August 23rd, 2008

Can't wait to go out!

As our final days approached, we looked forward to a decent weather forecast! Unfortunately, strong winds in the Mingan-Anticosti region forced us to stay on land for over a week. As the wind finally calmed, we took advantage of this good weather and headed off shore for the first time in 10 days!

Most of the individuals that we had seen recently seemed to have dispersed, since we did not encounter them. However, we were fortunate to add new sightings to our list, most of which were known individuals. Remember Fleuret (H009) seen in Gaspésie on July 9th? Similar to prior years, Fleuret came back to Mingan with a calf. This was her 7th calf! She appears to have voyaged back the same way as Quill (H168) and her calf, tracking trough the Gaspesie-Mingan 'highway'. Quill and her calf were seen on our way back to Mingan, almost exactly one week after being seen in Gaspésie.

Unusual for this year, a concentrated group of animals had remained in a small area since early July. Near Anticosti Island, there were several individuals that kept close ties. We would often find a group of about 15 Humpback whales, including: Ebene and her calf, Cédille, Quartz, Gronier, Carnaval, Anakin (an older calf of Ebene), Varicelle, H678, Brax, Fissure and her calf, Manta and Bolt. These individuals would get together to dive and feed, offering a wonderful show of flukes, fin-slaps and breaches! All these individuals were observed of a regular basis this year. Also, an impressive group of Fin whales (up to 40 individuals) that was observed at the end of July and beginning of August, dispersed and were not found again in the Mingan area. Only about ten Fin whales stayed in the area.

The red tide and a change of plan

The Saint-Laurence estuary is a region conducive to the sporadic outbreak of toxic algae. Although observed regularly, this phenomenon is very limited in space and time and sometimes limited to areas of shellfish harvesting. These algae release toxins into the water which accumulate in the bodies of filter-feeding organisms such as mussels and other shellfish. Accumulation of these toxins can lead to nervous system failure, paralysis and in certain cases, death with human ingestion.

The outbreak this year was on a scale rarely seen in the past. Heavy floods around the St. Lawrence account for much of the outbreak because they release large amounts of nutrients from agricultural practices, which favor the development of this species of algae.

This outbreak may be causing the deaths of several birds and marine mammals. Until now, 9 belugas and more than two dozen seals were found dead in various regions affected by the floods (mainly the North Shore, the Lower St. Lawrence, Gaspé and Saguenay). In the Gaspésie, sand lance and sea birds have also been poisoned by ingesting toxic algae, providing an explanation for their behaviour and paralysis. Ingestion of algae remains the most likely hypothesis to explain the death of these sea birds and mammals, although it is still early to conclude formally the cause of death of all animals examined. The necropsies are underway to determine the cause of death of the belguas. If you are a witness to a marine mammal in distress, it is advisable to contact 1-877-7BALEINE (1-877-722-5346).

This sad news had convinced us to postpone our Blue Whale internship (session), an annual expedition conducted entirely in the estuary. Each year a MICS team is sent to this region in order to photo-identify and study the behaviour of the blue whale, however this year the sightings were virtually nil. It is possible that the internship (session) will therefore be moved to the Gaspé and postponed to a later date.

On the other hand, MICS would like to thank Steve Cloutier who keeps us up to date on blue whale sightings on the Percé side of the Gaspé. Recently, 7 blue whales have been seen there, and these sightings contribute greatly to our work, especially when a MICS team is sent to Gaspé every summer. Steve owns the Emy Michaël, a ship dedicated to whale watching.

Bolt (H102) : Quite an interesting story!

In 1985, Richard Sears and Micheal Williamson had freed Bolt, then a juvenile, from fishing gear entanglement. Since that first observation, Bolt had not been re-sighted in the Mingan-Anticosti region, to the point where we had thought Bolt has not survived the entanglement. Against all odds, in 2005, an organization which runs whale whatching operations near the Gaspé contacted us to let us know they had sighted Bolt! This sighting was exceptional for us, confirming that Bolt has indeed survived the incident 20 years ago! And to top it off, Bolt was seen with her calf! This observation from our collaborators in Gaspé was the latest sighting we had on our records, since Bolt had not returned to Mingan since. But this summer, Bolt was re-sighted more than once in Mingan, after a 23-year absence!