Right Whales of the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Written by Kelsey Howe

Historically, reports of sightings of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (GSL) have been sporadic and small in number, which is why not a whole lot of survey effort has taken place there.  However, following a 25-30 whale aggregation photographed last summer by our colleagues at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and recent drops in Bay of Fundy (BOF) sightings, the Shelagh embarked on a voyage into somewhat uncharted waters, unsure of what we would find.

"Io," the first right whale of the trip! Photo: Johanna Anderson

As mentioned in Philip’s earlier blog, the highlight of the first Shelagh trip was seeing 5 of the 12 remaining calves from this year and their mothers. However, we did photograph a handful of other right whales east of Percé (QC) and Miscou Island (NB) that also deserve to be mentioned, such as Catalog #4340, the 2013 calf of Wart who is suspected of being born in Northeast waters, unlike the majority of calves which are birthed in the Southeast.

Wart's infamous 2013 calf. Photo: Pete Duley
Catalog #4092, lobtailing. Photo: Kelsey Howe

Given the recent shuffling of habitat use over the past five years, here are some of the general takeaways from these whales’ BOF and GSL sighting histories: three out of the six have been seen in GSL before; five out of six have a history in BOF; all three of the older whales are male and haven’t been sighted in BOF in at least five years (2005, 2009, and 2011, respectively), even though they all historically had been frequent visitors.  It is also worth mentioning that out of our five mothers of the year, two had been seen in GSL before, and four had been previously sighted in BOF.

Catalog #1427, a 32 y.o. male. Photo: Johanna Anderson
A small surface active group. Photo: Pete Duley

So, what does it all mean?  As morphing currents and climate change affect plankton, are right whales starting to look farther afield (like GSL) for food when their usual haunts (BOF) come up empty?  Is GSL becoming a new hot spot for right whales, or has the region consistently been used by these whales and we’re simply just receiving more sighting reports? Is there any gender or age correlation in these observations? Do there seem to be more questions than answers?  Welcome to the club. All of these inquiries and more are what pushed our surveys farther afield this season, and we plan to continue investigating these new areas in upcoming years with the hope of getting a better picture of the whales’ shifting movements and habitat usage, and why these shifts are happening in the first place.

Catalog #4440, a 2 y.o. male. Photo: Kelsey Howe