News Letters

1999 Newsletter

  After a few forays across the Gulf to the Gaspé Peninsula in 1997, we decided to carry out more regular field observations from there in 1998 and established a base in Percé for June and July, which we hope will become a regular event. MICS will provided interpretation for a local whale watch operator and manned an interpretation center. Being able to work off the tip of Gaspe in late spring early summer greatly increases not only our coverage, but more importantly gives us access to animals before they disperse further into the St. Lawrence be it to the North Shore or the Estuary

From what we know it would seem that most cetaceans enter the St. Lawrence through Cabot Strait. Those that forage into the Gulf probably travel along the productive 50-200 meter contour lines, which leads them towards the eastern end of the Gaspé Peninsula. Some may stay in the waters off this coast for a few weeks even several months, while others will stop over only briefly and head further into the St. Lawrence traveling as far North as the Anticosti/Mingan Island region and/or as far up river as the Saguenay River's confluence with the St. Lawrence. Still other cetaceans will come through Cabot Strait and head up along the west coast of Newfoundland and feed in the northeast Gulf between Tabatiere and Blanc Sablon, while some will travel on through the Strait of Belle Isle and out of the Gulf to the coast of Labrador for the summer.

By positioning ourselves at these different strategic points there is less chance of missing individual whales from year to year, yielding more accurate data that more clearly reflects the actual movements of the animals studied. Off Mingan we cover the territory out to Anticosti and south of the western tip , east as far as pte Carleton and now west to a point at the end of the shelf on which Anticosti sits, 65 30 by 49 51. We also on occasion travel along the coast from the Mingan area to Sept-Iles by boat. This combined with observations in the estuary each year and regular visits to the Strait of Belle Isle, enables us to gather data that gives us a good portrait of cetacean distribution and dispersal in the St. Lawrence.

We can now better track the movements of humpback, fin, right , and blue whales as they disperse throughout the Gulf in summer. In 1997 we were able to confirm with greater certainty movements of humpback and finback whales between Gaspesian waters and our principal study site in the Mingan/Anticosti region. Further, we found several blue whales seen off Perce in June or July in the estuary or in the waters off Sept-Iles later in the period August-October. In June and July we found well known blues such as Noctop B002 , Scythe-B017 and Tell -B188 to name but a few. Both Tell and Scythe -males were seen in the estuary some 350 miles upriver the St. Lawrence in August, while Noctop - also a male - was seen there only in late September. (See map below)

We are not certain what path these animals take when moving up river, however, we do know that they can make the trip in 10days, while most seem to take 2-3 weeks, probably stopping to feed at several well known spots along the way. In the future through the use of satellite tags we may be able to better understand the paths blue whales take when dispersing throughout the Gulf.

The animals named are well known to us, and in the case of Noctop and Scythe have been known since 1981. They are part of the 27% or so of the catalogue that have been seen regularly over the years. And can be seen in the Mingan area as much as in the Estuary. Their movements are most likely determined by locating concentrations of euphausiids. We have been able to match pictures of 2 blue whales taken by members of Hal Whitehead's research team in the region of the Gully at the edge of the Scotian Shelf to blue whales in our St. Lawrence catalog. Hal and associates study northern bottlenose and sperm whales and see 2-6 blues near the Gully in August. These matches help to confirm that the blues we see in the Gulf are part of a stock or population that feeds on the Grand Banks, Scotian Shelf, and in the St. Lawrence. From past work we know that blue whales from the St. Lawrence eastern Canadian stock can also make it to west Greenland waters.

After a few years of the lowest overall cetacean sightings it has been god to get back to fairly normal numbers for minke, fin, and humpback whales. Humpbacks in fact are steadily growing in number in the Gulf. In the first years of our research in the early 80s we might see 2-5 humpbacks in a day, while now we can easily see 30-50 in a day during August, September, even October. The reason quite simply in because the well known females of this population are in a reproductive boom. The new animals are not from other stocks of humpbacks ,but the offspring of Pseudo, Fleuret, Tracks, Circe, Dog-ear, Brax, Quil, Splish,; to name but a few. At least 10 calves in 1997 and 6 more in 1998.

The Story of KITS or How we learned more about blue whales.
  In 1979 along with the idea to identify individual blue whales through their characteristic pigmentation in order to learn about their migration, population size, behavior and natural history, MICS was born. Most of a blue whale's body is covered with a unique mottled pigmentation pattern. Richard Sears and his team started taking pictures of blue whales in 1979, to prove that the mottled pigmentation of blue whales was unique. The first blue whale to be photo identified was a female, given the name of KITS because of a small patch of killer whale teeth marks on her fluke. This whale is one of the 15% of blue whales which raise their tails when they dive. That was August 7, 1979, and 19 field seasons later on 09-26-1998 its pigmentation was the same. We have seen her 16 season out of 20 seasons, the most for any blue whale in the Atlantic Ocean . She was at times seen accompanied by other well known blues - most likely males. Also with other less commonly seen blues, who were most probably also males. We can say this due to biopsy samples of skin which yield the gender of individuals sampled. But most often she was seen on her own feeding along the Quebec North Shore from Mingan and as far east as the St. Lawrence Estuary. That she was often alone is not surprising, because blues whales are most often seen singly or in pairs, as opposed to humpbacks or finbacks , which can often be found in concentrations of several tens of animals feeding in a specific area.
  The biopsy and genetic lab techniques, which now enable us to determine the sex and genealogy of these whales, became widely used almost ten years after we had first started to photo identify individual blue whales. In order to take a biopsy we use a crossbow with a special designed arrow and tip. While the skin is used for genetic analyses, the blubber is cut away and used for analysis of toxics. The blubber has been found to contain toxic substances such as DDT and PCBs. It was on August 19, 1988 Richard Sears that we first took a biopsy sample. And by pure chance KITS was present that day and was therefore the first to be biopsied. The subsequent analysis of our sample is what told us Kits was a female. Despite having seen her with several known males we have never seen her with a calf over the 20 years. She may simply choose to not bring her calves into the St. Lawrence, her calves are weaned before we first see Kits in each season, or more alarmingly she has not been able to reproduce due to too heavy a toxic load in her body, which affects her reproductive system. Over 20 seasons we have only seen 9 different blue whale calves in the St. Lawrence, which is further cause for concern and leaves us with many questions.

Despite these years of study we still have only a little information as to where these whales go during the winter months. The immense range that blue whales cover, not to mention having to deal with weather and costs of tracking this species in open ocean waters, leaves us bobbing relatively close to shore and merely guessing at important aspects of their natural history.

In order to learn more about their migratory patterns or general dispersal we now make use of satellite tags, which can send a signal to an orbiting Argos satellite and gives us positions of the tagged whale as it travels within the St. Lawrence and hopefully outside the Gulf.

The first satellite tag was deployed on a North Atlantic blue whale on August 17, 1996 in the St. Lawrence Estuary. Surprisingly it was again KITS, which had the honor of being the first blue whale tagged. This was surprising, because we had rarely seen her in the estuary. The tag transmitted for only two and a half weeks, during which she resided in the estuary , generally not very far from where she had been tagged. The tags are still being improved through field testing and minor changes in design her and there. Blue whale blubber has proven to be very tough and difficult to penetrate, and the positioning of the tag on the whale's back must be just right in order that the signal can be received by the satellite several times during a surfacing sequence. The transmitter can only send a signal when out of the water and has to send at least three signals for a position to be accurate.

Another way to track whales is by using acoustics. This year we began a new project, lead by Catherine Berchok a graduate student in acoustics at Penn State University, who has worked with MICS for 6 seasons. There have been very few recordings made of blue whales in the Atlantic and only one other researcher has recorded blue whale sounds briefly in the St. Lawrence. Unfortunately we found few blue whales this past season and so were able to capture very few blue whale sounds. We were , however, pleasantly surprised to find two blue whales just 4-5 miles off the coast in the Mingan region on September 25, 1998 and guess who? Yes, it was Kits not seen since she had been tagged in 1996. Catherine was able to record some very low 10 hertz sounds, characteristic of blue whales, who generally only produce sounds, which are below or hearing capacity. In order to be heard by humans blue whale sounds have to be speed ed up at least 10 times.

It might take years and much more effort until we are able to track whales by sound and perhaps even identify individuals by vocal signatures. But as with other now common research methods, there is always a new idea and method - this should help us add another piece to the large puzzle, which forms the lives of blue whales. Hopefully KITS will provide us with important information on her species far into the future.
  Blue Whale dispersal off Atlantic Canada
  This map depicts the distribution and dispersal of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) in the Gulf and Estuary of the St. Lawrence based on data collected by Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) from 1979 to 1999. As shown, blue whales enter the St. Lawrence primarily through Cabot Strait, where they can be found as early as March. From there they disperse north into the Gulf, reaching the eastern tip of the Gaspe Peninsula by April. In May some blue whales can already be observed along the Quebec North Shore. It is, however, by the end of July that the greatest number of blue whales can be seen in the St. Lawrence, both along the Quebec North Shore and further West into the Estuary, where they can be found regularly until November. In the northeast Gulf blue whales can be seen sporadically from May to November. Though most blue whales leave the St. Lawrencc by December, some have been sighted along the North Shore well into January, and even on rare occasions in February.
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  Mouvements des baleines bleues sur la côte atlantique du Canada
  sCette carte montre la distribution et les mouvements des baleines bleues dans le golfe et l'estuaire du Saint-Laurent, s'appuyant sur les données collectées par la Station de Recherche des Iles Mingan (MICS) de 1979 à 1999. Comme on peut le voir, les baleines bleues entrent dans le Saint-Laurent par le détroit de Cabot dès le mois de mars. De là, elles se dispersent vers le nord du golfe et atteignent la pointe est de la péninsule Gaspésienne vers le mois d'avril. En mai, des baleines bleues peuvent déjà être observées le long de la côte nord. C'est cependant vers la fin juillet qu'elles sont présentes dans le Saint-Laurent en grand nombre, aussi bien le long de la côte nord que plus à l'ouest dans l'estuaire, où on les rencontre régulièrement jusqu'en novembre. Dans le nord-est du golfe, les baleines bleues sont observées sporadiquement de mai à novembre. Bien que la plupart d'entre elles quittent le golfe vers le mois de décembre, certaines ont déjà été aperçues le long de la côte nord jusqu'à la fin janvier, et même occasionnellement en février. .
  Wailea, Maui, Hawaii November 28 - December 3, 1999
The Society for Marine Mammalogy

Sears, Richard(1), Berchok, Catherine L(1) Palsboll, Per(2), Doniol-Valcroze, Thomas(1), Ramp, Christian(1)

(1) Mingan Island Cetacean Study, Inc.
First Author Address: Mingan Island Cetacean Study, Inc., 285 Green St., St.Lambert, Qc, J4P IT3, Canada
(2) University of Wales -Bangor

Studies of blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) were carried out in the Gulf and Estuary of the St. Lawrence during the months of June to October, from 1979 to 1998, with an average effort of 128 days per season. A photographic-identification catalogue of 350 individual blue whales was compiled, and 160 skin biopsies were taken. Gender was determined through analysis of sets of primers specific to either the ZFY or ZFX sequence found on the sex chromosome found in the skin samples and resulted in the sexing of 113 individuals. Blue whales were predominantly observed singly or in pairs, which were made up of a lead animal and a companion individual following to the left or right, within a body length. We observed 288 pairs of blue whales, divided into three categories: pairs for which we knew the gender of both animals (59), pairs for which we
knew the gender of one animal (141), and pairs for which we knew neither individual's gender (88). Results from analysis of pairs where both animal's gender was known, indicated that 66% of blue whale pairs were mixed. Analysis also revealed that females lead 94% of pairs where the gender of both individuals was known. Females lead 77% of the pairs, where only the gender of females was known, while in pairs where only the males were determined, males were following 84% of the time. We found that pairs were observed with greater frequency as the season progressed from spring to fall. Because reproduction is thought to take place in late fall and winter in this species, such pairings in blue whales may have a significant bearing on their reproduction. It is likely that by maintaining a rear flanking position males can keep track of females more easily and defend their position against intruding males - similar behavior to that found in humpbacks on their winter breeding grounds.


Koenig, Brenda(1), Metcalfe, Tracy(1), Metcalfe, Chris(1), Stegeman, John(2), Moore,
Michael(2), Miller, Carolyn(2), Sears, Richard(3)

(1) Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario K9J 7B8, Canada
First Author Address: Environmental and Resource Studies Program, Trent University,
Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 7B8, Canada
(2) Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
(3) Mingan Island Cetacean Study, Inc.

Biopsy samples of skin and blubber were collected from live blue whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1996 and 1997. Expression of cytochrome P4501A m-RNA in dermal endothelia was detected immunohistochemically using MAb 1-12-3. Results were scored on a scale of 0- 15, and showed elevated expression in biopsy samples from blue whales off Sept Isle (7.2 … 1.0, n=8) as compared to blue whales from other regions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (3.7 A 3.0, n=6, p<0.005) and from Iceland (1.8 … 2.0, n=9, p<0.001). These data indicate that there are differences in levels of Ah receptor agonists in blue whales sampled from these locations. Organochlorine contaminants (PCBs and OC pesticides) were elevated in the blubber of blue whales from the Sept Isle region sampled in 1997 (e.g total PCBs; 1,746 … 620 ng/g lipid, n=7), as compared to blue whales from other areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (355 … 182 ng/g lipid, n=20). Elevated estrogenic activity was detected in an extract prepared from blubber biopsies of Sept Isle whales analyzed using the yeast estrogenicity screening (YES) assay for endocrine disrupting substances. These studies illustrate the utility of using biopsy samples for biomonitoring studies of both contaminant residues and biomarkers of contaminant exposure in cetaceans.


Conway, Carole(1), Sears, Richard(2), May, Bernie(1)

(1) Genomic Variation Laboratory, University of California, Davis, CA 95616
First Author Address: Dept. of Animal Science, University of California, Davis, CA, 95616, USA
(2) Mingan Island Cetacean Study, Inc., St. Lambert, Quebec, Canada J4P IT3

Although endangered, very little is known about the population structure of the blue whale
(Balaenoptera musculus). The recovery plan for the species prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service specifically recommends that both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA be analyzed to determine the stock structure. I plan to use introns of conserved nuclear genes to address this question. Genes which code for fundamental proteins arc highly conserved, however, they are interspersed with intron regions which are more mutable. Several researchers have designed primers for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that anneal to the conserved regions and are effective in amplifying the variable intron regions for many species across broad taxonomic groups. The exploration of introns in this project may significantly contribute to the conservation of other marine mammals by making more nuclear markers available for genetic research. Preliminary results indicate that the level of variation in introns of blue whales is relatively high and that the primers for PCR can be successfully applied to distant species within the Order Cetacea. We are in the first phase of this project which involves screening introns to find those with the most potentially informative variation. For this phase we are using biopsies of 8 individual blue whales taken from distant regional populations. The screening is being conducted using PCR and single-stranded conformational polymorphisms (SSCP). We have found that 7 out of 10 loci we screened in blue whales are polymorphic. The number of alleles at each locus ranged from 2-6. Using identical PCR primers and conditions we were able to amplify what appear to be the same loci in sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena).