2017: Record year for humpbacks!

 2017 shattered our humpback whale identification record!

 

Humpback fluke cover photo

A humpback whale exposes the underside of its fluke as it dives into the  St. Lawrence. The yellowish coloration is due to the diatoms (phytoplankton) that will temporarily "stick" to their skin during the feeding season.

 

2017 was a great year for research at MICS, with plenty of photo-identified individuals across species. We just finished matching all individual humpback whales for last season, in time to start fresh for our 2018 season!

 

MICS identified 121 individual humpback whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence – an all-time high. Of those whales, 98 were already known and 23 were unknown to us (and have now been added to our humpback whale catalogue).

 

Among these 23 unknown whales, we formally identified 4 calves. There were at least 6 additional calves, but these were not added to the catalogue since we did not manage to obtain quality ID pictures for them. It will be difficult to recognize these 6 individuals in the future, and from a scientific point of view, we cannot categorically identify them. Nonetheless, this brings the total number of calves to 10 – close to our recorded average! This is particularly good news after the long period of low reproduction that we have observed over the last 7 years. This has been a source of concern for us, and we will continue to carefully monitor recruitment (birth rate) for this population.

 

Why is it important to get high quality pictures of calves?

Calves of baleen whales typically stay with their mothers between 6-11 months (depending on the species), until they are weaned. During that time, they will stay close to their mothers for nursing and will slowly start to feed by themselves. Adult humpback whales will almost systematically show their flukes when they dive, which allows us to take the essential photo-identification pictures and recognize them as individuals. This is not always the case for calves, and it can be difficult to take a photo that will be of high enough quality for future recognition. Taking high quality, detailed pictures of calves’ flukes is particularly important since their characteristic black and white pigmentation can change in the first years of their lives.

 

Evolution of  pigmentation

 

Long time no see!

In addition to seeing almost all of our “regulars”, we also re-sighted some animals that we had not seen in over 25 years. Capone (H126) and Martini (H033) were last seen off the Lower North Shore (Blanc Sablon) in the early 90s. What made these whales decide to enter the Gulf last year? Most likely poor prey availability in their usual summer range and/or better food supply in the Gulf.

 

Martini then and now              Capone then and now

 

Thanks to our collaborators!

Much of this work would not be possible without our many collaborators, who we wish to thank for their contribution to cetacean research in the St. Lawrence by donating their photos to the catalogue, including Croisières Baie de Gaspé, especially Stacey Cassivi, René Roy, GREMM, the Institut Maurice-Lamontagne (IML), the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and many other individuals.