Summer 2008 in Newfoundland Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   

My report on this summer's whale research in Canada, this time in Newfoundland, has been delayed by the birth of our second daughter, Somers, two weeks ago today, and a month ahead of schedule. While snorkeling and free-diving some three miles off Somerset (Bermuda!) late Sunday afternoon on a perfect day during the long weekend of the 31st of August, Annabel's waters broke. Somers was born three hours later and she couldn't have chosen a better way to announce her arrival.

Newfoundland has had a long history of whaling over many centuries and the remains of whales and whaling stations are to be found all along the coastline. We began our Newfoundland research by traveling immediately to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, arriving at Elaine's Bed and Breakfast at dusk. The next morning at breakfast we spotted several groups of whales and we were soon out on the water in a small zodiac observing not only humpback, but also fin and minke whales. It was a whale enthusiast's dream come true. Lots of whales, unperturbed by our presence, feeding off the spawning capelin.


There were plenty of puffins and other seabirds feeding too. What amazed me more than anything was not only the many humpbacks, but their close proximity to the giant fin (second only in size to the blue whale), the elusive, small but fast minke, and the massive sperm whales as shown below.


Within minutes I had two individual fluke shots of humpback whales and by the end of two days on the water had as many as a dozen seperate fluke ids.

We also noticed a mother and calf humpback and the calf seemed to be listing to one side. At one point the calf surfaced right beside the zodiac and we could see what appeared to be an orca bite mark on the body just behind the right dorsal fin. We also had anecdotal reports of sightings of orcas along the Newfoundland coast. Although witnessing an orca attack on a humpback calf seems to be relatively rare, seeing an injured animal such as this seemed further proof that orcas do attack young humpbacks in these waters. The wound did not seem to be severe, although it was fresh, and I am sure the humpback calf survived the injury. Seeing this wounded calf did convince me even more that the humpbacks may be using seamounts such as Bermuda during their migration north to group together into large social units for protection against the orcas as they approach their northern feeding grounds.

Between outings on the zodiac we walked along the East Coast Trail. The first day we were shadowed just a stone's throw out to sea by a mother humpback and her calf for some hours. When we reached another bay we lay down in a open meadow on the headland and counted several social units of humpback, fin and minke whales.


From Witless Bay we proceded to Trinity, on the Bonavista Peninsula overlooking Trinity Bay where we stayed with Dr Peter Beamish for four days and again went out twice a day on zodiacs where we not only observed humpbacks, fins and minke whales at close quarters and in abundance, but also sperm whales feeding further out over a deep water canyon. We also found small icebergs drifting along the rocky shore.


What was particularly impressive for me here was not just the number and variety of whales, but the dense population of capelin. The waters were dark with their biomass. On several occasions we found them spawning on the peppled beaches, returning to the ocean to die or to be consumed by the foraging whales or the many bald eagles. On one beach we must have seen a couple of dozen bald eagles feeding off the stranded capelin. I have footage of the capelin which I will add to youtube the moment I have some more time.


We found the occasional rack of cod set out to dry but the rich cod fishing grounds have been so depleted of their cod that fishermen are only permitted a couple of cod per day. We did see racks of capelin set out to dry and this is what it must have looked like decades ago but instead of racks lined with the tiny capelin, they would have been laden with the much larger cod.


Once again it was relatively easy to begin accumulating whale fluke id photographs and I shall begin a catalogue of whale fluke photographs from Bermuda and Newfoundland and Nova Scotia as soon as time permits.

I heard from many Newfoundlanders that humpback whales come in very close to the rocky shoreline to feed on the dying capelin. Often the humpbacks seem to be right on the rocks and with the swell and waves I wonder if this accounts for the long white scars along the lower right-hand jaws of the humpbacks that I have observed underwater here in Bermuda. The scars look like severe abrasions that might have been the result of feeding off a pebbled or rocky shore and inadvertantly scraping the jaw on the shore.

Curiously we only found the humpbacks breaching when they were off the headlands, as if signalling to other whales that they were there, and possibly that food was to be found. The humpbacks move along the Newfoundland coast in waves, following the spawning capelin.

Having observed whales in New Zealand, Vancouver Island, off the East Coast of the United States, Nova Scotia, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Antarctica, Spitsbergen and Norway, there cannot be much doubt that observing whales in Newfoundland is about as good, if not better, than anywhere else in the world. Where else could you see humpbacks, fins, minkes, sperms and white-beaked dolphins in a morning outing? Where else could you see whales from shore?


And where else could you be so close to fin whales that you can observe the asymmetrical white patch on the lower right jaw while the left side of the jaw is grey or black. This type of  asymmetry is universal  amonst fin whales and thus is unique among cetaceans and is one of the keys to making a full identification. It is hypothesized to have evolved because the whale swims on its right side when surface lunging and it often circles to the right while at the surface above a prey patch. Take a look below and you can see the white patch under the jaw as well as the white chevron on the fluke.

Returning through Halifax to Bermuda I had the opportunity to meet once again with Dr Hal Whitehead of the University of Dalhousie where we discussed some of my findings over the past two seasons. More on that subject later.

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