Who are the northern bottlenose whales of the Scotian Shelf?

A small, endangered population of northern bottlenose whales inhabits a limited area some 200 km off Nova Scotia’s coast. A good understanding of the biology of this population is required in order to ensure better protection.

To go through the looking glass

Almost every year since 1988, Hal Whitehead and his team visit the deep underwater canyons off Nova Scotia. They study the small population of resident northern bottlenose whales from aboard their research sailboat Balaena. The research team observes and notes the position, movement and behaviour of these animals and photo-identifies them. They also record northern bottlenose whale vocalizations along with ambient sounds, including the vocalizations of other whales and noise from seismic surveys and ships. Finally, they note the presence of other species that visit the area.

In short

The Scotian Shelf northern bottlenose whale population is made up of a mere 130 animals. Whales that are members of this population do not appear to migrate. They live 1400 km south of their closest neighbouring population, the northern bottlenose whales of northern Labrador. Although they are not a distinct species, they are a genetically distinct population. On average, they are smaller than their Labrador counterparts and appear to breed at a different time of the year.

Northern bottlenose whales of the Scotian Shelf depend heavily on the Sable Island Gully, a deep underwater canyon where 34 percent of the population resides permanently. They also visit other canyons in the area: the Shortland Canyon and the Haldiman Canyon. Unfortunately these three canyons are situated near gas leases, which represent the most important threat to this population.

Project leader

Hal Whitehead Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia)


Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), World Wildlife Fund Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Scientific papers

COSEPAC. 2002. Évaluation et Rapport de situation du COSEPAC sur la baleine à bec commune (Hyperoodon ampullatus) (population du plateau néo-écossais) au Canada – Mise à jour. Comité sur la situation des espèces en péril au Canada. Ottawa. Vii + 25 p.

Whitehead. H., A. Faucher, S. Gowans et S. McCarrey. 1996. Rapport de situation du COSEPAC sur la baleine à bec commune (Hyperoodon ampullatus) (population du Goulet de l’île de Sable) au Canada – Mise à jour. Ottawa. Comité sur la situation des espèces en péril au Canada. Ottawa. Pages 1-25.

Hooker, S. K., H. Whitehead, and S. Gowans. 2002. Ecosystem consideration in conservation planning: energy demand of foraging bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus) in a marine protected area. Biological Conservation 104:51-58.

Hooker, S.K., and H. Whitehead. 2002. Click characteristics of northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus). Marine Mammal Science 18:69-80.

Hooker, S.K., H. Whitehead H, S. Gowans and R.W. Baird. 2002. Fluctuations in distribution and patterns of individual range use of northern bottlenose whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series 225: 287-297.

Gowans, S., H. Whitehead and S.K. Hooker. 2001. Social organization in northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus): not driven by deep water foraging? Animal Behaviour 62: 369-377.

Hooker, S.K., R.W. Baird, S. Al-Omari, S. Gowans and H. Whitehead. 2001. Behavioral reactions of northern bottlenose whales to biopsy and tagging procedures. Fishery Bulletin, U.S. 99: 303-308.

Gowans, S., H. Whitehead, J.K. Arch and S.K. Hooker. 2001. Population size and residency patterns of northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus) using the Gully, Nova Scotia. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 2: 2201-210.

Gowans, S. and H. Whitehead. 2001. Photographic identification of northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus): sources of heterogeneity from natural marks. Marine Mammal Science 17:76-93.

Gowans, S., M.L. Dalebout, S.K. Hooker and H. Whitehead. 2000. Reliability of photographic and molecular techniques for sexing northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus). Canadian Journal of Zoology 78: 1224-1229.

Hooker, S.K., H. Whitehead and S. Gowans. 1999. Marine protected area design and the spatial and temporal distribution of cetaceans in a submarine canyon. Conservation Biology 13: 592-602.

Whitehead, H., A. Faucher, S. Gowans and S. McCarrey. 1997. Status of the Northern Bottlenose Whale, Hyperoodon ampullatus, in the Gully, Nova Scotia. Canadian Field Naturalist 111: 287-292.

Whitehead, H., S. Gowans, A. Faucher and S. McCarrey. 1997. Population analysis of northern bottlenose whales in the Gully, Nova Scotia. Marine Mammal Science 13: 173-185.

Gowans, S. and H. Whitehead. 1995. Distribution and habitat partitioning by small cetaceans in the Gully, a submarine canyon on the Scotian Shelf. Canadian Journal of Zoology 73: 1599-1608.

Dufault, S. and H. Whitehead. 1994. Floating marine pollution in “the Gully” on the continental slope, Nova Scotia, Canada. Marine Pollution Bulletin 28: 489-493.

Reeves, R.R., E. Mitchell and H. Whitehead. 1994. Current status of the northern bottlenose whale, Hyperoodon ampullatus. Canadian Field Naturalist 107: 490-508.