2021 Season Review
August 8, 2022
Newsletter Autumn 2021
The past field season we welcomed a largely new team following a year without a field season due to our friendly neighborhood virus. Many who had been at MICS left for other jobs, which meant new interns, new team members, and the beginning of a transition to a new research director-Dr. Brian Kot-and search for an executive director.
The season started in mid June and found several of us deeply into plumbing fixes in the team house, which meant delving into toilets and other plumbing related leaks. All was fixed properly with shower leaks located and repaired solidly, and thrones and tubing replaced.
The computers were fired up, files located, sorted and updated. Older motors still in good working condition and the small 16ft inflatable MX1 were sold. A thorough clean up and reorganization of the basement was completed. This freed up much needed space and made it much easier to maneuver the boats in and out of the garage. Trailer bearings all changed and greased, boat wiring updated, and motors oiled, cleaned, tested, and made ready for sea duty.
Motor and boat logs handed down from past team members and essential in continuing to properly care for the motors, boats and other equipment vital to our work were updated.
The station museum was open to the public as free access with donations requested and visitors were quite generous, which made for a good season for the museum and its store. The young and tech savvy team members placed QR codes at various strategic museum locations, which visitors using smart phones were able to discover our exhibits, and view videos and images of whales taken by us at sea from boats or through the use of drones.
Despite a steep learning curve the interns and team members acquitted themselves well, which resulted in a productive season.
We cleared out of old paper documents and decongested much accumulated administratively over the years. The tower was painted, museum lighting replaced, and museum carpet cleaned to a point where old persistent stains were largely removed.
The numbers of blue and fin whales were surprisingly low this past summer in the Jacques Cartier Passage and west to Sept-Iles. In mid August we were able to photo-Id a blue whale mother and calf- the first sighting of a blue whale calf in our main Mingan/Anticosti study area since 1987. Another female (B033 known since the 80s) and calf blue whale pair was photo-IDed off Port Cartier in late August. What was surprising is that only 26 blue whales were IDed in the St Lawrence in 2021 and yet we had two calves, whereas in 2019 we catalogued 132 blues with only one calf sighted and that off the East coast of Newfoundland by chance, from a cruise ship passing through the area. The greatest numbers were seen along the Gaspe coast, into the Estuary, and off Sept-Iles in 2019.
Of the 26 sighted in 2021 13 had been seen in the St Lawrence in 2020 including two then pregnant females, who were seen with calves in 2021. By early September no further blue whale sightings were reported in the St Lawrence-making this one of the poorest years for blue whale sightings in 43 yrs.
I remind those who have followed our work that we have seen very few blue whale calves, in fact only 32 confirmed in 43yrs.
All the blue whales sighted except for two sighted off Port Cartier, were known to the catalog. In 2021 the best-known individuals included, females Crinkle and B108, as well as, males Mousqueton and Grisard all first IDed in the 1980s.
Why so few blue whales in 2021? In the Sept-Iles/Port Cartier area there was a large influx of mackerel, which was followed by blue fin tuna. And once these fish (tuna feed on mackerel) abounded the blues and most fin whales left the area and were not seen again right into December. There was an occasional fin or humpback whale sighted, but the most common cetacean seen, once the fish had become established in the area, was the Atlantic White Sided Dolphin, which also feeds on mackerel among other species of fish.
The competition for krill by mackerel may have proved to be too much for the blues and fins. Fin whale can and will eat schooling fish such as herring, capelin, and mackerel, but on this occasion they may have preferred krill or found the tuna and dolphins to be too much competition.
There was a striking paucity of fin whales in the Mingan/Anticosti study area in 2021, with the highest daily total being of 20 individuals, but on only one day in August. During the rest of the summer, on most days we sighted less than 10. We were able to ID and biopsy 3 C/c fin whale pairs. Similar numbers were sighted off Sept-Iles/Port Cartier, which included, one C/c pair.
Though Humpback whales were present throughout the field season, first inside the islands then out into the Jacques Cartier Passage, however, their numbers were noticeably lower and presence more sporadic than in past years. We had groupings that were spread out over a wide area from Mingan to Sept-Iles and into the Estuary, where it was a record year for humpback sightings with more than 107 photo-Ided much to the pleasure of the whale-watch industry based from Tadoussac to Les Escoumins. Off Mingan we found Toro, Adiego, X-mas, Soledad, Moby, Koudou, Tigley, Van Gogh, and old friend Jigsaw. All animals known for many years even decades, amongst several others. In Gaspe waters some of the most important females in terms of births, Fleuret, Bolt, and Cedille were sighted. Cedille was first seen in 1988, was sighted regularly throughout the years, and had her 7th known calf since 2000 in 2021.
In the Estuary Tic Tac Toe, Siam (a regular there since 1978), Helmet and Cedille observed earlier in the season off Gaspe. Helmet was later seen in October off Port Cartier.
Many of the large numbers of humpbacks seen in the Estuary,were lesser-known animals added to the catalog in the last 4-5yrs. These humpbacks appear to have formed a new grouping that prefers the Estuary during the summer/fall feeding season. This may be due to site fidelity learned from their mothers, to increasing numbers of humpback whales, or simply because there was a greater concentration food in the Estuary this summer. There were still sightings late into November in the Estuary, which were most likely younger animals not yet sexually mature and therefore not migrating to the Caribbean breeding grounds.
Minke whales and harbor porpoise remained abundant during the field season until early September, when their numbers declined significantly. We did have a peak day of 30+ minkes in the Mingan/Anticosti area. Interestingly 2019 was a season of relatively low minke and harbor porpoise sightings. A year noted to be one the best for blue whale sightings.
Within the Mingan Islands we came across 4 dead minke whales, cause of death unknown, but certainly not due to fishing gear entanglement. We suspect that they were killed by ship strike or perhaps natural causes. In addition a humpback calf of the year beached at Longue Pointe in July. Though we took pictures of the flukes, no ID was made of this young animal. We carried out a necropsy and found that the skull had been fractured most likely due to a ship strike. With help from the municipality and one of their pay-loaders we were able to complete the main job of extracting the skeleton in 2 days.
Some the bones were left on the beach near the tree line, while we prepared a spot to steam clean them behind the village-again with the help of the municipality. Returning to the bones on the beach the following days we found that some bones were missing. At first we thought that someone had pilfered some, but thought the better of this due to the smell and oil dripping from the bones.
A few days later after having picked up most bones, we noticed that one of the long pectoral flippers was missing and there were freshly killed herring gulls here and there in immediate area. It was then we realized we were dealing with a bear that had found the bones too much to resist. Brian and a few others ventured into the woods, making a good deal of noise to ward off the bear that might be lurking nearby and found the bones about 100m back from the beach. The bear had swatted several gulls to death and dragged the bones into the woods. We took the bones back and loaded them on a four-wheeler to remove them from temptation to our new site in Longue Pointe. Steam cleaning was carried out over several days, but yet another bear came looking for the fine smelling bones, however, this time the bones were not dragged for more than a few meters. Eventually the larger bones were placed in a sand pit at the local dump under camera surveillance and left alone, while the smaller bones were placed in an enzyme bath for further cleaning.
North Atlantic Right Whales in the Jacques Cartier Passage:
MICS conducted its annual fieldwork on baleen whales in the Jacques Cartier Passage and adjacent waters between June and September 2021. MICS observed a total of four individual right whales on 4 different dates, totaling 4 sightings. Three of these occurred in the mandatory traffic separation scheme in the western part of the Jacques Cartier Passage, which is a mandatory slow-down zone (10 knots) between longitudes 64˚W and 65˚W. The fourth sighting was near the city of Sept-Iles, approximately 70 nautical miles west of the Passage.
Figure 1. Callosities on the rostrum of a North Atlantic Right Whale (NARW #3890; Babushka) observed by MICS personnel in the Jacques Cartier Passage during August, 2021.
This was a strange season to say the least and according to DFO biologists the mid water column temperatures have been increasing and are now at a point that could be causing problems in the S Lawrence ecosystem. In fact in July, while on survey track along Anticosti heading East we found ourselves over what looked like a sudden sea mount, which was in fact a false bottom made of a very dense mass of Aurelia jelly fish.
This gelatinous mass of jellies 10-15ft beneath us and was the first such sighting we had come across in our study area or elsewhere in the western St Lawrence. The summer winds, as recorded by us are more consistently strong now than 20 or 30 years ago and the daytime temperatures on land were warmer this summer than in the past as well. In fact this was the first summer we had seen people lying on towels on the beach.
Climate change certainly is making its presence felt even on the North Shore.
And much to our amazement after the first 2 weeks of July there were no black flies and few mosquitoes to speak of even in the woods on a calm overcast day. This was certainly a first after 45 years on the North Shore for RS.
Team picture with names: Rui Santos, Christophe Ronveaux, Brian Kot, RS, Ernesto and Sebastien Blanchard, Mel Blanchard, Kaki Fong, and Jean Gagnon. Others not in the team picture, but part of the team: Myriam Ouellet, Bainca Firbank, Camille Rondeau, and Vicky Belley
Carry over effect for blue whale migration. We know that blues feed in winter from work done in Baja , Costa Rica Dome, Galapagos and off Mauritania is a productive area. So if climate change affects areas where they winter in southerly range of the migration. Could this affect the body quality of blues and or fins upon their return North. They could stay longer up North to find food during reproduction, which may reduce fitness of calves, and overall population numbers. Less ice in winter could allow for longer feeding period in the St Lawrence, but one would think that the Canadian and US east coast would provide enough feeding habitat. During this past summer was there too much competition from fish for the krill resource available in the Estuary leading to very low blue whale presence and a more adaptable predators such as Mns and minkes and low general numbers in the rest of the gulf of blue and fin whales.
Special thanks to Rio Tinto Canada and Rio Tinto Havre St Pierre for their financial support of our research. In addition, The MICS team offers special thanks Jacques Gelineau, Larry Mercier, Rene Roy, our Gaspe connections, as well as, Rene Pintieau and Gremm field staff for their invaluable photo-ID contributions and overall efforts in the field. Special thanks to the Municipality of Longue Pointe de Mingan for their invaluable help with the humpback necropsie and transport of bones and to the fishermen’s harbor in Sept-Iles for harboring our research vessel stationed there and to Claudy Dechenes and Julie Carriere for continued support of our research efforts based in Sept-Iles.