Unhealthy Whales In The Bay Of Fundy

Written by Philip Hamilton

It has been a while since we have provided an update on our work in the Bay- we have been busy since we last wrote! We have been lucky with good weather and whales this season, resulting in 19 days at sea photographing right whales so far, with at least 70 different individuals documented to date! Some are whales we saw on our first days out in July, others are whales newly documented in the Bay this year. In fact, each day about half of the whales we see are ones we have not photographed yet this season. This suggests that either there are a lot of whales in the Bay and we are still discovering them all, or there are still new whales coming in, or both.

Velcro with lesions and line exiting his mouth. Photo: Amy Knowlton

Whales have been spread out over a large area- as far north and west as East Quoddy at the northern end of Campobello, N.B. and others over 30 miles to the south and east near the shipping lanes. Some of the whales look to be in very poor health such as Velcro (Catalog #1306)- a 33 year old male who has had a small piece of line in his mouth for over a year, Scoop (#1327)- an even older male whose year of birth is unknown, Truffula (#3791)- a nine year old male, Polyphemos (#1603)- a 30 year old male, and FDR (#4057) a six year old male who was disentangled in 2014 and then again this summer.

Truffula's left head. Photo: Kelsey Howe
Truffula's right head. Photo: Kelsey Howe
FDR during his 2nd disentanglement. Photo: Brigid McKenna

In some cases, the apparent poor health is likely related to past entanglements, but the cause is not clear in some whales. There was a period in the late 1990’s when as many as 35% of the right whales in the Bay of Fundy had skin lesions, and around that time calving decreased substantially. The cause of the lesions was never determined, nor a causal link to reproduction determined, but still these lesions are concerning.

Polyphemos' skin condition shocked us. Photo: Amy Knowlton
Scoop, looking unhealthy. Photo: Amy Knowlton
Dollar also appears in poor health. Photo: Brigid McKenna

Happily, not all right whales have poor skin this year. Others, like Clipper (#3450), Fuse (#3405), and 9 year old female #3991 (pictured below), are looking healthier.

#3991 is fat with unblemished black skin. Photo: Kelsey Howe

It has been years since we have had right whales consistently in the Bay, so we are curious to see how long they will remain. In 2014 we had quite a few right whales in early August, but they all left the Bay after two weeks. On survey this September 1, we had several whales traveling fast to the south and south east (including one whale swimming steadily down the Grand Manan Channel- the body of water that separates Lubec from Grand Manan- an area that right whales are rarely seen). This made us wonder if a mass exodus had begun, but over the following two surveys we found plenty of whales in the Basin, so, for now, most of the whales are sticking around.