Where did we go and what did we see? Field Season 2000

Year after year our objectives remain the same at MICS: cover as much of the St. Lawrence as possible in order to properly study the distribution and dispersal of blue, fin, humpback, and minke whales. To achieve these goals we have to be very mobile-whales rarely stay put very long. Based in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan on the Quebec North Shore our main study area extends over a wide territory from the Mingan Islands to Sept-Iles and out to Anticosti Island. This is a very productive region and a prime feeding area for the species we study. Just the same if concentrations of whales are reported from areas further a field such as Gaspe, Blanc-Sablon, or the Estuary, MICS researchers are dispatched quickly to these areas to collect data before the whales disperse elsewhere. In this manner we are able to more effectively determine distribution and dispersal of known individuals as they move about the St. Lawrence from June to November.

Our efforts during the 2000 season were richly rewarded. We covered the eastern end of the Gaspé Peninsula in late June - early July, the northeast Gulf to Blanc-Sablon and the Strait of Belle-Ilse in late July and the Estuary in August and September. A 10-day research trip to the Snaefelsness Peninsula in western Iceland again yielded valuable data on blue whales there. Off Gaspé we found several known blue and humpback whales, while the Old Fort/Blanc-Sablon region yielded 60 plus humpback whale sightings of which 44 were photo-identified. The blue whale studies between Forestville and Les Escoumins combined with observations off Gaspé, Mingan, and Sept-Iles enabled us to find 91 different blue whales from June to November, for one of our most productive blue whale seasons. Included in this season's count are 2 blue whales photo-identified off St. Pierre and Miquelon in September-both new to our catalog. The blue whale's wide range of dispersal is demonstrated by the following. Four blue whales first sighted off the western tip of the Gaspé Peninsula in early July were sighted in the Estuary in August; 3 identified in the Estuary in August were sighted off Sept-Iles in October; one sighted in the Mingan region in mid-September was re-sighted off Sept-Iles in late September, and one seen in the Gaspé study area in July was found off Sept-Iles in October.

Additional humpback identifications include: 6 each from the Gaspé and Sept-Iles study areas, 4 in the Estuary (juveniles), and 46 in the Mingan/Anticosti region. Five of the humpbacks seen in the northeast Gulf in July were seen in August and September in the Mingan/Anticosti region, 3 from Gaspé in July were seen in September in the Mingan/Anticosti region, 1 of the juveniles observed in the Estuary was seen in the Mingan/Anticosti region in September, and 4 from the Mingan area were seen off Sept-Iles in October.

We were able to photo-identify over than 50 Fin whales and at this time we have no evidence of movement between study areas.

A very successful season, with a few unusual sightings. A pod of 30 long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) were observed in the western Jacques-Cartier Passage along Anticosti, only the third sighting of this species in 22 seasons. Near Riviere Portneuf, in the Estuary, we, very surprisingly, found the fresh placenta of a blue or fin whale-the 5m umbilical cord still attached. A newborn calf was not spotted in the day's prior of after, nor was a foetus found washed up ashore. The rorquals usually give birth during the winter months, though there are exceptions as always in nature. Apparently this came at the wrong time and did not survive; though we cannot be certain. Samples taken of the umbilical cord will confirm the species following genetic analysis and tissues will be tested for persistent contaminants such as PCBs.

In the Estuary both blue and fin whales were regularly sighted surface feeding on abundant krill. Observations of surface feeding are usually more common as the sun sets and the krill rises to the surface, however, we were rewarded with many days when surface lunge-feeding could be observed a good part of the day. On one occasion as we were waiting for a blue whale to surface, the whale arrived, mouth wide open just beneath the boat. We got a very intimate view of the mouth and black baleen, ventral pouch and eye, followed by one of the pectoral flippers, as the whale gracefully glided by gulping a mouthful of euphausiids (krill). We were lifted 3ft by the wash created as the whale surface lunged and the flipper briefly, gently, bumped along side. The blue whale sank away from us, rolled upright and surfaced to breathe, not seemingly bothered by our presence and calmly took a few more breaths before surface lunging again to feed. We had had an exceptional moment: a terrific close up view of a feeding whale and a rush of adrenaline that lasted for the rest of the day. Earlier in July in the Gaspé study area, Thomas and Karine had witnessed a surface-feeding banquet attended by a pair of blue whales, a fin whale, and a humpback, all feeding on the same patch of euphausiids.
The trip to the northeastern Gulf was the first in 5 summers and was particularly satisfying due to the work we were able to get done in calm weather. And because we enjoyed many displays of lob-tailing, flipper slapping, and breaching put on by the humpback whales concentrated between Old Fort Bay and Blanc-Sablon. In addition we were often surrounded by hundreds of white-beaked dolphins leaping vigorously, often several in the air simultaneously.
In the Mingan region humpbacks were often seen inside the islands this year and as in the Blanc-Sablon area they offered us the same spectacular acrobatics. Along Anticosti the humpbacks love to roll around in strands or clumps of laminaria (kelp) that has broken away from the bottom. They seem to enjoy the rubbery texture of the kelp, perhaps similar to their skin, and can be seen rolling at the surface heads covered in kelp, luxuriating in its touch.
Though, we did not observe large numbers of Atlantic white-sided dolphins in 2000, we did regularly sight small groups of white-beaked dolphins within the islands, usually rare in the Mingan study area.

All the data has been carefully collated and typed into the database swelling the 21 previous seasons of data. The data and analysis stimulate new hypotheses and help us confirm or refute older ones. Fall and winter are again the periods when we work the data, try to determine what we have learned about the natural history of the species studied and prepare reports of research papers. The piles of identification pictures are matched and photographic catalogs updated with better images of known animals or of new whales. The results for blue whales, as seen above, have enlarged the blue whale catalogue to 371, the largest increase in several years, while the humpback catalogue increased to and the fin whale catalog has yet to be updated. The work at the station during the summer is carried out in large part by interns who provide their time in exchange for field experience and by team members who work for a full 5-month field season. However, without the support of those who come on our research sessions, adopt blue whales, and make donations of time or funds, none of this would be possible.

We warmly thank the Forillon National Park, and in particular Camille Malouin for her invaluable help, without which we could not have carried out our fieldwork in the Gaspé region; the crew and staff of the Echo des Mers, who made our fieldwork and time aboard a pure pleasure and with whom we hope to pursue a long-term collaboration; Jacques Dupin, Jacques Larrivée; Jean Moise of the Baleine Libre for his all around support, the boat operators of the Mingan Islands who regularly called in sighting observations made during their trips; and last but certainly not least Yvon Belanger of Croisieres du Grand Héron of Forestville for his very generous hospitality and valued support of our work.

Our field season ended in early November and already a new season is on the way, in February and March some of us head to Loreto in Baja to continue a 19 yr. study of blue whales in the Sea of Cortez, see you there.

* A new individual is an animal that we have never been photo-identified before, whether a calf or an adult. New animals are added to the various catalogs the year it is first identified.

* Pilot whales are odontocetes, or toothed whales, which reach 6m or 18ft (males) and 5m or 15ft in females and weigh from 1800-3500kg. They are bulbous-headed; predominately black, with a white anchor shaped pattern from the throat back along the belly. Their dark coloration has resulted in the common, though recently less used moniker of "blackfish", The pilot whale is gregarious living in pods of as many as 100 individuals and they have been estimated to number 50,000 in along the eastern seaboard of North America. Their principal source of food is squid.