Describe the movements of the harbor porpoise. By looking at its movements, can you tell if it is migrating, nesting, or feeding?

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