News Letters

Rorqual Vol. 6 no. 1 Summer-Fall 1991

Baja 1991: a season of wind and singular sightings:

In 1990 we had a record number of blue whales - this year's (1991) unwanted record was 15 days of wind during March. Due, however, to the much greater rainfall in 1990-91, the desert was green, even lush with flowers. Loreto itself had a fresh look due to a reinvigorated seaside drive and a new marina. Martine and I arrived at the end of February and learned that good numbers of whales had been there since earlier in the month and that a few blue whales had been sighted in January.

We were joined a week later by Benoit Hamel and our resident Viking Peter Østrin both of whom have worked with us at Mingan. The first few days were spent pinned ashore, sighting the occasional blue and finback spout amongst the irrepressible rows of white caps formed by the northerly wind. We sighted most whales, particularly the blue whales, to the East and South of Carmen, with most sighted from White Rock to Agua Verdi. This took us regularly far to the South, which left us vulnerable to the whims of the northerly winds -just ask our designated victim (P.R.) about one of our rides home.

We photo-identified 31 blue whales and probably saw at least 8 others during our stay. The most interesting sightings included the return of five females seen in 1990. Four had had calves in 1990, while the fifth had one this year. Picures taken by biologists aboard natural history cruise vessels contributed three new blue whales,including a cow/calf pair, as well as several known blues to our catalogue. One of the known whales was a sixth female photographed with a calf off La Paz Bay in April, which had previously been sighted with a calf near Loreto in March of 1985. It was encouraging to resight so many females, which seems to indicate a high rate of return and may further illustrate the importance of the Sea of Cortez as a breeding ground for this species. Two of the first blue whales photo-identified from the Sea of Cortez were resighted; one has been sighted since 1982, the other was first photographed in 1984. The whale from 1984 - last observed in 1989 - resided in the Loreto area for 12 days, while the other, seen only on one day in 1991, had visited these waters in 1984- 85, and from 1988-91.

The photographic identification catalogue now includes 237 individuals, of which all but one were photographed from 1984-91. The most productive years were 1990=82, 1985=44, 1991=31, and 1984=19. At least 19 females visited the Sea of Cortez during winter from 1984- 91, some regularly. During that time they produced 22 calves, or 12% of all the blues photographed in the Sea of Cortez.

A calf we sighted near Loreto exhibited a curiosity we have grown to expect from young blue whales and took no time to approach our boat. This 30-ft calf was probably born in the Sea of Cortez 2-3 months earlier. As has been true in the past, its mother went about her business, content to let her offspring play around the boat To date nearly 60 blue whales have been matched from the Sea of Cortez to Northern California.
 
Photographed in the Sea of Cortez during March of 1991, this animal carries a massive
scar on its left side.The scarring is most likely the result of a collision with a large vessel.
  We photographed a blue whale which carried a large white scar on its left side below the dorsal fin, probably the result of a collision with a large vessel. We feel that we saw this individual in 1990, but because of its evasiveness were unable to take photographs to confirm identification. It would appear that such accidents are not exclusive to the St. Lawrence
  Orca:
  On one particularly calm and bright morning we were barely out the door when we spotted a clump of squat spouts flashing in the rising sun. As our eyes grew accustomed, we noticed that the short bursts of vapor were accompanied by tall dark dorsal fins knifing through the bright surface. Having counted at least 15 killer whales, we grabbed our gear and ran for the boat and to rouse our guests. The mere mention of killer whales got everyone moving and before we had finished rubbing our eyes we were amongst 17 killer whales. The killer whales were spread out over a mile, swimming North towards Coronado Island. The pod was made up largely of females and subadults, including three calves and one adult male. While the adult male showed little interest in us, the three calves raced along by the stem of the boat, at times within inches of the motor.

In turn the calves porpoised off the stem, while most of the other pod members raced along 20-30 feet on either side and just in front of the boat. As we approached Coronado the pace slackened and they began to mill. When we stopped several of them came over and inspected the boat. I slipped my Nikonos into the water and immediately attracted more attention. Suddenly, there were 8 killer whales, either posing for a picture or sizing up my arms for a snack. They seemed most interested in the reflection from the lens; in any case I still have both my arms. We photographed the killer whales at close quarters for eight hours, as they milled off Coronado. It is interesting to note that off Coronado the bottom drops away steeply and it is recognized as a productive area. In addition,there are usually several California sea lions hauled out on or swimming next to the island. In this instance five or six sea lions swimming close to shore kept a very attentive eye on the orcas, however, the killer whales showed no interest in them.

We observed calves spy-hopping and resting their heads on adults, probably their mothers, or racing after one another playing orca tag. A young male, who left no doubt as to his gender - an unmistakable appendage trailed from his genital slit - harassed one of the calves for more than an hour. The juvenile male was probably asserting its dominance over the calf, also a male. We stayed in the company of these killer whales until mid-afternoon, when two larger vessels approached and crowded the immediate area.

This has been one of our most enjoyable cetacean sightings ever. I hope that we don't have to wait 10 years to meet this pod again.

Other sightings of odontocetes included regular sightings of bottlenose and common dolphins as always, and the rare sighting of 40-50 short-finned pilot whales heading North outside Carmen one afternoon. The last sighting of this species was in 1985.
  Finbacks:
  Finback whales were seen regularly, with as many as 15 sighted in a day. We saw no surface feeding this year, but we enjoyed watching breaching finbacks on two occasions. Though we do not concentrate on finbacks off Loreto, we do photo-identify distinctive animals, and we recognized one finback with a truncated dorsal fin, back again for a fourth year. Blue whales are not the only regular visitors to this region in winter.

The most stunning finback observation was that of a cow/calf pair, in which the calf was at most days old. We sighted the calf from a distance on a calm, very hot day. Because we only saw a small black back, we originally thought it was our first Vaquita (Harbor porpoise) sighting for the study area. As we approached, however, we realized that the cetacean in question was a bit bigger, though not by much. Then a large finback broke surface next to it and startled us into realizing that this was a very small finback calf - no more than 8-9 feet long. Both were easy to approach and we measured the calf along the length of the panga and took several pictures showing the dramatic difference in size between the female and her newborn. To think that the 17 killer whales were in the area the day before! Mother and calf were last seen traveling slowly South along the coast.

Other baleen whales included several Bryde's whales, with 2 cow/calf pairs among them, and 2 grey whale sightings.

On the last day out in March, in an area with three blue whales, we found one very large humpback with black pectoral flippers. It was not very approachable, however, we did manage to get an identification picture of its flukes, which will be matched to the west coast humpback catalogue. In winter humpback whales are found on and around Gorda Bank off the southern end of Baja California, one of the Northeast Pacific breeding areas for this species. Sightings of humpback whales are, however, irregular in the Loreto area.

On the last day out we not only saw a humpback, but briefly heard the low frequency moans of blue whales over the hydrophone. During subsequent analysis of the sound tapes at home, our speakers began to vibrate as we listened to dolphin sounds. We realized that we had managed, unintentionally, to record several minutes of blue whale sounds earlier in the month. We couldn't so much hear the sound as feel it, because blue whales produce infrasound (very low frequency -20hz).

Other unique sightings were made by some of our guests including the apparent sighting of a flying dachshund, or was it swimming amongst a herd of dolphins? It is difficult to recall. Dave Stith and Patty Richard both joined us again and though Patty had an eventful trip, Dave's three days were filled with memories of wind and white caps. They are neck and neck for the first Tsunami award.
  Additional results from the 1990 Mingan Field Season:
  Because we had not completed our analysis, the preceding newsletter did not include all the results from the 1990 Mingan field season. You may remember that June brought us good weather and numerous blue whales and that July brought fog as well as equipment failure. August, however, was fantastic, with only 6 down days and some very interesting sightings, while September and October offered unremarkable weather and but one blue whale sighting off Mingan, a period when they are usually commonly sighted. Finback whales, though present all season, were found in much lower numbers than in 1989. This was generally true for the North Shore from Tadoussac to Anticosti. The regular sightings of humpbacks and white-sided dolphins more than made up for this, however.
  Blue whales:
  Due in large part to extensive collaboration with observers from GREMM working in the Estuary, 57 blue whales were photo-identified in 1990, the second high- est total since the beginning of our re- search in 1979. This was our most extensive and sustained effort in collecting blue whale ID pictures from Les Escoumins to the Mingan Islands. Not only did we add a good number of individuals to the catalogue, but many of our well known whales were found for the first time in the Estuary. We later sighted several of these off Anticosti.

Though we know more about blue whales in the Gulf, determining their dispersal patterns is still difficult. Less than 20% are regular to the North Shore of the Gulf, while the rest of the blues known to us may wander anywhere in the western North Atlantic (in any given year). Even those we see regularly may show up for as little as a week then vanish until the following summer. Laser, Pita, Noctop, Alexander, B188, Backbar, B124, and Chapparal - to name a few long time visitors to the Gulf of St Lawrence -were sighted this year. Laser and B188 were seen for the first time in the Estuary in late July, then resighted in the Mingan region in mid-August. Blue whales do not seem to be dedicated to specific feeding areas, except perhaps on a much larger scale, i.e. the Gulf of St Lawrence compared to Greenland waters or off of Iceland. This unpredictable dispersal pattern makes it very difficult to track them and determine population parameters.

In comparison, humpbacks and finbacks will travel good distances along the North Shore of the Gulf in summer. However, most appear to stay in specific regions to feed, i.e. those seen at Mingan are rarely seen upriver near Tadoussac. In fact, only one humpback whale (Siam) regularly travels up the St. Lawrence as far as Tadoussac, while seven others have been seen both in the northeast Gulf and in the Mingan region. This separation in feeding area groupings is very similar to that found by researchers in Alaskan waters. Finback whales may also adhere to discrete summer feeding areas. While humpbacks and finbacks are certainly capable of long distance travel, blue whales, because of their more singular taste for krill, may have to roam over a greater area during the feeding season in order to find the required concentrations of prey.

Despite the fact that we logged about the same number of hours of observation as in 1989, the number of finback whales sighted declined by 30%, however, as in the past, the finback was the most common species of baleen whale sighted. Our catalogue of photo-identified individuals now totals 147 finbacks, 34% of which have been seen in more than one year. Our sightings included Curly, Peanut, and several others known since 1980. We found finbacks from the first outing until the last, predominantly in the area off the western tip of Anticosti and in the J-C Passage. When the numbers were low in the study area, sightings of large groups of fins were reported by other researchers to the southwest of Anticosti and out of our range. For the first time, we extended our observations to points 10 miles west of Anticosti and 3 miles south of its western tip, particularly when based in Riviere-aux-Tonnerre (Boom Boom River, for those of you who may have heard us speaking of a place called BBR.)

The humpbacks regaled us by approaching our boats regularly from mid-August on. It seemed as though they had suddenly become tame. Several humpbacks, particularly those we had known the longest, as well as their offspring, would come alongside and stay next to our boats, often for an hour or more at a time, spy hopping, rolling, spinning on their axis. In general they enjoyed themselves enormously, much to the pleasure of the heavily robed creatures aboard. Tracks and Fleuret chased each other around one 16-ft. boat for 15-20 minutes, much to the consternation of a French television crew. On a number of occasions we found ourselves observed from above when one or more humpbacks spy-hopped right next to the boat and towered briefly over us. I wonder what they thought of the yellow clad beings squirming below. For those of you who wanted to see whales close up, you were well served - I suspect they may have been too close for some at times. Even cantankerous Jigsaw gently came to spend an hour or two with us-he seems to have mellowed with age. One flat calm evening, Jigsaw and Whip swam between two of the boats that were no more than 20 feet apart for nearly two hours. Within touching distance, they spun like slow motion tops, poked their heads out at us, spouted on us, and reached out with their flippers to touch the boats. At the end of two hours they moved off together and, perhaps enlivened by the colors of a setting sun, each breached fully from the water four times. As we headed in they slapped their flippers once or twice and swam off to join another pair of humpbacks in the twilight.

Whatever the reason, the humpbacks showed much more interest in our boats in 1990. In the past we have had humpback whales approach us, but only two or three times per seasor. They may now find us entertaining, or our new hard bottom inflatables are simply irresistible.

On our last outing at the end of October we found a group of five humpbacks who, when they detected us, swam directly for the boats. All five surrounded one of the 16-ft. inflatables for a few minutes. Three then departed and the two that stayed behind did not leave us for the better part of four hours. Even when we moved away a few hundred meters they followed like pets. During all these encounters the whales were always very gentle, even when they reached out to touch with their flippers. Nocturne, one of the pair, reached one flipper over the side and into the boat. Careful to avoid the large acorn barnacles on the flipper I reached to guide the flipper back out of the boat, which she did without agitation - at least a good deal less than I felt.
  Other sightings:
  We first saw Jackknife Pod in mid-August harassing finbacks near the western end of Anticosti, then again in the Jacques Cartier Passage during October. In October they were swimming West and even though there were several minkes in the immediate area, they did not give chase on this occasion. Perhaps they were full. The four killer whales spent some time inspecting our boats, then headed toward Anticosti and further west, as bad weather approached from the East and we headed for home.

White-sided dolphins visited the study area regularly and in herds of several hundred from August until late October. Harbor porpoise were particularly abundant in August, but appeared only sporadically in the fall. We found minkes throughout the season, but not in as great abundance as in past years - a decline in sightings similar to that found for the finbacks. We have yet to get detailed results concerning the DNA and toxicity analysis for the biopsy samples taken in 1990. However, the preliminary results indicate that the minke whales seem to be the most affected, carrying contaminants in orders of magnitude one to two times greater than the fin or humpback whales, though much less so than the belugas residing in the St. Lawrence. This may be explained by the fact that minke whales exploit more inshore niches and prey on a wider variety of fishes.

Because we hope to increase the numbers of biopsies taken during 1991, analysis during the winter and spring of 1992 should give us a good deal more information. See Winter 1992 Rorqual.

Fishing gear and vessels continue to be a problem for marine mammals; several finbacks, one in particular, bare large scars as a result of collisions with vessels. During the summer two minke whales and a juvenile blue whale were killed due to entanglement in fishing gear. The blue was a young 65-ft. female, which was found with line wrapped around its tail. We were unable to properly photo-identify this whale and will never know if was in our catalogue.
  Tourism:
  We again had an increase in the numbers of participants in our research trips. The funds collected from this activity continue to be our main source of funding for research and the research station.
  Adoptions:
  The blue whale adoptions have been going well and we have raised $21,768.77 since their inception in October 1989. The funds have helped us reorganize our database on Macintosh, continue to develop our computerized blue whale matching system, cover darkroom costs (time and materials) and helped keep us out in the field studying the blue whales. We thank all those who have contributed, many of whom are school children from across Canada and the northeastern United States. We have had a good deal of support from Europe as well, particularly from France. We would also like to thank all of you who have become members and those that have renewed their memberships.

The 1991 season at Mingan was our 13th. We continued our collaboration with Greenlandic Fisheries; Martine went off to Greenland via Copenhagen in July and after an absence of two years RS returned to the northeast Gulf to work on humpbacks and received valuable assistance from the Dominiques and Peter Jones. Finn Larsen, director of marine mammal research at the Greenlandic Fisheries, joined us at Mingan in August and September to biopsy minke whales and Peter Østrin returned to help us in September and October. Besides RS and Martine, Evelyne and François returned in 1991. See Winter 1992 Rorqual.

We apologize for the tardiness of this issue, but the usual shortage of time during the field season followed by the loss of a parent caused unavoidable delays.
  Publications:

Terre Sauvage, April 1991 No. 50

Photo-Selection/Photo Digest - June 1991.

Thalassa No. September 199 1.

Steiger, G.H., J. Calambokidis, R. Sears, K.C. Balcomb, and J.C. Cubbage 1991. Movement of humpback whales between Califomia and Costa Rica. Marine Mammal Science, Vol. 7, No. 3. pp. 306-310.

Sears, R., T.L. Metcalfe, and C.D. Metcalfe 1991. Organochlorine contaminants in baleen whales from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Abs; Ninth Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, Dec. 5-9, 1991, Chicago, Il.

Lien, J., R. Sears, G.B. Stenson, P.W. Jones, and I-Hsun Ni 1989. Right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, sightings in waters off Newfoundland and Labrador and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, 1978- 1987. The Canadian Field-Naturalist, VoL 103, pp.91-93.

We now have a new T-shirt design (see sales section), which is also the design found on our session certificates. We introduced two new posters in 1991, one of Atlantic Puffins photographed on Iles aux Perroquets and one of a pair of killer whales underwater. The Cetaceans of the St. Lawrence poster by Daniel Grenier was so popular that we ordered a second printing.

The summer C.P. 159, Sept-Iles address has been changed to 106 Bord de la Mer, Longue Pointe de Mingan, PQ. G0G 1V0. The summer telephone number 4l8 949-2845 and winter address remain the same
  Wish List:

  Mini-Van, laser printer, depth sounders, office furniture, desks, chairs, lateral files, and fax.
  Acknowledgements:

  We again offer very special thanks to Bill and Betty Riffe, the Paquet family, Daniel Grenier, all our guests, foster parents, and members. We extend our deepest appreciation to Ginette Cardinale of Inter-Canadian Airlines, Frapna, WWF Canada, Donald Caron and Roger Cayouette of Hydro-Quebec, Fernando Arcas, Jordan KimbrieL Diane Gendron, Mason Weinrich, and Alain Chartier.