News Letters

Rorqual Vol. 7 no 1 Summer-Fall 1992, etc., etc., etc.

Reports of our deaths have been
greatly exaggerated... "
-paraphrased from a quote by Mark Twain
  Review of Baja 1992:
  If 1990 offered a cornucopia of blue whales, 1992 was just shy of being a totally bare cupboard. We saw one blue on the first day, and then there were none. One blue whale - the same individual just mentioned - was observed and photographed prior to our arrival, and 3 more, including a cow-calf pair, just after we departed.

This was without any doubt the worst season yet for overall numbers of whales. We saw no Bryde's whales, only 3 finbacks, 2 gray whales, and two single humpbacks, while a group of four humpbacks was sighted by fishermen off the north side of Carmen, and 5 orca on the first day.

Despite sighting 50 pilot whales on one occasion, there were fewer dolphins than in the past. While we are by no means certain of the cause of this scarcity of cetaceans, we think its cause may lie in the fact that this year, and the 1993 season as well, were El Niño years.

Due to the lack of whales off Loreto, we traveled across the peninsula on several occasions to view gray whales in Magdalena Bay.

El Niño

When we speak of or blame the lack of blue whales on EI Niño we are referring to the warming of the waters of the eastern Pacific off Ecuador, Peru and northern Chile. Usually these waters are surprisingly cold for equatorial waters, as much as 10ºC cooler than waters of the western Pacific. This makes for nutrient rich waters teeming with fish. Each year, however, from December to the end of March, the eastern Pacific waters warm a little, disrupting the upwelling of rich, cold water. This phenomenon is named El Niño, the Christ Child, because it begins in December.

The term is now more commonly used to describe periods of extensive warming, occurring on average every five years - although these events are far from regular. These events can cause great disruptions of the local environment. There can be large die-offs of fish and birds deprived of food.

The El Niño appears to affect the movements of whales into the Sea of Cortez and is probably the reason for the lack of blue, fin, and Bryde's whales off Loreto in 1992 and 1993. We saw no swarms of krill or large schools of fish at the surface in '92 as we had in 1990, when there were record numbers of blue whales.

The El Niño may not be the only event affecting the baleen whales, but there is a strong correlation between low numbers of blue whales and the occurence of an El Niño event.

The El Niño, also known as an ENSO event (El Niño Southern Oscillation), is not a localized phenomenon but affects the global climate and economy.

Mingan 1992

The '92 Mingan field season was our 14th. Joining RS and Martine Bérubé‚ was William Megill, returning for his second year, and Claudia Octeau and Yves Poirier, both of whom worked on marine mammals in the Tadoussac region. Mike Williamson visited Mingan briefly, and Vincent Pecheux, who stayed a month with us in the fall of 1991, came back. Rounding out the team were Catherine Berchok and Regis Lamay.

Christian Faesi, a student studying science in Guaymas, Mexico, joined us for 2 weeks in order to learn field techniques, which he hopes to apply in the Sea of Cortez as he pursues his fascination with blue whales. MICS veteran Jean LeMire put in an end-of-season appearance to lend assistance and to renew some old acquaintances.

The 1992 season was among the best for days on the water - 102 days and 804 hours of observation made it the most productive in more than 10 years. The first blue whale encounter took place on June 9, with two animals biopsied. Two days later two blues were sighted, one of them being a new arrival while the other was one of those seen previously. No other sightings of blue whales were logged until the beginning of July. Toward the end of the month, sightings of minke and finback whales increased dramatically, and the first humpback, a new animal dubbed "Ours" (H231) was observed on June 28.

In July we were treated to a brief return of blues, with minkes and finbacks becoming more numerous. On July 26, finback sightings reached their '92 peak; 129 animals were logged that day.

Also in July, encounters with humpbacks became more frequent. Pterodactyl returned for another season, as well as Piolet and Helmet.

Humpbacks arrived en force during August, and several old acquaintances found their way into the log book. Among them: St-Laurent, Whip, Pseudo, Dog-Ear, Grail, Illusion, Splish, Tracks, Dark Star, Siam, Corona, Freckles and Quartz. Perennial favorites Spines and Nocturne appeared on Aug. 8 & 9 respectively and spent some time investigating our boats, much to the delight of researchers and guests.

There was some sobering news in August as well. On Aug. 11, Pita, a blue whale known to us since MICS was founded in 1979, was discovered dead near Rivière Chicotte, Anticosti. We have many photos of this animal, known best for his tendency to fluke on a terminal dive. The cause of death was not determined. William Megill took measurements and samples from the animal (and broke his foot in the process), so even in death Pita augments our knowledge of this little-knowns species.

On August 22, the killer whales Jack Knife and company made their annual visit to the area, killing and eating a minke with the efficiency which is their trademark. This pod of four was seen again exactly one month later, Sept. 22, making a snack of a harbor porpoise (we renamed the species "orca popcom" in the wake of the incident). After the attack they approached one of our boats, actually passing beneath it and rolling to look up at the occupants. The pod was sighted on one more occasion, Sept. 27.

As usual, '92 was a fine year for finback sightings. Thirty-eight individuals were resighted from prior years, and 94 new entries added to our burgeoning finback catalogue.

October saw the return of the blue whales. Nine animals were sighted on Oct. 1, and an incredible 21 were logged on Oct. 9, much to the chagrin of RS, who had left Mingan that morning.

In addition to field work in the Mingan study area, an expedition to Blanc Sablon was carried out, with 39 biopsies taken in a 12-day period.

Back at Mingan, 84 biopsies were taken for a grand total of 123 for the season. The station at Longue-Pointe closed for the year on November 16, when William Megill finally surrendered to bad weather.

Baja 1993

We would like to be able to report that the 1993 Baja field season was much more productive than '92, but that would be lying. Only 3 blue whales were found by MICS during the 4 weeks we worked out of Loreto. However, Bryde's whales were more numerous than the previous year, and we spent much of our time following and photographing this species, which has been largely ignored by researchers.

Danish filmmaker Vibecka Vogel and cameraman Cian De Buitlear joined us for a few weeks to obtain footage for their film "Talk Like Whales". Working with us on both sides of the peninsula, they gathered some wonderful images, including some stunningly beautiful sequences of a Bryde's whale under water. They also did a screen test of Daniel LeFevre, recreating DeNiro's famous "are you talking to me?" scene from the movie "Taxi". As of this writing Daniel has not yet broken into showbiz, and is still doing cetacean research at GREMM in Tadoussac.

The season was not one of our best for whales, but the rugged Baja beauty makes for a pleasant journey. We had cetaceans in the form of bottlenose and common dolphins, and other animals to fascinate us, like manta rays and California sea lions. We spent some time investigating the latter on Galeras, where we swam among them with masks and snorkels. They seemed to be curious but fearful, which surprised us a bit because we were definitely outnumbered and their mobility in the water is superior to ours. Nonetheless, they remained in a tight group, though one of the bulls warned us off with a charge, snarling and baring its teeth.

For the first time since we began working in Baja some 10 years ago, we spotted a 45-ft. male sperm whale in the Sea of Cortez. The animal was diving for 45 minute intervals, and swam around the boat for twenty minutes upon surfacing.
  Mingan 1993
  This season was highlighted by the opening of the not-quite-completed new facility, and all team members got a thorough education on the finer points of finishing work. The '93 team included William Megill, Catherine L. Berchok, Vincent Pecheux, Claudia Octeau, Diane Borggaard, Yves Poirier, and Coralie Vermenot. MICS veteran Peter Jones helped kick off the season in June. Mike Williamson joined us briefly in July, spending much of his time in front of the MICS computers (carefully saving this file ... ). Helping us at the museum were Longue-Pointers Larry LeBlanc and Nancy Boudreau. Claire Garrigue, a French scientist working in New Caledonia, visited us in July to learn about field techniques. Also on hand was a cast of hostages pressed into service as painters, janitors, and morale officers...
Puce helps with blue whale matching
Conspicuous by her absence was Martine Bérubé, who left MICS after 8 years and is working for her PhD at the University of Copenhagen. Her study in genetics is based primarily on finback data gathered in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The season got off to a promising start when we had a grand slam on June 5. That day we sighted all four species of rorqual: 3 blue whales, 3 humpbacks, 18 finbacks and 17 minkes found their way into the log. The blues were identified as B200, B292 and B294. Pterodactyl was among the first humpbacks to arrive in the area, continuing an established pattern over the last few years.

After that day we had a brief dry spell for cetaceans, with no blue whale sightings for 2 weeks. They reappeared briefly between June 19-26 then vanished again, but not before team member Vincent Pecheux got his first look at these elusive animals. He writes: "I have waited for this day for two years. Each time the others met blue whales I was staying at the station. I had seen one two years ago but it was too fast for me to understand it was a blue whale. We just saw a piece of back far away. Now the curse is broken!"
  A new era dawns...
  The long anticipated official opening of the new research station took place on July 4th, 1993 with much celebrating and general merriment. Many long-time friends and associates were on hand for the festivities, including Dr. John Gibson, whose passion for the habits of salmon carried over into finback observations (he described them as being good risers), his daughter and MICS veteran Caroline, Liz Lowe from the original MICS team, National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin and others too numerous to put into print.

We believe we can say without fear of contradiction that a good time was had by all, and we thank all of those who made room in their busy schedules to mark this milestone in MICS history.

Although much work remains, the major construction phase is complete, and many of the exhibitions are already in place. Barbara Howard hung her blue whale mural the moment the paint on the walls was dry, and its evocative imagery enhances the atmosphere.

Daniel Grenier's first mural was installed with much loving care and backbreaking labor. The 30' x 13' work depicts the cetacean species found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with views of their activities both above and below the surface.

Daniel spent much of his summer and autumn with us painting two additional murals: a 12'x 14' rendering of bubble-cloud feeding humpbacks and another 10'x 20'painting of killer whales attacking a minke.

In addition to the museum portion of the station, there is a projection room (no more moving living room furniture!); a store where we sell clothing, books, post cards and posters; office space, and a full basement to provide winter storage for the MICS fleet.

Not surprisingly, the executive director's living quarters has a commanding view of the gulf, and we spent some happy hours throughout the season ensconced on the porch, swapping stories and admiring the seascape.

There are guest quarters in the facility as well, a room for storage, and plans for a library and darkroom facilities.
  Going to the whale
  On July 2 we discovered the carcass of a blue whale floating north of Anticosti not far from Pointe Nord. By July 6 it had washed up on the beach near the village of Rivière au Tonnerre. On that evening we piled into the van, gleefully sporting our rain gear and carrying flensing knives. Some five hours later we were back at the station covered in whale slime and considerably less cheerful.

For those of you who have never encountered one, be advised that nothing -absolutely nothing- smells quite like a dead whale. It doesn't seem so bad at first, but after a short time the aroma inundates everything: clothes, boots, the mucous membranes in your nostrils - everything.

We took as much baleen as we could, which was more than half the contents of the mouth. RS handled the sharp instruments while the rest, in teams of two, hauled the grisly cargo over the dune grass to the road. One thing is certain - there's nothing small about a blue whale.

The baleen was bulky and there was a considerable amount of it. It had a fascinating texture, like an industrial broom soaked in 40-weight motor oil. As we dragged the stuff over the ground to the road, the path we made became slick with whale oil, and by the end of the chore it was all we could do to stay on our feet.

All summer long we went to the whale, since we had an agreement with Environment Quebec to remove it from the normally clean and tranquil shores of Rivière au Tonnerre. The odor never improved, and volunteers for whale duty became rather sparse.

Dissecting a blue whale is pretty much the equivalent of cutting up a side of beef with a butter knife.We didn't have very many enthusiasts after that first night, when we discovered even the hottest shower and the most powerful soap will not wash the scent from your nose.
  Meanwhile, among the living whales...
  In July, while we struggled with the weather in Longue-Pointe, RS and Vincent Pecheux went to work in Blanc Sablon for two very productive weeks, bringing back 165 photo IDs of humpback whales. This was a record-breaker Blanc Sablon season for us, the best season prior to this being 82 IDs in 1992.

August was humpback month in the Mingan study area, with as many as 25 animals sighted in a single day. Three whales known to us returned this year with calves: Splish (1980*), Ebene (1983*) and Tracks (1985*). But most entertaining by far were the antics of Nocturne and Spines, both of whom displayed an acute interest in the boats and the passengers within.
* Years in which these animals were originally sighted.

During a two-week period in the middle of August they were approaching the boats almost daily and observed us at close range for hours at a time. While we were delighted with the opportunity to have more intimate contact with these animals, we began to believe they intended to follow us around all season, making it impossible for us to work on the other whales in the region during that time.
August was also a fine month for finback sightings. We never counted less than 20 animals on a given day, and we hit our peak on Aug. 22, logging 105.

The Jack Knife pod of orcas made an appearance in August as well. We were surprised to find that Javelin had disappeared from the ranks, leaving only three members traveling in this group. Transient males can leave their pods after reaching maturity, and this could be the explanation for this animal's absence.

In September, after hearing reports of 50+ blues in the Tadoussac area, RS, Gregg Smythe and Catherine decided to take a couple of weeks to try and identify as many as possible.
  The Tadoussac blues
By CATHERINE BERCHOK


We started off on a good foot as we launched Hagar and discovered, as Richard floated away, that the steering had broken. Two days later Daniel Lefevre lent his assistance and GREMM's research boat, Le Bleuvet, and we managed to go far away from the zillions of tourist boats and get 5 blues photographed and 3 biopsied.

The weather was less helpful, and we managed to get out only 6 of the 19 days of the trip. The 6 days were very productive, though, and we ended up getting 30 blues photo-identified and 23 biopsied. Among these were our old friends: Crinkle ('82) and Spindle ('82), who were seen swimming together again, as they were in '89; Kits ('79); Scythe ('83); Zaffre ('84); Flatliner ('85) and Biombre ('83)*. The whales seemed to be moving through the estuary in shifts: each day we added 6 more to our totals for the trip!

We stayed at Martin Champagne's house in Grande Bergeronnes, and spent most of our time watching the big waves and matching our Sea of Cortez blue whale catalogue to the Pacific blue whale catalogue from John Calambokidis' research group in Cascadia, Washington. We had brought along our Atlantic blue whale catalogue to help us in the estuary, and we spent a moment in awe of the fact that we were surrounded by just about all of the identified blues in the world. It was also surprising that we were able to take dive times of a fluking blue whale for more than an hour-while sitting at the kitchen table! All in all, it was an amazing trip.

We identified a grand total of 86 blue whales during the 1993 season, due largely to the efforts of John LeBlanc and Donald Cahill of Observation Littoral in Percé‚ and the continuing collaboration with GREMM researcher Janie Giard and associates in Tadoussac.

The rest of the team carried on from Longue-Pointe. Finbacks were still plentiful in early September, but sightings began to drop off after a spate of bad weather in the middle of the month.

October was positively dismal as the winter of 1993 began to take hold, and very few observation hours were logged in that month. It was as though the whales had prior knowledge of what turned out to be the worst fall weather in 15 years. The last field expedition took place on Oct. 20, with only some minkes and a few finbacks to bid farewell to the shivering remnants of the team.

Satellite tagging
By RICHARD SEARS


Perhaps the question most often asked of and by us is, "where do blue, and finback whales spend the winter months?". The reply is that we know next to nothing about their winter migrations and distribution.

To answer this question we joined forces with an old friend, Jeff Goodyear, who has been designing and making radio and satellite tags for cetaceans for 12 years. In early November '93 I returned to the field and in collaboration with GREMM in Tadoussac we began the first attempts at satellite tagging finback and blue whales of the St Lawrence.

On the first day out we placed a satellite tag on a finback. It was well placed and anchored without causing a reaction from the whale. However, the tag was damaged on impact and only the radio VHF portion of the tag functioned, enabling us to track the animal for only 3 days. That was a disappointment, but we hope to continue tagging in Nov.-Dec. of 1994 off the Gaspé‚ Peninsula, where both finback and blue whales have been seen with regularity at that time of year. Ideally we want to be able to tag a whale just before it leaves the Gulf and travels out into the Atlantic. At least one month's positional data from a tag could give us good information on the winter movements of either or both of these species.

Whales and Ice -

December in Gaspé
By RICHARD SEARS


I have been informed of whale sightings off the Gaspé‚ Peninsula in December for many years, but never had the opportunity to go see for myself until December of last year. On December 7 I joined John LeBlanc and Donald Cahill of Observation Littoral - a whale watching company based in Percé‚ on the eastern tip of the Gaspé‚ Peninsula, who had expressed an interest in helping us collect data. Winter had already set in without any indication of letting go when I arrived. The good news is that there were many whales close in to shore and the ice hadn't formed in the harbor yet. We spent two brisk beautiful days on the water and observed four humpbacks, 30 or more finbacks, and at least 25 blues. We were able to photo-identify 16 blue whales and biopsy nine. There were many new blue whales, however, Snidly (B100), last seen in 1988, was sighted, as were B188 and B275.

The humpbacks sighted were Trombone, Avocet, Spines and Splash - an equal representation from both the Mingan and Blanc Sablon study areas. Blue and finback whales were present off of Percé‚ until the last days of December, when ice forced them offshore and probably soon after out of the Gulf.
  And now...
  The 1994 field season is underway. This year's team is comprised of RS, 3-year-veteran Catherine Berchok, perpetual victim Patty Richard, Laura Ludwig, Cathy Saumure, Marie-Claude Blais, Anik Boileau, and Anick Levesque. Claudia Octeau is back in Longue-Pointe, along with Antoine 'Tony' St-Louis, to do research on the ventilation cycles of finback whales. Olivier Vancanneyt has joined us from France as an intem.

So far the season hasn't been terribly productive, owing to bad weather, equipment problems and a general lack of whales. We had one blue whale in the month of June, an animal easily recognized by the folded over left lobe of its fluke. The whale was sighted first near Rivière St-Jean and remained in the area for a few days. On one occasion it was visible from the house as it swam between Ile Nue and the mainland. This was the first blue whale seen swimming among the islands in 16 summers.
The new station/museum is now operating and is a vast improvement over the cramped quarters formerly in use at Paquet house, which remains the team residence. We recently took delivery of three life-sized white-sided dolphin models, and these were hung from the ceiling with care.

Daniel Grenier is back in Longue-Pointe and is currently at work on a mural in the projection room, which covers two walls and the ceiling. The artwork will feature white-beaked dolphins and pilot whales and will give the illusion of being under water.

In July, RS and Laura Ludwig did a whirlwind reconnaissance of the Blanc Sablon study area along with Martin Champagne. In a 7-day stint they managed to ID some 50 humpbacks.

Also in July, software designer Boris Plante came to Longue-Pointe to help us map out the new relational database for our research. Then came Denis Rouleau, the junk food king, to handle the programming chores. While all this was going on, we were treated to one of the worst occurrences of fog in recent memory.

The minkes don't seem to mind any of this, and have been visible from the shore almost daily, feeding on the capellin and other small fish that are plentiful during the summer months here. Two minkes have been feeding-in and around Mingan harbor for the best part of the summer, and we often stop to watch them on our way to and from the dock. We had a beluga sighting during July as well, and reports of belugas swimming near the islands were made at intervals throughout the month. We also had a report of a dead minke washed ashore on Ile Quarry, and we found a dead harbor porpoise near Rivière St-Jean in late July. MICS team members are busy preparing the skeleton for display.

While in the last few years we've had whales in large numbers during summer, this year seems more like the days of old, when the big rorquals arrived much later in the season. Anyway, that's what we're telling ourselves right now when there are few whales to be seen. However, the number of harbor porpoises is increasing, and we have begun to encounter more groups of finbacks as the season lengthens. To date few humpbacks have been logged, most of the population seemingly near the Gaspé peninsula.

RS was recently in Ogata, Japan, where whale watching has become very popular, participating as a panelist at the First International Conference on Whale Watching and the Ecology of Whales. We are currently awaiting the delivery of our scaled-down blue whale model, which will be painted by artist-in-residence Daniel Grenier. Much of the finish carpentry in the new building has been completed and the carpet has been laid in the museum. The basement has been cemented and it should be much easier to store the boats this fall. There is still a lot of work to do, but one sees progress here daily.
  Publications

Sears R; Larsen F: Long-range movements of blue whales, Balaenoptera musculus, in the western North Atlantic. Marine Mammal Science.

Palsboll, PJ; Clapham, PJ; Mattila, DK; Larsen, F; Sears, R; Siegismund, HR; Sigurjonnson, J; Vasques, 0; Arctander, P: Evolution of high latitude feeding aggregations of humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, in the North Atlantic.

Gendron, D; Sears, R: Blue whales, Balaenoptera musculus, and Nictophanes simplex swarms, a close relationship in the southwest Gulf of California, Mexico. Marine Mammal Science.

Bérubé, Martine; Sears, R; and Larsen, F: Structure of the Finback Whales, Balaenoptera Physalus, of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and West Greenland through Photo-identifleation and Genetic Analysis.

Wish List:

We've got the new building, now we need to put things in it. Among those items most desperately wanted: a new, large (27" or bigger) monitor for use with our VCR, phone-net connectors for our Mac computers, a wall clock for the store, a vacuum cleaner, a Power PC, and a plain paper fax machine. We'd greatly appreciate new versions of Excel and Pagemaker, a run-time version of 4th Dimension, and some good scanner software with both graphics and OCR capabilities, and the documentation for these programs. We'd also like some serviceable bedroom furniture, such as dressers and night tables, to furnish our guest rooms. For our new darkroom, we would very much like a dryer for film and prints, a darkroom timer, and a thermal regulator for the water faucets.

For the boats, we're in need of a GPS, depth sounders, and indestructable marine radio equipment. At the team residence, we're in dire need of a food processor, a new wok, all kinds of linens, and blankets. And to carry all this stuff around, we'd truly love to have a van!

Acknowledgements:

We offer our special thanks to Hydro-Quebec for the donation of a 1993 Ford pickup and for their help with the museum, Bose Speakers, OS Systems, Institut National d'Ecotoxicologie, InterCanadian Airlines, especially BeatricePepper and Ginette Cardinal, Janie and Robert for their help in Mexico, Bill and Betty Riffe for their continued support of our work through their generous hospitality, the Dominix and Dave Stith for their support through sessions, and the Dominix again for their diligent translation of the newsletter.

For their help with the museum, we thank Béton Provincial, Bois de Construction and MRL Construction. We are especially grateful to Barbara Howard and her husband Richard Outram for the donation and installation of the blue whale painting in our museum.

Thank you to Perma Ltd. for the laminations of our photographs and maps for museum display. For the production and donation of MICS logo stickers we thank Gerard Lefebvre.

Our heartfelt thanks to Hedy Sladovich and Mark Powell, who devoted their culinary talents to our kitchen for the '93 field season. To Francine Marcoux and Claude Villemagne, who catered our grand opening fete, and Liz Lowe, who provided us with delicious cakes, our gratitude is boundless. We are indebted to Macauslan Brewery for the donation of their wonderful beer. And thanks again to the Dominix, without whom our opening might not have been possible.

Thank you to Annie Maloney for her help with last year's finback matching, and to Isabelle Gauthier for her assistance with interpretation. We are indebted to the Relais Nordik for their help in transporting our equipment to Blanc Sablon. To Robert Michaud of Comfort Air for his help with aerial surveys of Anticosti, many thanks. Thanks also to Martin Champagne, who allowed us to use his house in Tadoussac while doing research in the estuary. Also, we express our gratitude to Andy Lam and Laurienne Collin of the Hotel Vaillancourt and Macareux Restaurant for all they do to help us during the Mingan field season, and to John Paquet, our friend and handyman extraordinaire, for his continued support.

We would like to thank Mr. Philip W. Skove for his generous donation of a 25ft Aquasport 250XF with 235 horsepower Evinrude outboard motor and accessories, Mr. Peter Noyes of West Shore Marine, Marblehead, MA. for the donation of launching services, and Mr. John Downes of Boxford, MA. for his donation of a mooring site for the 1992 season.

To all our session participants and blue whale foster parents goes our warmest appreciation for your increased participation and support of our research. Our adoption program generated $7,895 in funds over the past year.