St John's, Old Friends, Poor-courier-later and Trip-lines

Research Team: Catherine Berchok, Valentine Ribadeau-Dumas, David Gaspard, Marion Florie-George, and Richard Sears

Preparations in Montreal completed, a quick early morning trip to Dorval and away we went to St John's Newfoundland to join our vessel and pick up the remaining gear for the shelf-edge survey. Wayne Ledwell kindly met us at the airport in St Johns and drove us to his home on Placentia Bay on a clear, calm, sunny day, which are rare on coastal Newfoundland. Later we discovered our work vessel-the Tripolina- a black hulled, slightly worn fishing trawler based in Fermeuse some 50 miles south of St Johns along the Avalon Peninsula. She was not what you might call, research-ready, but displayed the results of heavy fishing years and needed perhaps a bit of a face-lift. We discovered and tidied up our mildly restrained quarters, and proceeded to unpack gear and clothing using every possible nook and cranny to store what flowed easily from our bags.

The next step was to locate the rigid–hulled inflatable that was being lent to us by Jack Lawson of DFO, which was nearby in a Fisheries compound and quickly gotten into the water along side the Tripolina. We then proceeded to collect Cartherine Berchoks's acoustic gear, which was to prove much more difficult than expected. The acoustic equipment, including sonobouys and accompanying electronics had cleared customs on the west coast in mid June and had been shipped by Purolator to DFO in St John's. Well one crate had arrived, but not the other two, which contained more sonobouys and vital electronic recording instruments. The fisheries receiving department had only received one crate and after having viewed security tape with Catherine, could confirm that no other delivery had been made despite Purolator insisting the opposite. The one time I have been fond of security cameras. We waited for two more days and even Purolator had to admit they knew not the whereabouts of the other crates. This would significantly limited our research effort and handicap our survey.
Note: Having found only one of the remaining crates by December 7, Purolator gave in and admitted that they had lost the other crate. We thank Rose of Purolator, who was very helpful and had to concede that this was one of the worst snafus she had seen in her years as manager.

During the wait we were able to explore St John's dynamic waterfront with myriad restaurants, shops and music scenes. In addition and quite happily I was able to visit with John Gibson and wife Judy who had been director of the Matamek Research Station, which up until the early 80s belonged to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but was located on the Quebec North Shore near Sept-Iles. John had taken me on as an assistant in the summer of 1976 and though I was there to work on salmon, John encouraged me to pursue my interests in marine mammals, even joining in when numerous whales appeared in Moisie Bay, until he felt the cetaceans had drawn us a bit too much away from salmon work and asked in an ever so polite manner if we might get back to salmon studies. This of course we did straight away, though little did I know that the whales and Quebec had taken hold of me for good and drew me back as you all know.

Back on the dock in St. John's another surprise greeted me, when Geoff Green-a MICS board member- showed up in a taxi and joined us on the Tripolina. He was in St. John's for a wedding and had seen a short article on our research survey in the morning paper describing the Tripolina. We crossed the harbor to downtown St John's and had lunch and spoke of maritime adventures some shared and some planned for the coming years.

 We had given up on Puro-later, but now the crew of Tripolina had discovered some electronics problems aboard their vessel and had to spend a day and a half working on radar and assorted other electronic snafus.

Finally late Saturday July 17 we left St John's in the dark happy to be on our way. The following morning we were in fog and motored towards the southern edge of the Grand Banks in varying degrees of visibility, sighting Puffins, murres, and shearwaters as we headed towards the first ever, dedicated shelf-edge survey for right and blue whales. As I watched the grey sea pass by I tried my best to remember the rich, vivid depictions of these waters as described by Farley Mowat in his many books. Below some team members had gained a greenish tinge and chose to be as still as they could in their quarters with little food, but eventually ventured on deck to take in the sea air.

We arrived at our saw-tooth or zigzag transect starting point on Sunday, however, the endlessly opaque cloak of fog had not lessened its grip on the surrounding waters. We began our first leg in varying degrees of 50-200m-visibility and hoped the sun would burn the fog away at some point. At noon the fog gave way a bit and we were able to see out about 1km. And much to our joy the first spout was sighted, punctuated by an excited shout from Catherine. The spout was tall and large, definitely a large rorqual, too big for a humpback. Could we dare think that it was blue? Within minutes we saw 3-4 other tall spouts close by and at the next surfacing of the first animal sighted we were able to confirm that we had one and probably more blue whales.

This could not have been scripted any better, the fog opened up just enough to reveal these blues on the first day of our shelf-edge transect survey. We saw several small groups of common dolphin during the day, who were for the most part drawn to our bow for a bit of a ride. Before the fog closed in once more in the evening we saw one bull sperm whale not far from where we had seen the blues. We were able to photo-ID 3 of the 4 blues. The smallest blue of the group made two passes by the Tripolina, coming up right near the bow giving us a wonderful look in at its blue luminescence in clear water.

The excitement and fulfilling feeling of the first transect day gave way to several fog bound days, which constrained our sight line to a narrow gray band. The poor visibility left us to primarily count ever increasing numbers of greater shearwater and Leach's storm petrels, and regular small bands of common dolphins that charged in to ride our bow wave. The wind stayed to the southwest at 10-20kts, the days warm, a swell of 2m came relentlessly from the south and our eyes strained to glimpse any sign of whales at the edge of the enveloping, damp fog.

Such days offered brief openings in the fog where at times the most we saw were rare blips on the radar and of course the shearwaters close in, gliding effortlessly over the waves. When on first watch (06:00) we were most often greeted by droning rumble of the boat's engine gently pushing us through heavy grayness. Long days of bird counts, dolphin videos and talk of the coming meals, the fantasy of sighting whales and grumbling about the fog transect after transect.

On July 23 the started out at 20kts from SW then decreased and visibility was out to a couple miles even more at times, with some blue sky. A bit drier as the day progressed and in better visibility we spotted 2 large sperm whales in early afternoon in calm seas between over Jackman Canyon. Later in the afternoon we spotted another sperm whale and could have been a pair of sei or fin whales, but were a bit far to be certain, though finback was most probable. And again another two single spouts not too far apart that seemed to be fin whales.

We continued our transects around the SE tail of the Grand Banks, going back and forth from the shallow bank waters to the canyon depths. On and off the edge we went looking, searching, and peering, whether the visibility was limited to a km or under clearing skies and openings that seemed to free our eyes to see right to the horizon. Then again clear to gray, in calm winds, a whale here and there, still myriad common dolphins and quantities of birds Hitchcock would have been proud to include in his film. Out here there is life – much at least in the air, some in the sea, far from shore and yet not far enough, the leftovers of man's endless capture of fish, the too small or unappreciated species discarded over the side in a stream of fish at times hundreds of meters long, impoverishing the sea of its once thought to be endless masses. They are out there in the fog, the other boats from Canada or across oceans all drawing from the Banks and off its edge the fish that makes its way to endless tables everywhere, our own as well. What of controls, respect and care of these oceans, that can provide as long as we avoid the bottom line trap.

Onward we pressed tracing our slow zigzag around the southeast tail and north along the edge of the banks in search of marine mammals to collect data on distribution and dispersal in areas from which there is little information at all.

The weather was consistent in its rapid variability and though the southern edge offered an occasional sperm whale, many groups of common dolphins and myriad shearwaters in tropically clear water, it wasn't until we turned northeast and entered the Guy Canyon on July 24 that observations changed suddenly. The weather cooled noticeably, but not cold, and the common dolphins were replaced by white-beaked dolphins, beaked whales, including 3 northern bottlenose whales at 08:00. The wind was up, the built up seas topped with foam came at us from the south and we plowed, shook and smashed on further up Guy Canyon towards the bank edge. Greater shearwaters were still heavily present, Cory's shearwaters were, however no longer sighted, replaced by sooty shearwaters, fulmars, jaegers and skuas. We caught glimpses of several other northern bottlenose and unidentified beaked whales through the waves.

July 25th was calm, clear, and just what we had been hoping for, a beautiful day with unlimited visibility. Heading towards Carson canyon further north we found both white-beaked and Atlantic white-sided dolphins and increasing numbers of humpbacks.

Heading up along the eastern edge of the Banks we were approaching the Flemish passage that separates the Banks from the Flemish Cap. We had a calm day by Carson Canyon where we had tens of humpbacks in the Canyon and just off the shelf-edge. One chose to approach and swim around and under the Tripolina for about an hour seeming to enjoy the purring of the diesel engine in neutral. The whale rubbed the hull, spy-hopped to have a look at us and the crew, biologist and fishermen were captivated moving from side to side in rhythm with the humpback to get as many looks and images as possible.

Please watch the companion video available on our Facebook page by following the link at top of page.

July 28th was clear and we continued on to Newfoundland sighting one finback heading quickly SE and again Atlantic white-sided or white beaked dolphins here and there. We sighted Newfoundland by 14:00 and reached the coast North of Fermeuse where the Tripolina and crew are based by late afternoon. We were about 8 km south of Witless Bay famous for its bird colonies and whale watching.

We found numerous humpback whales and set about collecting as many IDs as we could and enjoyed a fine evening in the shadows of the striking Newfoundland cliff-fronted coast. The whales were found from 6 miles off to within a few meters of the jutting rocky shore. That night we drifted in calm inshore waters and had a restful sleep. We rose to a bright morning on July 29th, still surrounded by humpbacks, and headed slowly North along the coast photo-identifying humpbacks as we went.

Marion spotted some orcas within a couple of hours and the group of 8, including two adult males and two calves provided us with good viewing and ID images. We had hoped to lower the inflatable over the side, however, a strong wind was already building at sunrise. We kept pace with the orcas and followed them as they circled a pungent bird island rookery towards the south. As we came around the SE end of the island with the orcas, we were met by strengthening wind and waves and broke off leaving the orcas tracking South, while we turned to continue North.

Humpbacks continued to abound and we joined whale-watchers in Witless Bay to ID a large group feeding just off two more bird-covered islands. By early afternoon we again traveled north and though there were still humpbacks here and there, their numbers had considerably dropped since the feast off Witless Bay. The walled shore of Newfoundland passed by to port offering striking vistas and absorbed breaking waves formed by the now 25kt SW winds that help push us forward. About two hours from St John's we were approached by another curious humpback, who played about the Tripolina for 30-40 minutes at ease rolling in the waves while approaching and passing beneath us. We parted ways with humpback, who headed south, we to the north in the bright afternoon sun. A glaring, rolling sea escorted us downwind towards St John's, where we found a few more humpbacks and 3 fin whales just outside the harbor.

Then suddenly we were no longer in the wilds of the open sea, but in the protected harbor waters, surrounded by the buildings and bustle of St John's – another world all together. Happy to find land and escape the fog, wind and waves, we were glad to have completed what we set out to do and all felt we had accomplished something of value. Equipment was stowed, packed, that borrowed from DFO returned, while the city filled with busy noisy people offered its own unique contrasting sights and sounds.

After a few days in St John's, we took an early morning flight away and back to Montreal, and eventually to the Mingan station with another small piece of the western North Atlantic blue whale distribution puzzle in hand.

We spotted 4 blue, 148 humpback, 19 minke, 6 sperm, 6 fin, 8 killer, 10-13 beaked, and several unidentified whales, as well as, 5 harbor porpoise, 422 common dolphins, 365 Atlantic white-sided and 129 white-beaked dolphins, not to mention a harp seal, one bearded seal, and several sharks-probably blue sharks. We traveled 1438,318 m in 11 days. All the while humming the Bebittes in the Bunk Blues.