It was not until a veterinary internship in Quebec in 2003 that French native Marion Desmarchelier saw her first whale. Having long dreamt of cetaceans, she can’t imagine leaving the province at the end of her internship without seeing at least one. “It was June, and the cruises hadn’t even begun yet. I spotted a research boat, and I convinced the crew to board the craft with them. And I saw a blue whale show its tail… on my very first trip out to sea!” She walks away from this experience with the certainty that one day she will work with whales.
After five years of training with Dr. Stéphane Lair, her first professional experience with marine mammals in the wild took place in Prince Edward Island, where she taught at the Atlantic Veterinary College between 2010 and 2014. Due to the shallow seabed, live strandings are much more frequent in the Maritimes than they are in the Estuary. Marion Desmarchelier therefore finds herself involved with several cases concerning stranded whales, where she is put in charge of monitoring the clinical condition of these individuals in order to help responders make the best decisions possible for the animals.
Back in Quebec, she completes her training as a clinician with a second residency, this time in animal behaviour medicine. She also begins to collaborate as a consultant with the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network. For example, in 2020, she helped monitor the humpback whale in Montréal by developing an observation protocol that volunteers could carry out using a mobile application. When properly documented, whale behaviours such as breathing frequency may be used to monitor an animal’s well-being. “Getting more objective information about whales that are not doing so well facilitates decision-making. Usually, experts rely primarily on the whale’s body condition, more specifically whether it is emaciated or not. The goal would be to include more parameters in our assessment of the status of marine mammals in distress,” she explains.
Today, Marion Desmarchelier is a professor at Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. This allows her to teach, practise clinical medicine, collaborate with the Network and, above all, conduct research on marine mammal behaviour. Together with her students, she is currently working to identify new markers of chronic stress in cetaceans, as well as to find a way to use breath samples to assess their well-being. She believes that a better understanding of whale behaviour will help us assess our impact on them and better protect them.