Two minke whales have been observed in Montreal, near St. Helen’s Island. The first individual has been in the area since Sunday May 8, the second since Wednesday May 11. Their presence, unusual for this species in that area, triggered a call from an observer to the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network (QMMERN) and the dispatch of volunteers to the site.
The QMMERN team has been on site since Monday to monitor and document the presence, behaviour and condition of the animals. Both individuals appear to be juveniles.
The animals are not in immediate danger, but the waters around the Port of Montréal present increased risks for these whales. Their presence has therefore triggered a response and monitoring plan, but no rescue is planned. The situation is constantly being re-evaluated according to the latest information.
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What is a minke whale?
The minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is the smallest member of the rorqual family, which also includes the better known humpback whale and blue whale.
Even if it is a peewee compared to its cousins, this baleen whale can measure 6 to 9 metres long and weigh 6 to 8 tonnes. This ‘gulper’ feeds on planktonic crustaceans (krill), with a preference for small schooling fish such as herring, capelin, sand lance.
The species does not appear in the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife in the United States, and is designated ‘least concern’ in the IUCN’s Red List. The North Atlantic population is believed to number approximately 200,000 individuals.
To learn more about the minke whale, click here.
Why are they here?
Why did the first minke whale come to Montreal?
Unfortunately, we do not know what caused this particular individual to travel several hundred kilometers up the St. Lawrence River. Is it an orientation problem, a navigation error, an exploratory behaviour, or the presence of prey? It’s hard to say!
Although its usual summer feeding grounds are in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the estuary, or even the Saguenay, this is not the first time a minke whale has been found further upstream. Since 2005, there have been 12 reported sightings of minke whales (live or stranded) upstream from Quebec City. In 2012, a beluga whale also travelled up the St. Lawrence to Montreal (article in french). Then, in 2020, a humpback whale also visited the port of Montreal.
Globally, each year, dozens of marine mammals are seen outside of their natural habitat and it is not uncommon to find whales in up rivers. Since the voyage of the humpback whale to the source of the St. Lawrence, several other cases of whales that have strayed or visited an estuary have made headlines around the world: a beluga whale found itself in San Diego, thousands of kilometers from its home, a minke whale got stuck in the Thames River in England, a fin whale stranded in the Dee River in Wales, three humpback whales went up a river in Australia, a gray whale named Wally was observed in the Mediterranean, etc. Sometimes, the cetacean was able to find its way back to the ocean. In a few cases, techniques to repel the whales have been tried, without success. The majority of cases ended in the death of the animal. What drives the whales to explore? Most of the time, the wandering animals are young individuals, perhaps inexperienced or in search of a new territory, possibly already in bad shape.
To learn more: “Stray Whales: Lost or Just Exploring?“.
What does the presence of a second minke whale mean?
A second minke whale was observed in the Port of Montreal around noon on Wednesday May 11. The presence of one individual being already unusual, the arrival of a second minke whale raises new questions, but does not change the intervention plan.
For the moment, it is not known if there is a link between the presence of the two individuals. It is possible that the same reasons that led the first rorqual to go to Montreal – be it inexperience, exploratory behaviour, the presence of prey, or an orientation problem – apply independently to the second individual. The law of probability could explain why these two exceptional cases occur at the same time, without there really being a new worrisome trend.
But it is also possible that the cases are related. Several hypotheses come to mind. The first one would be a family link between the two animals. We have confirmed that the first individual is a juvenile, possibly even a calf from this winter. After their winter birth, calves of this species are usually weaned from their mothers during the spring. They will spend increasing amounts of time apart, but will still unite from time to time before dissociating completely in the summer. Could the second individual be the mother of the first animal? The first observations of the second individual seem to indicate that it is also a juvenile, which would refute this hypothesis. The QMMERN team is currently trying to confirm the size and probable age of the second individual.
A second hypothesis, which is more encouraging despite the situation, is that the last few summers were particularly rich in prey for these whales, which could have led to a form of baby boom in the minke whale population. This type of growth in a population often leads to an increase in exploratory behaviour in young individuals. Thus, these two minke whales could be looking for new territories to establish themselves.
Finally, it is possible that the presence and quantity of prey has fluctuated this year, which would lead to a fluctuation in the distribution of their predators, including minke whales. Are small fish particularly present in the river at the moment, and did they attract these whales?
All these explanations remain hypotheses. The QMMERN is on site to document these animals in part to better understand the cause(s) of their presence. More data would be needed to evaluate some of these hypotheses.
Is it in danger in freshwater?
In the short term, no. Even if whales are adapted to life in salt water, they are capable of temporarily adapting to changes in salinity. In the medium and long term, however, it could develop skin problems, infections or become dehydrated, but none of these is an immediate threat. See our article “Can whales survive in fresh water?”.
For the moment, the greatest risk for this minke whale is that it is in a high traffic area for both commercial and recreational watercraft. We therefore thank all users of the St. Lawrence for keeping their distance (at least 100 metres) from the whale.
What's the plan?
Should we intervene?
All incidents reported to the QMMERN are carefully evaluated to determine if intervention is possible or even desirable. The decision to intervene is based primarily on three pillars: the status of the species, human responsibility, and public health and safety. The welfare of the animal, as well as the cost, logistics and likelihood of success of an intervention, are also considered. Other factors that may come into play in the decision to intervene include public perception or legal and scientific considerations. Of course, the safety of the responders must be ensured at all times, following the principle that a rescuer who is injured, inconvenienced or in danger of death becomes a victim himself.
Incidents involving a direct human cause, such as animal entrapment and entanglement, are assigned a first priority level. If the cause of an incident is a natural phenomenon, then the decision to intervene will depend on the status of the animal, as well as its welfare. Priority is given to species listed as endangered under the Species at Risk Act, particularly if the individual is important to the survival of the population. The chances of success of an intervention are also evaluated in relation to the disturbance and stress that the intervention will inflict on the animal. Finally, intervention will always occur if public safety is at stake.
In the case of the minke whale in Montreal, it was determined that the best thing to do to help the animal return to its natural habitat is to let it be. The whale is swimming freely, appears to be in good condition and could at any time head back downstream to the Estuary or the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where minke whales are usually found. The presence of this cetacean in the fluvial portion of the St. Lawrence is not the result of human intervention. However, human intervention could stress or disorient it further. Furthermore, the minke whale is not a species at risk. For this reason, the QMMERN and its partners prefer to “let nature run its course”.
In the event that the animal finds itself in a confined area or impeding navigation, various methods could be applied to scare it away or attempt to lure it to a less dangerous area. For example, by using attractive or frightening sounds we may be able to scare or attract the animal over a short distance. However, these methods are not always effective and would have little application in helping the whale travel the 400 km or so to its natural habitat.
If the whale becomes stranded, the RQUMM and its partners will evaluate options for release, euthanasia or other.
Although there are a few examples of successful rescue operations in this situation, these examples are the exception rather than the rule. The chances of a successful rescue operation for this minke whale are very slim. Read this article to understand why sometimes, the best way to help a whale is to leave it alone!
So what is the plan of action?
“The first thing we put in place was a monitoring and vigilance plan,” explains QMMERN coordinator Robert Michaud. “We immediately issued a navigational warning to encourage marine pilots to be extra cautious. We are also establishing a monitoring plan with the QMMERN mobile team and volunteers in the Montréal region.” The objective is to keep track of the animal while limiting disturbance in order to minimize its stress and create the best conditions for it to choose to turn around.
The second step is to document its physical condition and collect data on the individual. This will make it easier to monitor the animal’s health should it decide to linger.
Why don't we...
Why don’t we tag the whale to monitor its location?
There are two main types of GPS tags that can be placed on a whale’s back. The first type is attached with a large suction cup and generally does not last more than a few hours. This tag is therefore inherently temporary and the tag must be recovered in the river once it has detached and been carried away by the current to recover the data. This technique, used to document certain specific underwater behaviours, is not very effective for tracking or spotting a whale for several days.
The other type of GPS tag consists of stingers that penetrate the cartilage tissue at the base of the dorsal fin. The holes caused by the stingers can become infected and cause health problems and even death. The risk is higher if the animal is in fresh water (see below).
In both cases, the placement of a tag can be stressful for an animal, in particular because of the close proximity required. Tagging is thus not recommended in this situation.
To learn more about tracking whales with beacons, consult this article.
Why don’t we use sounds to incite the whales to move away from Montreal?
This is a question we are often asked. Indeed, some teams in the world have already tried to use sounds to frightened or attract whale, in hopes that they might move. These attempts have proven effective on a few occasions, but have also sometimes made the situation worse. In some cases, the animals have had significant negative reactions to the sounds, including becoming stranded, reacting violently, or becoming even more confused. Like any other rescue plan, the risk to the animal and the response team must be weighed against the chances of success, and it is unlikely that this method will work for the minke whales currently in Montreal. It is far from certain that a minke whale would react to sounds of its species, or to those of its predators
The minke whale is a rather solitary animal whose acoustic world is still very poorly understood. However, it does not seem to use sounds the same way that more social and vocal animals, such as killer whales, belugas, and humpback whales, do.
A Bigg’s killer whale, for example, was successfully coaxed out of the Comox Harbour in 2018 using sounds. In this case, the animal’s acoustic universe was very well understood, and the responders were able to play back recordings of this whale’s particular social group. The orca was prompted only to leave the bay with the sounds, not to be relocated over several miles. In addition, interactions between the Killer Whale and the public were becoming (both to the animal and to the public), warranting intervention.
In the case of the humpback whales Delta and Dawn that had travelled up the Sacramento River in 2007, in the United States, numerous attempts at both attractive and repulsive sounds were tried, without success. In the end, it was the whales that made the decision to leave on their own.
Successful examples are limited to movements over short distances. They may work when an animal needs to be reoriented over a small distance (away from a busy area or out of a bay, for example), but it is not a feasible method to reorient an individual over 400 km. At present, it is not a matter of convincing the minke whales to turn around, which they could do at any time, but of encouraging them to actively head back downstream. In the event that one of the animals finds itself in a cramped and dangerous area, or interfering with navigation, the situation will be reassessed and an acoustic intervention might be implemented.
In conclusion, attempting an acoustic disturbance is not without consequences, and can present a danger for the animal as well as for the interveners, with low chances of success. In large mammals, forced displacements or relocations are rarely effective, and the risks of rapid return to the same location are high.
Does its presence have anything to do with the 2020 visit of a humpback whale to Montréal?
You might remember that 2 years ago, a young female humpback whale showed up in the Port of Montréal. A recap of these events can be found here. The similarities are striking: the humpback is also a member of the rorqual family, the 2020 occurrence also took place in spring (late May and early June) and both animals were found in similar sections of Montréal waters. However, at the present moment, nothing seems to indicate that there is a connection between these two events.
What can I do to help?
We encourage the public not to go out on the water. If people do go, it is of utmost importance not to disturb the whale. In this regard, boaters are required to maintain a minimum distance of 100 metres, as stipulated by the Marine Mammal Regulations of Canada’s Fisheries Act. It is prohibited to disturb a marine mammal, which means that a watercraft must not approach the animal or block its path. It is also prohibited to swim, feed or interact with a whale.
We encourage recreational boaters and kayakers to maintain an even greater distance than 100 metres, i.e. at least 200 metres, in order to afford the whale enough space to maneuver and minimize stress.
What is the link between the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals and Whales Online?
The Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network brings together organizations and institutions in Quebec that intervene with marine mammals. Its mandate is to organize, coordinate and implement measures to reduce accidental deaths of marine mammals, to rescue marine mammals in trouble and to promote the acquisition of knowledge about dead, stranded or drifting animals in the waters of the St. Lawrence bordering Quebec. The Network can count on the support of more than 160 volunteers. Since the partners joined forces in 2004, they have entrusted the coordination of the Network and its call centre to the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM).
GREMM publishes a magazine, Whales Online, which you are currently consulting. A column is dedicated to the cases handled by the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network.
If you see a whale in an unusual area or a marine mammal in distress, promptly call Marine Mammal Emergencies at 1-877-722-5346.
Please note that this number is only for reporting emergencies!
Agents must be available at all times to handle emergency calls. Please do not call simply to obtain information about whales or for media requests.