Photos taken between La Tabatière and Gros-Mécatina in the Basse-Côte-Nord region (in the Gulf of St. Lawrence near Newfoundland) confirm the presence of four killer whales on July 4, possibly three adults and one young. Photos of the animals were sent to Fisheries and Oceans Canada specialists to attempt to identify the individuals. Researcher Jack Lawson responded within a few days.
July 10, 2015
One of the killer whales, which showed a clear notch in its dorsal fin, appears to be the same as one photographed by a whale cruise employee in Twillingate on the north coast of Newfoundland 10 years ago. The most likely match: NF0039.
All whales have distinctive marks that allow them to be recognized individually. Finding and distinguishing these traits is a challenging task that demands patience. For killer whales, researchers rely in particular on the dorsal fin and the saddle-shaped gray spot at the base of the fin. However, the key to success mostly lies in a quality photo in order to confirm the match with certainty.
July 7, 2015
Exceptional observation? It is indeed unusual. Killer whales are found around the world, but those of the Northwest Atlantic are few in number, nomadic and widely dispersed. They are not grouped into distinct populations, as they are in the North Pacific along the west coast of North America (from Alaska to Washington State). Between 1758 and 2012, 836 observations of killer whales have been recorded, particularly in the past decade in the Newfoundland and Labrador region.
Killer whale visits to the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence are rare and sporadic, with twenty observations since the early 1980s. In the Estuary, the most recent sighting dates back to 2003, when two killer whales were seen off the shores of Les Bergeronnes. Documents from the 1940s mention that killer whales were abundant in the Estuary at that time, especially in the spring and fall.
One of the individuals observed last week showed a notch in its dorsal fin. For Atlantic Canada, a database and photo-ID bank includes at least 67 identified killer whales. This figures is probably attributable to the lack of quality photos and the few individuals with easily identifiable features.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has classified the killer whale population of the Northwest Atlantic and Eastern Arctic as “special concern”. Whaling in Greenland, maritime traffic and contaminants are the threats to this population. The small size of the population, its vital cycle and its social characteristics also make it more vulnerable.
To learn more:
About the killer whale (data sheet)
About killer whale distribution patterns and abundance (Cambridge University Press website): Historic and current distribution patterns, and minimum abundance of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the north-west Atlantic