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Her Name Was Alacran

by Zack Metcalfe

Shown above is the fluke of Alacran, the first blue whale ever encountered by the author of this article. She was first identified by the Mingan Island Cetacean Study on August 18, 1985, in the St Lawrence Gulf.  Zack Metcalfe photo
Shown above is the fluke of Alacran, the first blue whale ever encountered by the author of this article. She was first identified by the Mingan Island Cetacean Study on August 18, 1985, in the St Lawrence Gulf. Zack Metcalfe photo

It took us eight minutes to spot our first whale after leaving harbour. Just eight minutes before field biologist Katy Gavrilchuk pointed parallel to the coast of Gaspé and shouted “eleven o’clock!”

The world’s largest animals are remarkably difficult to see on the open ocean. Even their titanic bodies make only a modest impression on the horizon, like a black strip against the waves. The sound from their mighty exhalations sometimes doesn’t reach you for many moments after they’ve broken the surface, by which time they’re preparing for another dive. The smoky discharge from their blowholes is difficult to distinguish from clouds and fog. For these reasons I had to strain my eyes to spot the leviathan at eleven o’clock.

It was just a sliver of colour in the distance, but the closer we drew, the more I saw. First there was its spout as it reached the surface a second time, then the bulge as it arched its back for another dive, then there was its tail fin (known as a fluke).

“It’s a blue,” Katy said to me as our boat drew nearer. This was music to my ears.

My meeting with the illusive blue whale was grossly overdue at this point. From May of last year until the beginning of this summer I’d spent the majority of my time heading a public awareness initiative called the Blue Whale Campaign, which focused on endangered species in Atlantic Canada. The critically endangered blue whale, of course, took centre stage.

For my work I wrote articles and press releases, spoke on the radio and television, and even confronted political figures in Ottawa on behalf of the Northwest Atlantic blue whale population, all without having ever seen one. Now, finally, here she was...and her name was Alacran.

We identified her using one of my photographs - one of her fluke as she made another dive in search of her zooplankton breakfast. There’s a chip in her fin which gives her away.

Alacran was first spotted among the Mingan Islands in the St Lawrence Gulf, Aug 18, 1985, and I saw her Aug 25, 2015, so she’s at least in her thirties. I wondered which whale would be my embassador to this species...and I was fortunate to have the one I did.

As though eager to make a good first impression, Alacran did something very rare among blues. When diving she raised her fluke high into the air, as described earlier. Typically their bodies just sink in one tremendous downward thrust which keeps their fluke below the surface, but this whale was generous.

We reached the spot where Alacran had vanished beneath the waves and there we waited. It was suddenly very quiet aboard our modest vessel, with all talk reduced to whispers and the boat’s motor slowed to a gentle rumble. My hosts recorded the time of Alacran’s dive, measuring the duration between her surfacings. The length of each dive depends on the whale, it was explained to me. Some dives were as short as eight minutes, while others could last twenty.

Apart from fielding my numerous questions, our three biologists kept their eyes on the surrounding ocean, counting down the minutes before Alacran sounded her respiratory trumpet once more. In those intervening minutes I realized something extraordinary. The spot where this whale had dove was behaving...strangely. The surface water, in a roughly circular blotch about five metres in diameter, was smooth - free from the windy ripples which disturbed surrounding waters. There was a clear line, a barrier between these two “moods” of surface water, which lingered for as long as we were within eyeshot.

These are known as whale footprints. I’d never heard of such a thing before.

Alacran surfaced a little over ten minutes later and by then she’d traveled the better part of a kilometre. Our engine roared and we were off in her direction, getting close enough for me to snap the photo which confirmed her identity.

Our biologists consulted no database in order to make this identification. They needed only their memories and, in fact, they suspected it was Alacran even before I took my photograph. The chief biologist among them, Richard Sears, is the founder and CEO of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS), which has pioneered our understanding of Atlantic Canadian blue whales since 1979. They were the first organization anywhere to undertake long-term study of this species. Nearly forty years in pursuit of these gentle giants has made him intimately acquainted with them.

Whenever we had the good fortune of coming up on a blue whale while it was up for air, Richard would stand at the bow of our tiny boat and take a barrage of photographs with his long-lensed DSLR. If our proximity was good and the sunlight in our favour, he could make confident guesses as to the identity of each whale.

Some blues, like Alacran, have defining marks such as scars which set them apart, but fortunately for researchers, there’s a more universal means or telling individual blue whales apart. Each of these marine giants is born with a unique pattern of pigmentation on their back, like a smattering of dark blue paint. We need only to photograph these patterns to create a catalogue of individual whales, which of course MICS has done. To Richard, these unique patterns are like nametags.

From our point of launch at L’Anse-à-Valleau, on the nose of the Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec, we followed the coast northwest, moving from one whale to another. The routine with Alacran was repeated.

We spot the whale’s spout on the horizon and follow it to find the footprint. We wait the necessary eight to twenty minutes for this whale to surface, then we draw as close as possible before it finishes filling its lungs and dives yet again.

The whales I saw would spend between thirty seconds and a minute at the surface between dives, dipping up and down among the waves while their blowholes sucked in torrents of oxygen. Then, with a mighty plunge, they were gone. Studying these creatures is like a game of whack-a-mole on an oceanic scale, except replace the moles with the largest animal on Earth and lengthen the interval between “whacks” enough to torture you with anticipation.

During these moments of excitement, our crew was torn between the urgency of reaching these whales in time and the subtlety required not to spook them. The roaring of our motor and the swift approach of our craft seemed to frighten the whales into premature dives.

“The largest animals on Earth,” Richard commented after one failed approach, shaking his head at the undue shyness of these gigantic mammals. “You have to be so careful with them.”

It was a pair of whales we were approaching then and when they dove, we settled in for another long wait. By this time our intermissions had become less formal and the boat’s five crew members (three biologists, a tourist and myself) took seats wherever there was room, and indulged in conversation.

We hadn’t succeeded in getting very close to any blues by then, so it was by some miracle that, while we lazed away the minutes, these two whales surfaced simultaneously not 50 metres off our port side. What’s more - they were heading our way.

“Nobody move!” Richard shouted in the excitement. Our motor was off and, following Richard’s instructions, no one dared take a step. To beat against the floor of the boat in any way, by walking for example, would translate into underwater noise and perhaps cause the whales to change course. As it was, they were going to pass right in front of us.

“It doesn’t get better than this,” whispered field biologist David Gaspard, standing behind the wheel as Katy and Richard silently rose to their feet, taking up their cameras.

The proceeding moments were the highlight of this trip and easily rank among my finest memories. Blue whales can grow to be 30 metres long and weigh approximately 200 tonnes. To quote noted broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough, “its tongue weighs as much as an elephant, its heart is the size of a car and some of its blood vessels are so wide that you can swim down them.”

Facts and quotes are well and good, but they do the size and splendor of these animals no justice. To see that much muscle, that much blubber...that much life pass immediately in front of you is an experience unto itself. The movement of blue whales at the surface consists of several small dives from which they return almost immediately for more air. This is done before their big dive, which lasts the aforementioned eight to twenty minutes.

These two whales granted us many small dives during their transit. I don’t trust myself to judge the distance between us and them at the nearest, but it was close enough to leave me agape. Sometime later, Katy said you never get used to seeing these whales. Their majesty never gets old. I sincerely hope she’s right.

The largest of the two whales led their crusade eastward along the coast, this one being the female. The smaller whale bringing up the rear, the male, was an individual usually standoffish and timid where boats were concerned, Richard told me afterward. His refusal to leave the female, however, must have given him courage during their swim-by.

“Why aren’t these whales having calves?” Richard said to himself while following this pair through his binoculars. This was one of the more disheartening discoveries made by MICS in the last 36 years. In all that time, Richard and his colleagues have identified a mere 23 baby blue whales in the Northwest Atlantic population. This suggests a frighteningly low calving rate. Scarier still, we don’t know the cause.

To this day we don’t know where Northwest Atlantic blue whales give birth. For that reason it’s difficult to pinpoint the culprit in their reproductive failures. A working theory of Richard’s points to the buildup of toxins in adult whales, but more work needs to be done to know for sure. Perhaps these toxins are preventing conception altogether.

In order to tackle this mystery, among others, MICS takes skin and blubber samples from the whales they catalogue. I was able to observe this sampling process in the early afternoon.

Katy moved to the bow of our boat carrying a crossbow, which she armed and loaded with an arrow of peculiar design. Its end consisted of a small, metal cylinder perhaps a few millimetres in diametre which acted as the arrowhead, cleaned in 70-90 per cent alcohol before use. When fired, this cylinder took a sample of the whale’s flesh to a depth of approximately one inch. The arrow then bounced off, was retrieved, and the sample was stored for later analysis. I don’t suspect the whale even noticed.

The skin of a blue whale is surprisingly thin, accounting for very little of the sample’s depth. Most of it was blubber. From this, Katy explained, we learn the whale’s gender, its genetic history and the quantities of pollution stored in its fat. We can also learn what it’s been eating, if it’s pregnant or ready to become pregnant, and testosterone levels in males. We can even judge the whale’s overall condition by the presence of stress hormones like cortisol. By the day’s end, we’d sampled two whales in this way.

Before the hunting of blue whales became illegal in 1966, between 1,700-2,000 fell victim to the whaling industry in Atlantic Canada. Since then they’ve suffered a gradual decline, caused in part by underwater noise pollution, ship collisions, the aforementioned reproductive failures and other miscellaneous factors. In 2013 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) estimated there were fewer than 250 blue whales left on our coast. That number has almost certainly declined since then.

It’s safe to say these whales have fallen on hard times, but so has the organization which studies them.

The Mingan Island Cetacean Study built the first catalogues of humpback, finback and minke whales in Atlantic Canada and the first blue whale catalogues anywhere in the world. From their work we’ve learned things about population, distribution, migration, feeding grounds, birth rates and plenty more, knowledge essential to understanding and preserving these animals, many of whom are endangered.

Earlier this year I wrote a feature article about MICS, directing the bulk of my journalistic questioning toward Richard. He told about their early days of studying the Gulf, back when their insurance was cheaper, the staff was smaller, the boats were more conservative and science funding was plentiful. Well…plentiful enough.

Besides securing the occasional contract or grant to keep their research going over the years, MICS championed their own form of ecotourism, inviting people to come join them as they scoured the ocean in pursuit of whales. For a week or so, people can take part in MICS’ research, getting first hand experience in the Gulf of St Lawrence and elsewhere. Folks can even “adopt” the whales MICS’ has identified, contributing to research in the process. This is how they’ve supported themselves for 36 years...and still do.

Things aren’t so simple anymore, however, not for independents like MICS. Costs have gone up and funding has plummeted. Richard told me it takes between $200,000 - $250,000 a year to run the MICS research station properly, so their staff can continue answering questions most of us wouldn’t even know how to approach. When I wrote that story in February, they had less than half of what they needed for 2015. A fierce fundraising effort that spring allowed them to hit the waves, but the budget was tight.

While we waited for another whale to finish its feeding dive on the coast of Gaspé, Richard lay down in the boat’s bow. There I asked him if their financial situation had improved since my article. It hadn’t.

“I have no idea where next year’s money is coming from,” he said, his face covered by a cap which, remarkably, hadn’t blown away in the course of our day at sea. He had some of the money accounted for, of course, but not the $250,000 they needed.

It’s about more than the research, said Richard. It’s also about young professionals like David and Katy, exercising their skills and giving the field of biology a more optimistic future. It’s also about passing the baton so MICS can have a future beyond himself.

I wanted to spend every moment of daylight on that boat. I wanted to see the sunset while out at sea. Unfortunately the weather intervened. The wind became too strong and the waves grew considerably, so we were forced into harbour by midafternoon. Promises of wind and rain for the next two days spoiled my chances of going out again, but I didn’t leave disappointed.

The positions of blue whales and those who study them are equally precarious in Atlantic Canada. I had the privilege of coming face to face with them both on the same day and believe me, they’re worth keeping around.

To learn more about the Mingan Island Cetacean Study and how to donate, visit rorqual.com. Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, columnist and author. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and can be reached by email at zack.metcalfe@gmail.com.

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