To begin these field notes, we first need to travel back in time to September 1999. It was one of my very first outings off the coast of Tadoussac.
I had just arrived in the region a few weeks earlier. There were two of us on a small Zodiac and we were heading toward Île Rouge, smack in the middle of the river between the north and south shores of the St. Lawrence.
Suddenly, a small spout catches our attention. We quickly understand that it is a humpback whale, and a young one given its size. I’m able to take a picture of its tail – we’ll use the term caudal from now on – with my old film camera just before the animal takes a dive.
C’est la première rencontre de ma vie avec un rorqual à bosse. Je suis ébloui, les larmes aux yeux devant tant de beauté. Comme un déclic, un instant qui marquera à jamais le reste de mon existence. Je décide alors, au milieu du Saint-Laurent par cette belle journée d’automne, de tout faire pour passer le plus clair du reste de ma vie sur l’eau et près des mammifères marins. Ce rorqual à bosse, nous apprendrons plus tard qu’il est âgé d’environ 2 ans. Un grand «x» est dessiné sur le lobe droit de sa caudale. Une marque alors grise qui noircira avec l’âge et sera son signe distinctif le plus évident.
Les patrons de coloration sur la caudale des rorquals à bosse sont comme leurs empreintes digitales. Ils sont différents pour chaque individu et c’est ainsi que nous pouvons les reconnaitre, les différencier.
The colour patterns on a humpback’s caudal fins are like their fingerprints. They are unique for every individual, which is how we are able to recognize and differentiate them.
Tic Tac Toe was ultimately the moniker given to this humpback on account of the X on its caudal fin, like the name of the strategy game. Scientists tell us that Tic Tac Toe was born in the winter of 1996-1997. This humpback was first sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the fall of 1997 by the team from the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS). And practically every summer since then, it has been coming to visit us in the St. Lawrence Estuary.
I get emotional every year when Tic Tac Toe returns to the Haute-Côte-Nord region. And each sighting triggers a flashback to this initial encounter. It should be noted that prior to 1999, the year of my first encounter with this individual, humpback whales were quite rare in our area. There was one male in particular, Siam, which had been making brief visits since 1981, but Tic Tac Toe is really the star of the estuary. This was the beginning of the gradual “colonization” of the sector by this species, which peaked in 2021 with more than 110 individuals observed!
But that’s not all… Yes, Tic Tac Toe returns nearly every summer, but it doesn’t always come back alone. Or rather, shedoesn’t come back alone… From now on, we must refer to this individual as she and her! Indeed, it would not take us long to understand that H509 – the identification number attributed to her by researchers – is a female, as she would often return to our area… with a calf! The Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) also keeps close tabs on the female’s visits to the estuary.
In 2007, she arrived with a calf who would be named Aramis. Tic Tac Toe therefore became the first humpback whale to escort a calf to the estuary.
In 2012, another calf is at her side: H797. And in 2017, yet another: H855. Another calf in 2020 and, in 2021, we observe her with a fifth calf, which may or may not be her own. Only time will tell. Tic Tac Toe is even a grandmother, as her firstborn, Aramis, has also given birth! Finally, in 2022, another calf in tow!
She has become the ambassador of humpbacks. And my eyes always well up with tears each time I see her arrive in the spring in our sector.
So imagine how thrilled I was when a friend on board a Zodiac tells me she spotted Tic Tac Toe a little west of Les Escoumins on May 11, 2023. I make my way to the vicinity of the sighting. From the shore, I can see her. I observe her, admire her and snap a few pictures. Even if the photos were taken from afar, I’m still elated.
The next day, she’s gone. We hope to see her again this season and the next few years after that. Again and again, for a very long time to come…