2018 Season Summary
The Team and expedition participants onboard Rafale ©MICS
While the team still have their work cut out for the winter in terms of data analysis, here are a few things we can say about the 2018 season as a whole.
The 40th research season at MICS was marked by difficult weather conditions, mainly due to high air temperatures clashing with the cold waters of the St. Lawrence, resulting in a lot of foggy days that forced us to stay on land! The Sea Surface Temperature (SST) was also unusually warm and stayed over 20℃ for prolonged periods of time, only to drop dramatically at the end of August. These unfavourable weather conditions meant that we were only able to go out to sea for a total of 37 days. This is below the annual average of 50 days at sea over a season.
Effort comparison between 2017 and 2018
Since rorqual whales can travel long distances in a short amount of time, our long land-based spells meant that we had to re-survey large parts of the study area regularly in order to keep track of the animals and carry out our usual research. What we lacked for in days spent on the water, we made up for in distance covered, having navigated a full 10,701 km, which is not far from the annual average of 13,000 km for much less time spent on the water!
This year was also marked by a higher number of calves than what we had seen in previous years, especially for blue whales. Indeed, after almost a decade without any blue whale calf sightings, we were astonished as the calf reports from collaborators came in throughout the summer! A total of 7 calves were seen in the St. Lawrence, mostly in the area between the estuary and the gulf. This brings the total number to 31 blue whale calves recorded since MICS began its activities in 1979.
B329 and her calf, the first of the season on May 19th ©René Roy
As with the blue whale calves seen this summer, the fin whale calves were seen almost until the end of the season in September (at least 5), which is highly unusual. It seems that, for a reason yet unknown to us, both species weaned their calves very late this year.
As for the humpback whales, we have 6 confirmed calves, which is also good news. However, we did not see Ébène this year, one of the main reproducing females, that is usually seen every year. This is worrisome because she remained very thin after having a calf two years ago, and was fairly significantly infested with whale lice the last time we saw her in 2017. Other absentees include Splinter, Track’s calf from 2005 and a regular Gaspé whale, as well as Aramis (TicTacToe’s calf from 2007), who was not seen by either us or our collaborators for the first time since she was born.
MICS’ entanglement study has started to yield promising preliminary results. In its first year, we have collected close to 400 Gigabytes (GB) of drone footage with out collaborators at TerreSky, which will have to be watched, trimmed, processed, categorized and matched! There is still a lot of work to do, but what we can say is that this pilot study has confirmed our suspicions that fin whales are far more susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear than previously thought. These findings would not have been possible without the use of the drone as a research tool. We will work throughout the winter to ensure that this study is prolonged for another two years in order to gain a significant sample size.
Fin whale captured by drone ©TerreSky/MICS
Even though the majority of right whale sightings were reported in the southern half of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, MICS sighted and reported right whale sightings in its study area as well. While there were only a few individuals (5 total), they were seen consistently over two months, from July 19th to September 19th. Three of these animals were consistently found in the shipping lanes, but fortunately, it was in the mandatory slow-down zone imposed by the government’s measures to conserve right whales in 2018.
Right whale sighted on August 3rd in the St. Lawrence ©MICS
One of the more spectacular events has been witnessing a tender moment between two female right whales, on Aug. 19th.
One of the great side-effects of the drone project has been gaining a new perspective, and the discovery of certain previously unseen behaviours, such as what we saw with the fin whale group! Additionally, the drone has allowed us to capture an event that has only rarely been seen in the St.Lawrence: humpback whale bubble-net feeding! This behaviour has been frequently reported in other parts of the world, such as in Alaska and in the Gulf of Maine. We therefore reached out to our collaborators at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS, Provincetown, Maine), who confirmed that the two individuals were indeed known Gulf of Maine regulars, including “Mira”.
While we were still able to see the characteristic circular bubbles from the surface, the drone truly captured the beauty and symmetry of these characteristic spirals from a birds-eye view!