Mid-August to mid-September
We would like to take advantage of the quietness that the hurricane brought to us to give you some news. Summer vacation is slowly coming to an end, and school has restarted for most youngsters. As such, visits to the museum and the daytrips at sea are dwindling. Visitors are mostly restricted to visiting us on weekends.
Since we are not out on the water with three or four boats any more, we can focus on new research projects. That’s precisely what Petra Reimann and Christian Ramp began doing in mid-August - blow sampling - or in other words, collecting whale breath (a project in collaboration with L. Morissette from the University of Québec in Rimouski). This is an exciting new method developed by C. Hogg (University of Southwest Wales, Australia), who first applied this to dolphins in captivity and then to free-ranging baleen whales.
It was discovered that exhaled breath contains lung mucosa cells as well as other compounds, such as hormones. There are many types of hormones, however the ones, which interested Hogg in particular were those linked to reproductive status, such as testosterone and progesterone. For example, measuring levels of these hormones can tell us if a female is pregnant, lactating or resting. If we knew this information for several females of a population, we may gain a better understanding of the health or status of the population.
The collection technique is fairly simple: a piece of nylon is stretched over a small metal ring and attached to the end of a pole. The idea is to extend this pole over a whale’s blowhole as it surfaces so that it’s exhaled breath may be caught by the nylon. The pole has to be long enough to reach the animal’s blowhole from a boat, yet short enough to be manageable. Thus, due to the nature of this kind of sampling, every attempt must be executed with extreme caution and only by experienced researchers.
"Hagar is definitely the best boat for this kind of work, Petra explains. "The facility of being manoeuvred to such a proximity to the animal is extremely useful, she continues. The first tries (on a Friday 13th!) were little successful because we underestimated the problem of the dispersion of the blow by the wind.
Additionally, this day has been one of social interaction for humpback whales, thus making it difficult to sample single spouts.
Humpback Whale curiosity is helpful for
Petra and Christian, playing for the moment "Blow Catchers".
But the curiosity of some animals around the boat allowed some blows to be sampled anyway. On the second day the humpbacks were occupied by feeding, including bubble net and surface feeding, what caused also big difficulties to catch blow samples. "With the short appearances on the surface it is a big challenge to be in the right position at the right time", Petra said.
For this year, we are simply interested in testing out the collection technique for blow sampling and verify the logistical feasibility. Eventually, we hope to obtain information on the reproductive status of humpback whales, but also other species. Further types of hormones may also be examined, such as those related to stress.
Another recent project this year has been the satellite-tagging of blue whales, in collaboration with V. Lesage from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. A team consisting of Richard Sears, Frédéric Paquet and David Gaspard left for Matane (QC) at the end of August, where up to 20 blue whales had been reported.
Tags are placed near the dorsal fin so that
the signals reach the satellite at each surfacing.
The idea: place tags on the backs of these giants in order to follow their movement patterns over the course of several weeks (depending on how long the tag stays on; the longest duration on a blue whale so far has been 8 months). These tags function via satellites to relay information of the position of the animal when it surfaces.
Our team successfully placed two tags on blue whales off Matane September 7th. The first one was placed on B391, an individual seen in 2004 and 2007 in Gaspé.
The second tag was placed on an unknown animal. We will keep you updated on their movements!
The expedition to Matane also allowed the team to observe a blue whale rumba on September 3rd. This type of behaviour involves three interacting whales. It generally begins when a male-female pair gets joined by another male. For reasons not well known, but most likely related to reproduction behaviour, the introduction of this new male to the pair triggers the female to give out a loud, powerful rumble sound and propulse herself forward to begin speed-swimming.
The males will then be challenged to keep up with her and may try and out-compete one another for access to the female. This type of behaviour is rarely observed; we have only witnessed 36 rumbas in 30 years.
The two males surfaced at the same time, on top of each other
Back to Mingan: The finback whales have left the zone where they have been sighted for the last weeks. The humpbacks also began dispersing from this same area, to the point where we thought we had lost track of them. To give you an idea, on August 19th we observed around 30 humpbacks in the eastern zone of our research area, near Anticosti. On August 22nd, we only observed two humpbacks in this zone.
Richard predicted the animals had moved far west, and lucky for us, he was right. Close to Banc Parent, situated around 30 nautical miles (or 56 km) from the Rivière-au-Tonnerre on the North shore, we observed 15 animals on August 24th. Some of these whales had just previously been seen far east! We imagine these movements correspond to the search for food, however this is difficult to confirm. Given the emptiness of the east, and the presence of the animals in the west, we decided to displace our boats to Rivière-au-Tonnerre (also known as BBR for Boom-Boom River in English). It takes a bit longer in the morning to get to the harbour (45 min from Mingan), however once in the boats, it is much
quicker to reach the whales than if we were to leave from the Mingan harbour.
We have identified 87 different humpback whales so far, 44 of which had not been seen prior to mid-August. Late arrivals? Or were they simply in an area we do not cover? Among them were two well-known females, Calypso and Koudou each accompanied by a calf. We also saw Fleuret, Splish and their calves Barbillon, Leprechaun and Spines. We also have Splinter, Graffiti and Cassiopeia in the area, the offspring of other well-known females. It is particularly exciting to re-sight animals which were first seen as calves, because of their known age.
Most of our older, well-known males such as Winston, Winker, Freckles, Toro, Jigsaw and Illusion also returned to the St. Lawrence. Compass, an animal that has not been seen since 1994, was also sighted in mid August! So far, we have eleven new individuals photo-identified this year. Piranha, Tingley and H698 gave us incredible shows including flipper slapping, tail slapping or tail breaches. Others, Lester-Boyle, Illusion and Gluck auf, impressed us with full breaches. But the most active whales still remain the young ones! The calves of Koudou and Calypso put on quite the show on August 31st.
"Today I’ve seen more breaches than I’ve seen during the entire season comments Christian.
And there are always a few curious ones! Adiego, Koussouf, Freckles and a new animal checked us out by spyhopping (when the head pops out of the water) and turning around our boats. Unfortunately, we have not re-sighted the same amount of finbacks we had earlier in the season. Nevertheless, there are a few around Banc Parent.
The flat calm on 24 august allowed us other remarkable sightings as for example some basking sharks. The white-sided dolphins arrived in the region, but later than they usually do and in fewer numbers.