What are the whale-watching boats doing?

It is essential that we get a better understanding of the behaviour of whale watching boats in order to manage this industry in the area between Tadoussac and Les Escoumins.

Bateaux

  • Whale watch
  • Photo credit : © GREMM

To go through the looking glass

Since 1985, researchers have been boarding whale watching boats and systematically noting their positions and principal activities. As well, they record the number of boats and whales in the vicinity. In this way they have managed to document the evolution of the situation and measure the effects of management strategies such as the Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St.Lawrence Marine Park Regulations.

In short

Boats tend to congregate in three zones where most of their observations are directed toward fin whales . Their behaviour is influenced by the distribution of fin whales and the presence of other species like the blue whale. Other important factors include schedules and the size and composition of the fleet. The content of tours seems to be more diversified since the summer of 1998, in keeping with recommandations set forth by the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park and the whale watching industry.

Project collaborators:

Robert Michaud, of GREMM, for Parks Canada.

Partners :

Whale watching tour operators who are members of the Eco-Whale Alliance and the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park.


I want to know more

Whale watching activities at sea over the years

Translated from the document “Résumés des projets de recherche scientifique” produced by the Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park and WWF Canada, 1998

Whale watching activities at sea in the St. Lawrence Estuary have undergone phenomenal growth since the first whale watching tours began in the 1970s. Increasingly concerned about the quality of the experience for the visitor, as well as the viability of the industry in the face of rapid expansion, GREMM initiated a detailed study of whale watching activities at sea within the limits of the Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park on behalf of Parks Canada. DSystematic observations were carried out aboard whale watching boats between 1994 and 1996. The sampling protocol was similar to another program put in place by the GREMM in 1985. During these 12 years, 779 tours were sampled, over half of them between 1994 and 1996. Insofar as data could be compared, we were able to examine certain aspects of the evolution of whale watching activities. In 1997, 75 new tours were added to the study. Continued over several seasons, this type of study could allow us to evaluate the effectiveness of a management policy for the industry.

The boats go…

Between 1985 and 1996, three zones of intensive use were identified. These are defined as: Île Rouge, Pointe à la Carriole and the south cliff of the Laurentian Channel. Île Rouge is the zone with the highest recorded concentrations of boats. The average number of boats in this area at mid-season grew steadily between 1992 and 1996. An increase in the number of boats on the observation sites is explained in large part by an increase in the number of boats in the regional fleet. It is interesting to note that in 1994, the low concentration of boats observed in this area coincided with the presence of a large number of blue whales in the Estuary.

Two centres of activity emerged from 1994 to 1996. The first, which is also part of the territory used by boats departing from Rivière-du-Loup and Trois-Pistoles, is situated between Île Rouge and Cap-de-Bon-Désir. From 75% to 90% of whale watching in this area was directed toward fin whales. The second centre of activity is situated downstream from Cap-de-Bon-Désir and is almost exclusively the domain of boats leaving from Anse aux Basques. Depending on the season, as much as 70% of observations in this area were of blue whales. These two areas also differed in the composition of their fleets. Large boats, which make up on average 24% to 32% of boats in the upstream area, were almost completely absent from the downstream area.

The use of the upstream area by large boats from Tadoussac and Baie-Sainte-Catherine in 1997 tended to follow the same general pattern observed since 1985. A very large majority of whale watching activities were directed toward fin whales and the centre of these activities remained in the three zones of intensive use. The composition of the fleet also followed the same general pattern observed earlier.

On the other hand, the average number of boats inventoried on observation sites at the beginning and middle of the 1997 season (7.2 and 11.7) had returned to 1994 levels (7.0 and 10.4) after having reached record levels in 1996 (9.3 and 20.2). However, by the end of the season, the average number of boats had never before reached such a high level for this period (10.5). The total number of boats also reached a maximum on August 31, 1997: 47 boats, 29 of them privately owned, were counted in the Île Rouge zone. A record number of whales was also recorded during this cruise: 30 fin whales and 10 minke whales.

…where the whales are

On the whole, the data supports the idea that the distribution and abundance of large rorqual whales influences the distribution of whale watching activities and the concentration of boats in the study area. In order to explain the low concentrations of boats inventoried on the sites in 1994, we have suggested that the presence of a large number of blue whales in the downstream sector, associated with the presence of krill, caused whale watching boats to spread out over the entire territory which resulted in a reduced number of boats on the observation sites in the upstream area. Moreover, data collected by Jeffrey Runge of the Maurice Lamontagne Institute on the abundance of zooplankton in the Estuary confirms that krill were abundant in 1994.

A second hypothesis used to help explain the concentration of whale watching activities is that, when krill is rare, fin whales feed mainly on capelin, which form large schools at the head of the Laurentian Channel. This behaviour would have the effect of concentrating the fin whales in that area. As it turns out, schools of capelin in the areas frequented by fin whales were particularly widespread in 1995, while concentrations of krill measured in the Estuary in 1995 and 1996 were low. Conversely, this hypothesis predicts that when krill is abundant, fin whales diversify their diet and become dispersed over a larger territory which, in turn, has the effect of reducing the number of boats on the whale watching sites. This could explain the drop in the average number of boats on observation sites at the beginning and in the middle of the 1997 whale watching season.

In fact, the low concentration of boats in the upstream sector up until the middle of the season could not be attributable to the presence of blue whales downstream. According to several independent sources, blue whales were first seen downstream of les Escoumins only at the end of mid-season. Consequently, as suggested by the second hypothesis, we believe the fin whales were more dispersed in the upstream sector because krill was more abundant. As it turns out, data collected by Jeffrey Runge indicates a rise in krill in 1997.


Scientific papers

Michaud, R., M. Moisan et V. de la Chenelière. 2001. Les activités d’observation en mer des cétacés dans le parc marin du Saguenay-Saint-Laurent: Suivi annuel 2000. Rapport final. GREMM, Tadoussac, Québec. vi + 9 pp + 4 cartes.

Michaud, R., V. de la Chenelière et M. Moisan. 2000. Les activités d’observation en mer des cétacés dans le parc marin du Saguenay-Saint-Laurent: Suivi annuel 1999. Rapport final. GREMM, Tadoussac, Québec. vi + 9 pp + 4 cartes.

Michaud, R., V. de la Chenelière, M. Moisan et M.-C. Gilbert. 1999. Les activités d’observation en mer des cétacés dans l’estuaire maritime du Saint-Laurent : suivi annuel 1998. Rapport final. GREMM, Tadoussac, Qc. Contrat #C5125-8-1453, Parcs Canada, Québec. vi + 9 pp + 4 cartes.

Michaud, R., C. Bédard, M. Mingelbier, et M.-C. Gilbert. 1997. Les activités d’observation en mer des cétacés dans l’estuaire maritime du Saint-Laurent 1985-1996: Une étude de la répartition spatiale des activités et des facteurs favorisant la concentration des bateaux sur les sites d’observation. Rapport final. GREMM, Tadoussac, Qc. Contrat #C5085-7-0408, Parcs Canada, Québec. 58 pp.