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Ocean Animals

5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Canadian Whales

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Humback Whale. Photo from Nature Canada

Three oceans surround Canada: the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic. Together, they provide rich and abundant coastlines to 11 of 13 provinces and territories (including the Hudson Bay lining Ontario and Manitoba). In all three of these oceans, numerous whale species reside. Canada is home to many critical habitats for marine mammal breeding and feeding. Thousands of beluga whales return to the chilly waters of Manitoba each summer to birth their calves; in the late summer and early fall, endangered north Atlantic right and humpback whales head to the Bay of Fundy (the “big bathtub” between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) to eat their weight in tiny plankton and copepods.

The whales are as important to Canada as Canada is to the whales. Ecotourism is a massive industry across the country, providing Canadians the opportunity to view marine mammals in their natural habitat. Marine mammals are also a vital food source for many northern communities. Whales are also crucial to the functionality of the ocean food chain (but we’ll get back to that). Let’s explore some of the most interesting and bizarre facts about Canada’s whales!

1. The World Largest Group of Beluga Whales Visits Manitoba Annually

Beluga whales trapped at ice hole (Delphinapterus leucas) too far away to reach open sea, Canadian High Arctic. June 1999

Beluga whales trapped at ice hole (Delphinapterus leucas) too far away to reach open sea, Canadian High Arctic. June 1999. Photo from WWF Canada.

Every summer, approximately 57,000 beluga whales migrate to the western Hudson Bay to breed in the calm, safe waters of the Churchill, Nelson, and Seal River estuaries. The whales are from multiple genetically distinct populations, but they all share the common habitat, which is away from predators and sea ice. But, recent changes to our climate are causing the waters of the Hudson Bay to warm. This is allowing killer whales to enter the belugas’ territory more frequently. While research is ongoing, the presence of killer whales in the western Hudson Bay will likely negatively impact the breeding beluga populations. Therefore, scientists and government organizations and working to monitor the whales in order to protect them for ecological purposes, as well as for subsistence hunting by Inuit communities that rely on the belugas as a vital food resource.

2. Narwhals Are Not Actually Unicorns (Sorry)

While commonly referred to as the Unicorns of the Sea, the “horn” on a narwhal is actually a tusk, or an elongated tooth. Up to 8.5 feet long, the males’ tusk forms as the canine tooth grows out through their upper jaw (if your wisdom teeth have come in, you can imagine this is not a pleasant experience). The tusk serves multiple purposes that are vital to their survival. For starters, the males occasionally use their tusks for fighting over territory, breeding females, or dominance. Scientists also suspect that their tusks help them sense stimuli from their surrounding waters (i.e. hormones from females or prey); the tusk is not encased in enamel, making it a porous network of complex sensors.

3. Whale Poop is VERY Important!

All whales, including Canadian whales, contribute hugely to marine ecosystem nutrient cycling. Most whales eat miniscule prey in high quantities: for example, blue whales near Gaspé, Québec, can eat up to 9,000 pounds of plankton per day during their summer feeding season. After the plankton is digested, their excrement high is very high in iron. These essential nutrients are spread throughout the ocean, feeding plankton, benthic or bottom-dwelling species, and (by association) other species higher in the food web.

Whale poop is also a fantastic resource for marine scientists. From fecal samples, marine biologists can extract information about what whales are eating and the levels of toxins accumulating in their bodies. In fact, there are specialized poop-tracking dogs that are trained to sniff whale feces from over 1 nautical mile away from a research vessel!

4. Boats Must Stay 100 Meters Away from Canadian Whales

Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) . Friendly individual with whale watchers - no model release. San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, Mexico. Classified as Lower Risk on the IUCN Red List.

Grey Whale (Eschrichtius robustus)
. Friendly individual with whale watchers – no model release.
San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, Mexico. Classified as Lower Risk on the IUCN Red List. Photo from OceanWideImages

 Whales are curious, intelligent creatures that often investigate unknown objects in their habitat. It is common that a whale will approach a vessel, either intentionally or unintentionally, giving passengers a closer look at them. But, boaters are not allowed to approach the whales themselves: Canada’s whale watching guidelines insist that you must stop your engine completely if a whale is 100 meters from your ship. This protects the animals from the risk of being hit by a vessel, and reduces the stresses associated with from loud motor noise. These rules apply to all vessels, from motorboats to kayaks. So, if you find yourself in the presence of a whale, remember to stay clear of their path, do not approach them too closely, and always reduce your speed to prevent injury.

5. Most Canadian Whales Are International Citizens

While whales can be seen in Canadian waters year round, most are only visitors during the spring, summer, and fall. For instance, grey, humpback, and right whales annually traverse from warm winter breeding grounds to northern feeding grounds. North Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic waters have high abundances of zooplankton during summer blooms; whales will feed for approximately 4 months before beginning their journey south to birth calves. In order to facilitate their demanding lifestyles, grey whales (which can been seen along the coast of British Columbia in the spring and fall) travel over 20,000 kilometers round trip every year! As northern waters warm, plankton blooms are increasing in biomass and seasonal duration, which is currently positively affecting the body condition of migratory marine mammals. However, the timing of plankton blooms may shift as temperatures continue to change, potentially causing a mismatch between the arrival of whales and the presence of their food. While many species of whales are slowly increasing in population size, scientists are constantly monitoring their populations’ health, due to concerns that this trend may not last.

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With such incredible aquatic resources, Canadians are fortunate and responsible for protecting the marine mammals that frequent our waters. Bizarre, incredible, and impressive, the above facts about Canadian whales will equip you to start important discussions about their conservation with your friends and family!

References 

http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/projects/oceans-north-canada/northern-solutions/hudson-bay-beluga-project/beluga-facts

http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2014/04/03/298778615/the-power-of-poop-a-whale-story

http://wildwhales.org/watching-whales/whale-watching-guidelines/

http://www.techtimes.com/articles/4589/20140320/narwhal-tusk-scientists-finally-solve-real-purpose.htm

http://www.whaleroute.com/migrate/