As part of St. Lawrence Week, Whales Online offers a glimpse of species that have a special meaning for each of our authors. A memory, a photo, a quote, a story. Every encounter with whales leaves an impression. Today, Béatrice Riché presents the North Atlantic Right Whale.
From the Basque Country to the St. Lawrence, over 1,000 Years of History
On your next stroll along the shores or on the St. Lawrence, you may encounter a black, round in shape, plump, and mighty whale. Like the one that comes to mind when we imagine a whale leaping into the air or feeding on the surface with its mouth wide open. The North Atlantic right whale shares a long history with the communities lining the river. For the Week of the St. Lawrence, we would like to share with you the story of this fragile cohabitation.
More than 1,000 years ago, right whale hunting began along the coasts of the Basque Country (northern Spain and southwestern France). Beginning in the early 1500s, the Basques also hunted right whales along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. In New England, hunting began in the late 1600s, peaked in the early 1700s, and continued into the early 1900s. Since it is a slow swimmer, spends a great deal of time feeding on the surface, stays close to the coasts and floats when dead due to its high blubber content, the right whale was an easy and prized prey.
In 1836, French zoologist and paleontologist Georges Frédéric Cuvier wrote in De l’histoire naturelle des cétacés, “They [the right whales] fled Man and took shelter in the icy waters of Greenland and Spitzbergen, Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, and no doubt in all the seas that cover the globe north of the Arctic Circle. They do not venture farther south; even if they did in the past, as we have a few reasons to believe, we are not currently seeing any stranded on our coasts [France], nor do any carcasses ever get washed up by the sea.”
Thirty years later, this theory whereby right whales fled Man is refuted. Pierre-Joseph Van Beneden, Belgian paleontologist and zoologist, writes in Les baleines et leur distribution géographique (1868), “it was believed that these animals [right whales] fled Man and took refuge in new areas to escape his pursuit. It was later recognized that this hypothesis was incorrect. When these animals become rarer in a bay or along a coast, it is not because they are taking refuge in new regions, as observations made along the Greenland coast prove, but that their numbers are declining; whales, seals and especially sea lions will soon suffer the same fate as the sea cow known as Steller’s, which Man’s greed has completely wiped out in a few years time.”
Researchers were thus aware that overhunting threatened the survival of the species. However, it was not until 1935 that an international convention put an end to this hunting. Only a few hundred right whales remain in the Northwest Atlantic population. As for the Northeast Atlantic population, it seems to have been extirpated, as observed by Cuvier.
Despite 80 years of protection, the right whale of the Northwest Atlantic is still struggling to recover. It faces significant threats, particularly bycatch in fishing gear, as discussed in a recent update on Whales Online. According to the most recent censuses, only about 500 individuals remain.
A few dozen individuals come to spend the summer in the St. Lawrence and some return year after year. Whale researchers know each individual by name, recognizing them thanks to the pattern of parasite-covered skin growths on their heads. They can tell you each individual’s unique and fascinating story – based on data collected since 1935! – and sometimes, unfortunately, its tragic ending.
This is notably the case of Piper, a female known to researchers since 1993, the first to have been fitted with a satellite transmitter, caught in fishing nets twice, having calved three times and found dead off Percé in 2015 (article in French). “It’s always sad to see a dead whale, especially an endangered whale, but it’s good to know that we can give it a second life by telling its story at the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre (CIMM) and thereby educate thousands of people about the existence of this fabulous animal,” points out CIMM director Patrice Corbeil in Tadoussac. The pectoral fins and all the bones were freed from their flesh. The 600 baleen have all been cleaned individually. That’s one gigantic task! Once the skeleton cleaning and assembly is completed, Piper will be added to the CIMM’s already unique collection of skeletons. An exhibit not to be missed on your next trip on the Côte-Nord region!
In the meantime, here are some of our best shots of right whales swimming, breaching and feeding in the waters of the St. Lawrence:
De l’histoire naturelle des cétacés (M.F. Cuvier, 1836)
Les baleines et leur distribution géographique (M.P.-J. Van Beneden, 1868)
The Urban Whale: North Atlantic Right Whales at the Crossroads (S. D. Kraus and R. Rolland, 2007)
To learn more
On Whales Online
To read the other texts from the St. Lawrence Week.
After several years abroad, where she worked on resource conservation, species at risk and climate change, Béatrice Riché is back on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, which she keeps watch over every day. As editor for the GREMM since 2016, she writes columns on whales with inspiration from events that take place here and afar.