Text written by Félix Feider, 22-year-old final year undergrad studying Marine Sciences at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He participated in a 2-week research programme at the Mingan Islands Cetacean Study in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, Québec, Canada.
My whale research adventure in Canada started in late July. I boarded a Dash from Montreal to Sept-Iles, said goodbye to the big city life and hello to the Canadian wilderness. After a 2-hour drive, I arrived in small, but charming, Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan on the North Shore. It was immediately clear that this region is a hidden gem, with little tourists coming here and a lot of people never even having heard of it (including me until a few months ago). On the north side of the town is vast, seemingly endless dense forest and on the south side is the Mingan Islands Archipelago and the St. Lawrence, sprawling with life. The weather in this region is very volatile, with cloudless skies suddenly turning stormy and rainy. Only good weather conditions allowed us to go out on sea to look for whales. On a good day we would get up at 6am and prepare the 2 inflatable boats to be ready to leave Mingan at 7:30. The archipelago itself hosts a range of smaller marine mammals, such as seals, porpoises and even minke whales. However, the main focus of the research station lies on blue whales, fin whales and humpback whales in the St. Lawrence, which use the highly productive waters closer to Anticosti Island in the south as feeding grounds. After a 1.5-hour drive, the first whales could be spotted. The very first whale that I saw was a right whale, which are relatively new to this area and have encountered hazardous events here in the last weeks, with close to two percent (10 individuals) of the North Atlantic population (estimated to be slightly higher than 500 individuals) having died due to anthropogenic reasons, such as ship collisions and fishing gear entanglements. The North Atlantic right whale is listed as critically endangered, meaning that the species is at risk of going extinct if more animals keep dying than entering the population.
The research station mainly uses two means of monitoring the cetacean populations. The first and most abundantly used method is photo identification (photo-ID), where pictures are taken of the whale’s unique ¨fingerprint¨ to allow identification. This fingerprint refers to a body part of the whale that has a shape and/or pigmentation pattern unique to each individual and that can be used to identify individual whales just using a few pictures. The defining features used for photo-ID changes from species to species. The humpback whale is the easiest to identify: a picture from the right and left side of the dorsal fin and the ventral side of the fluke show highly distinctive shapes and pigmentation patterns. Fin whale identification is based on pictures of the right side dorsal fin and the area behind the blowholes, which hosts what is called the blaze and chevron, pigmentation patterns that are unique to an individual, but much more complicated to differentiate to an untrained eye such as mine. The blue whale was once abundant in this region, but since the early 1990s their numbers in this region have shriveled and only a handful of individuals are nowadays seen here every season. Sadly I did not have the chance to see one myself. Photos are also used to investigate how many animals have been entangled in fishing gear, particularly by examining the number of animals with scars around their peduncle, which is the area where the tailstock meets the fluke.
The second most used method of monitoring the populations is biopsy sampling. An arrow with a 3 cm long hollow metal tube as tip is placed at the region below the dorsal fin, at a perpendicular angle, using a crossbow. The tip only pierces the skin and the top layer of the fat layer, or blubber, which probably feels like a small mosquito bite to the whale. The skin and blubber are later separated in the lab and used for different analyses. The skin is used to extract the DNA, which is in turn used to genetically determine the sex of the individual and to learn more about the population structure and gene pool by defining relationships among individuals. The blubber is used for studies on toxicity load, hormones and pregnancy rates. All these data sets become even more valuable over long term study and since the station is now operating for 38 years, the amount of data collected to date is huge and has already helped us understand a lot about migration, behaviour, life cycle, sexual maturity and much more. Whenever the opportunity arises, researchers also collect fecal (poo!) samples which hold valuable information on the diet and body condition of the animals. That way we can learn what the whales feed on and how healthy they are.
On top of the two above stated methods, the station also uses several tagging methods to monitor the behaviour of the animals underwater. It is important to remember that most of the research here focuses on the brief moments that whales spend on the sea surface, however our knowledge about their behaviour below the surface is very limited at best. Tagging can tell us about the depths they travel to, their feeding behaviours, their diving patterns, migration pathways, important feeding grounds and much more. The problem about tags are numerous though; they are quite expensive (some cost 25.000$), it is difficult and time consuming to place them, they can sometimes hold for just a few minutes and rarely longer than a month and new studies show that the whales’ behaviour is influenced by the tags and therefore the data could be misleading. Despite these problems, certain individual cases in which the tags have stayed put over a long period of time have shed light on some of the many question that are still unanswered. For instance two tagged blue whales have been monitored to stop north of the New England Seamounts to feed over a few days before continuing their migration, the assumed importance of this region to this species was previously not known.
After a long day at sea, having seen and photographed a lot of whales and sampled a few biopsies if possible, we returned to the pier in Mingan. Dinner was always provided at the only restaurant in Longue-Pointe, Le Macareux Dodu, and breakfast at La Chicoutée, both of which had amazing food and the service was always extremely friendly. Everybody whom I’ve met in town was extremely welcoming and it was very interesting to get to know their stories and way of life. On rainy, foggy or windy days we could not go out to sea. Instead I visited the station’s museum, I got presentations about the history of the station, their work, future plans, I went to an Innu Cultural Centre or simply helped at the station, identifying and matching whales that were photographed on previous days or helped wherever else I could. One of the best parts of my experience here was the team. It was an international melting pot of scientists from all around the world, with different backgrounds and each and every one was very welcoming, friendly and helpful. I got to know a lot of amazing, fascinating characters that became friends and who I am hoping to meet again sometime in the future.
To conclude, the 2 weeks that I spent at the Mingan Islands Cetacean Study were fascinating. I learned a lot about marine mammology that I am looking forward to implementing into my future academic career choices. I got spoilt with the diversity and amount of marine life on the St. Lawrence, having sighted numerous fin, humpback, minke and right whales, porpoises, seals and even a few basking sharks, on a good day I saw more than 20 whales. Since my major interest is in marine conservation, I now know the hard work that is required to gather population data for conservation efforts to be possible. My days at the station and time outside working hours were very informative and interesting as well. Long story short, I had an absolutely great time. Since there are still more questions than answers regarding cetaceans and every answer reveals new questions, their work here is far from done and there are many future research opportunities still available. I highly recommend this experience to anybody who wants to know more about whales, cetacean study, the methods of research and the life at a remote research station, I can promise you that you will not regret coming here.