March 24: “They’re back!” says our collaborator Renaud Pintiaux. From a coastal road in Port-au-Saumon, not far from Saint-Siméon, he observes nearly a dozen white backs poking above the water surface. Belugas. The first ones reported to us since the beginning of the year. Captains also spotted a few this week from the wharf in Les Escoumins. And, on March 26, a herd of belugas composed of adults and young is swimming not far from Batture aux Alouettes, off Tadoussac.

Where had they been all winter? The beluga is the only species of cetacean to inhabit the St. Lawrence year round. Perhaps the members of this species were farther offshore, far from the gaze of observers, or else a bit farther downstream, toward the Gulf. Or maybe they were quite close to shore but well camouflaged between the chunks of ice thanks to their white bodies.

Ice plays an important role for belugas. It can serve as a buffer to mitigate the impact of winter storms. Beneath the ice are phytoplankton, which attract zooplankton, which in turn attract small fish, which ultimately provide food for whales. However, an overabundance of ice can make it impossible to reach the surface to breathe. Belugas therefore look for areas where ice is fragmented, i.e with cover varying between 70 and 90%. In the Arctic, ice also serves as a barrier against a major predator: the killer whale.

Over the next few weeks, it may be possible to observe large herds, with hundreds of belugas swimming in the same direction. From the Gaspé Peninsula to Île aux Coudres, belugas will be returning to their summer range.

Besides belugas, what’s been happening in the region? On March 21, opposite the town of Cap-Chat in the Gaspé Peninsula, one photographer ventures out onto a newly ice-free bank. The low tide offers an interesting playground to observe three harbour seals at close range. The observer quickly becomes the observed, as evidenced by his exquisite photo.

In Pointe-au-Père, one observer spots his first harbour seal of the season on March 27. The pinniped takes up a characteristic position: legs and head skyward, which gives it a banana-like appearance. The seal is thus resting out of the water. On March 26, on the other side of the river, from the rocks of Cap de Bon-Désir in Les Bergeronnes, a harbour seal is observed actively swimming.

In the Bas-Saint-Laurent, Gaspésie and Côte-Nord regions, March 27 marked the start of the crab season! Since the crack of dawn (5 a.m.), crabbers have been plying the waters of Fishing Area 17, lowering their traps into the sea. Observers can therefore expect to see the silhouettes of these boats parading offshore before returning to dock, their holds chock full of snow crab. Crabbers have until June 22 to catch their quotas.

Observation of the Week - 27/3/2019

Marie-Ève Muller

Marie-Ève Muller is responsible for GREMM's communications and spokeperson for the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergencies Response Network (QMMERN). As Editor-in-Chief for Whales Online, she devours research and has an insatiable thirst for the stories of scientists and observers. Drawing from her background in literature and journalism, Marie-Ève strives to put the fragile reality of cetaceans into words and images.

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