Weekly Account of Station Activities
This week marked the return of our Blanc-Sablon research crew. Christian Ramp and Thomas Doniol-Valcroze spent five weeks on the Lower North Shore. Through this research expedition, Christian was able to collect the data he needed to complete his Ph.D. at the University of Bremen, Germany, on the population structure and dynamics of Humpback Whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Over 60 different individuals were observed, some of which are regularly observed in the Mingan-Anticosti region: H042 Ebene and H166 Helmet among them. This was a very good year for calves; a total of 14 cow-calf pairs were observed and photographed. It was also a very strong year for White-beaked Dolphins. According to Christian, an estimated 1000 dolphins were in the area often feeding alongside, as well as pestering and harassing, the Humpback Whales !
As is usually the case in Blanc-Sablon, the fog kept the two researchers on shore for several days. On the other hand, other factors were unusual. The capelin, a small fish that spawns all along the North Shore, arrived significantly earlier than usual and could be the reason why there were such high concentrations of cetaceans. According to the locals, it was a warm year: the ice broke fairly early and there were no icebergs. Some Blanc-Sablon residents report that this was the first year as far as they could remember that there were no icebergs offshore. Christian and Thomas would like to thank Patricia Nash of the Quebec-Labrador Foundation for her help and support during their stay in Blanc-Sablon.
This week also saw the departure of Julien Delarue and Nina Hamacher, the two MICS team-members who will start our annual research expedition to the St. Lawrence Estuary. Many Blue Whales choose to spend the summer months in these waters. Though the increasing number of whale-watching operators and research stations in the Tadoussac-Forestville corridor makes it more difficult for us to study them, the data collected over the next five weeks will inevitably help us learn more about this threatened species.
As of yet, the 2005 field season has yielded very interesting data regarding Fin Whales (Balaenoptera physalus). As is usually the case, Fin Whales were the first large whales to be observed in the Mingan-Anticosti area though their arrival was relatively early and their numbers were exceptionally high. Since mid-June, we have photo-identified over 100 different individuals, 65 of which have been matched to our growing catalogue of over 375 individuals. Fin Whale individuals are matched with their dorsal fin and chevron. The dorsal fin’s shape, size, or any prominent notches on it, allow us to classify an individual within eight distinct categories. The chevron is a pattern of light marks on a Fin Whale’s right side that goes from the blowhole and extends far behind the head. Much like our fingerprints or the characteristic pigmentation of a Humpback Whale’s fluke, the light and dark markings of an individual’s chevron is unique. Working with Fin Whales can pose some difficulties however. They are very fast and since their chevron is more clearly visible on the right side, researchers must be skilled to approach them. Additionally, under poor light or if the animal is backlit, our photographs will not show enough definition in the chevron to make an identification.
We have also observed an unusually high number of cow-calf pairs this year. On any given year, we may see one or two Fin Whale calves; we now have 6 calves in the sector! We will be on the lookout for these individuals in the coming years, as we hope to observe them in our waters again. The data we collect regarding this species will increase our knowledge of their population structure and natural history.
The following photograph is of F239, one this year’s calves, showing its chevron.
Another unusual observation was of a fluking Fin Whale. As opposed to Humpback Whales, Right Whales, and Sperm Whales, Fin Whales very rarely raise their flukes (the tail fins) before diving. Whenever they do, it is generally because a fluke has been severely damaged. Raising their tail out of the water provides them with the extra weight necessary to dive deeper. The individual we saw this week, however, had no apparent injuries. It raised its fluke on three occasions. This behaviour is so rare that it stunned our team-members who had already lowered their cameras ! The following picture is a courtesy of Jean-Philippe Perron, an amateur photographer from Lachute who joined one of our field excursions. Perron’s quick reflexes caught this rarely seen image on time.
Unfortunately, we have also documented evidence of a growing concern in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Over the course of one week, we observed two different Fin Whales that had severe scars caused by boat propellers. Collisions with boats are, more often than not, fatal for cetaceans, either from the collision itself or from subsequent infections and/or lack of mobility.
MICS has been all over the news lately. We have received a lot of attention through radio interviews and newspapers regarding the recent Humpback Whale disentanglement. Also, a TVA television crew joined us this week to film our research with Fin Whales. Here are a few web-links relating to the Station’s recent media coverage.
July 31, 2005
This week was relatively quiet at MICS due to strong winds and small-craft warnings! The time spent at the Station allowed us to analyse much of this year’s data, re-evaluate our observation protocols, update our database, prepare for the up-coming publication of a field guide to our best known Humpback Whales, as well as write an extensive summary of the 2005 fieldwork in Baja California, Mexico. To know more about our 22nd field season in Baja, visit the following link: Loreto February/March 2005.
During the few outings we made this week, we observed some Humpback Whales that we have known for several years. We were able to follow Siam (H007), an old male which was the very first Humpback Whale to have been photo-identified in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Siam was feeding alongside Splish (H002) and a third individual which we have yet to identify. Splish was the first female to have been entered in our humpback catalogue; we have known her since 1979! We also observed Dog-Ear (H141) who was accompanied by a calf.
Dog-Ear, whose name refers to the deformed right lobe of her fluke, was first observed in 1988.
Through biopsy analysis, we have long since known that Dog-Ear is a female; however, we had never seen her with a calf. Hopefully, Dog-Ear will join the list of females that return to the Mingan Islands with their calves every two or three years. We now have 7 mother-calf pairs in the Mingan-Anticosti area and 13 in Blanc-Sablon. We haven’t been able to find last week’s disentangled whale.
Kathleen Black and Kristine Puspurs of the Quebec-Labrador Foundation held a special day-camp for kids this week.
Eight children, most of them from Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, spent four days learning about the environment and conservation. The camp included a half-day tour of some of the islands, games, arts and crafts, an interpretation of MICS museum, a shore-side clean-up, and educational activities to discover the marine wildlife of the area.
An exceptional event occurred this week. Last Thursday, we received a call from Parks Canada mentioning that kayakers had observed a stranded Minke Whale on Ile Quarry. Two MICS team members, Valentine Ribadeau-Dumas and Frederic Paquet, prepared to join a Parks Canada team to measure and take samples from the whale or to help it return to the water in the event that it would still be alive. Imagine their surprise when, upon arriving at the scene, they discovered a juvenile Humpback Whale entangled in some fishing gear half way between Ile Quarry and Ile Niapiscau! Although it had no debilitating injuries, it had fresh scratches from the ropes all along the length of its back.
The whale had a rope caught in its mouth that was also wrapped around its tail. The rope was wrapped several times around its tail and the animal was further encumbered by a cage at the base of its tail.
Although it was not anchored to the spot, its movements were highly restricted. Luckily, the MICS team members had brought part of their disentanglement equipment including specially designed knives to cut through the fishing gear. It took approximately one hour to assess the situation and to make five cuts in the ropes. Once the operation was accomplished, the whale stayed at the surface for some time and appeared disoriented. It still had a piece of rope through the mouth but, according to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), it should come loose within the next few days. The team then tried to photograph its fluke to identify it but it never raised its tail before diving and a heavy fog came in shortly after. Hopefully, we will be able to identify it with the few pictures we have of its fluke (taken through the water !) or of its dorsal fin.
In addition to Valentine and Frederic, the disentanglement team consisted of Charles Kavanagh, chief warden of the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, Yann Troutet, warden, and Caroline Dupuis, assistant warden of the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve. Last year, CCS volunteered to give a workshop on large whale disentanglement at our headquarters in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan. Funding for the MICS disentanglement equipment came primarily from the BiodÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ´me and from the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the equipment was obtained from the PCCS.
Charles Kavanagh and Caroline Dupuis,
Parks Canada, on board
Relatively little is known about the extent of the entanglement problem in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence though we have observed a small but growing number of reports. An emergency network was established in 2004 (RÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ©seau quÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ©bÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ©cois dÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ’urgences pour les mammifÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¨res marins) that coordinates the efforts to reduce accidental marine mammal mortality, however, very little government funding is available for actual equipment and operating costs.
We hope to keep you informed of the identification of this Humpback Whale soon.
Here is a report of our cetacean observations so far for the 2005 season :
Fin Whales : We now have a total of 60 different animals that have been observed in the Mingan-Anticosti area. 35 of these have been matched in our catalogue. This includes 3 cow-calf pairs.
Humpback Whales : We now have 12 known individuals in the area, including 2 calves. This is very positive considering these whales usually arrive later on during the season. In Blanc-Sablon, Christian Ramp has observed 8 cow-calf pairs; 4 of these new mothers are well known to us.
Blue Whales : MICS would like to thank Marie, Jean, and Guy of ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ«Les Croisieres de la Baie de Gaspé» for their pictures of several Blue Whales as they entered the Gulf of Saint Lawrence through their migratory passageway at Gaspé. These individuals include Calvin (B378), Scarab (B325), Pheasant (B287), as well as a new calf. In over 25 years of studying the Blue Whales of the Saint Lawrence, this is only the 16th time a calf has been seen!
Sperm Whales ( ! ! ! !): This week, one of our research boats came across a rarely-seen species in these parts of the Gulf. A group of five male Sperm Whales was found and observed by none other
than Richard Sears himself ! According to Richard, this is only the 4th time in MICS history that this species has been observed in our waters.
White-beaked Dolphins : We have now seen this species 3 times over the 2005 season in the Mingan-Anticosti area.
Minke Whales : Highly abundant in the area, the smallest member of the rorquals is observed during every outing. Though they are often overlooked, they can still give a good show :
this week, on the same day, a Minke approached a research boat and spy-hopped around it while several miles away, another one breached 6 times !
Harbour Porpoise : Curious about the boats, the smallest cetacean found in our waters is often seen «porpoising-around» as we take a lunch break.
July 10, 2005
This week, the MICS team welcomed 16 Australian students.
The marine science students and their professors, from St Mary's Anglican Girls' School in Perth, are participating in a one-week research training session. Since their arrival Thursday evening, they have visited the MICS headquarters and interpretation centre in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, gone on a small excursion on Quarry Islandto see the unique flora and rock formations of the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, and spent two days on the water with MICS researchers observing Fin Whales, Minke Whales, and seals. In the coming days, they will have the opportunity to learn more about the local fauna and geography, as well as the occasional French lesson !
We have updated our Humpback Whale catalogue following analysis of the 2004 season. The catalogue now holds a total of 622 individuals for the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Last year, we observed 35 individuals in the Mingan sector including 3 calves. 45 new additions to the catalogue were seen in the Blanc-Sablon area out of a total of 92 for that sector in 2004. Several of our best known individuals were observed last year: Circe (H004), Helmet (H166), Quartz (H150), and Van Gogh (H275) among them. In addition, we were visited by Panther (H035), who hadn't been seen since 1994, and Dove (H021),
whose only other sightings were in 1993 and 1982.
Great news from Blanc-Sablon this week: Christian Ramp observed 6 Humpback Whales on his first day on the water. One of them, Ebene (H042) was seen with a new calf. The calf is not Ebene's first; she is also the mother of one of our best known Humpbacks, Nocturne (H067), born in 1988. Christian predicts that Ebene and her new calf will probably visit the Mingan sector later on this season.
July 3, 2005
A lot of activity at MICS this week! As we were patrolling the northern shores of Anticosti Island, we had the chance to observe a group of 8 White-beaked Dolphins. White-beaked Dolphins are relatively abundant in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence but are seldom seen. We were able to observe the group for about a half-hour before moving on to find a large concentration of Fin Whales (20 individuals). Later in the season, once the water temperature rises, we will be seeing a similar species, the Atlantic White-sided Dolphin.
We were also treated to the first Humpback Whale sighting of the season.
"Tingley", observed almost every year since 1991, was seen feeding in the western part of our main research area.
Humpbacks arrive in the Gulf after having spent the winter off the shores of the Dominican Republic. These warmer waters are perfect for mating and giving birth but are poor in nutrients. Consequently, Humpback Whales spend the winter months with little or no food. After a few months of fasting, Tingley is probably happy to be back in the rich waters of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence ! Additionally, several Blue Whales including a mother-calf pair, were sighted entering the Gulf in Gaspesie. Along with the relatively early arrival of Humpbacks, the MICS team can expect to have a lot of work to do this season!
Christian Ramp and Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, friends and MICS colleagues since 1997, left aboard the Relais Nordik on route for Blanc-Sablon this week. Christian is completing his PhD fieldwork on the population structure and dynamics of the Humpback Whales that feed off the Lower North Shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Christian and Thomas will be working from Blanc-Sablon for five weeks. They left with an arsenal of equipment, including "Hagar", their research "vessel". MICS would like to thank Robin Kelleher of the Relais Nordik, Patricia Nash of the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, as well as our collaborators along the Lower North Shore for their valuable support.
2005 MICS' Team
In the usual order: Thomas, Andrea, Florence, Nina, Christian, Arnaud, Julien, Valentine and Frederic. Hiding behind the inflatable or elsewhere: Alain, Jean-Marie and Richard.
June 26, 2005
More and more animals are arriving in the sector. At least 15 Fin Whales were observed this week along the North Shore and towards Anticosti. Julien Delarue, our resident Fin Whale expert has been all smiles with every familiar dorsal fin and chevron observed! Since relatively few of the whales have reached the Gulf, the animals are well dispersed throughout the sector and we spend a good part of our days exploring our research zones to locate them. Though the Fin Whales feed alone or in small groups of 2 or 3 individuals, their presence is usually associated with an abundance of marine life. This week, our sightings included huge aggregations of Harp Seals (over 500 individuals!), Minke Whales, Storm-petrels, Northern Fulmars, Gannets, and the first Harbour Porpoises of the season; all of them feeding in the same area, alongside the second largest whale species in the world!
This week also marks the final preparations for our field expedition to the Blanc-Sablon. Long-time MICS team member, Christian Ramp, will soon be continuing his studies of Humpback Whales along the Lower North Shore. Stay tuned for updates about Christian's field work in the coming weeks.
After a week of rain and high winds, the MICS team was finally able to get out on the water this week. Our first outing was principally for educational purposes. We welcomed 45 high-school students to the Station. The students were given a tour of the museum followed by an excursion around the Mingan Islands.
On the water they observed a variety of seabirds in addition to a few Minke Whales feeding on capelin, Grey Seals, and a group of Harp Seals. The students, all of them from Montreal, enjoyed their day with us and the teachers are planning on bringing another group next year.
On Saturday, we were able to work on the first Finback Whales of the year. A group of 4 Finbacks were observed and photographed off the coast of Anticosti Island. Among them, we sighted F016 Baby Fin Nelson, an animal which we have been following since 1986.
MICS would like to give a special thanks to Martin Giroux and the head office at Nautilus for their support in obtaining 7 new floatation suits for the team, interns, and research participants.
June 12, 2005
The Mingan Island Cetacean Study started its 27th season this week. The team is currently making the final preparations on the boats as well as analysing last year's data. Our first scheduled outing at sea will be June 16th. In addition to our continuing efforts to learn more about the whales of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, weekly research sessions, and museum interpretations, MICS will be collaborating with Parks Canada and the Quebec-Labrador Foundation to restore a Northern Gannet population on Ile-aux-Perroquets of the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve. The first Blue Whale sighting by a MICS collaborator was made in the Gulf this week. B369 was seen off Matane by René Roy on June 9th. Not much is known about B369, it was first observed by GREMM in 2000. Hopefully we will be able to observe B369 along the North Shore in the coming weeks !