14 May 2017

The Blue Whale of East Berlin

Zack Metcalfe, Herald News

What the death of a juvenile means for the species at large

The first whale I ever encountered was a blue, greeting me with a wave of her fluke in the fall of 2015 off Gaspésie. Myself and researchers of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) chased her and others up and down this mountainous coastline the entirety of that September day, just as my hosts have done since their founding in 1979. In fact when it comes to the blue whales of the Northwest Atlantic - which is to say, the east coast of North America - there are none more knowledgeable than my companions on that boat.

It was they who first discovered individual blue whales could be told apart using the unique pattern of pigmentation on their backs, dotting their skin like spilled paint, each splatter different from the last. In this way, MICS built the first catalogue of blue whales anywhere on Earth and from it, we’ve learned volumes about the gentle giants of Atlantic Canada, even gracing a few with names. The individual who greeted me off Gaspésie is called Alacran.

So to appreciate the trials and tribulations of this magnificent animal on our coastline, there is no more informative a source than MICS and its founder Richard Sears.

Originally the blue whales of the Northwest Atlantic fell to whaling, losing some 1,700-2,000 members back in the day, but even in the absence of this threat their population has remained in the low hundreds, falling victim instead to fatal collisions with ship traffic, entanglement in fishing gear, environmental pollutants and perhaps competition for food. In 2009 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) estimated there were 250 mature blue whales left in our waters.

Of course, no one knows for certain, given the enormous range of this population, much of which is still a mystery even to Richard. But if we’re to use 250 as a benchmark, then we must subtract the nine adult blues crushed in ice flows off Newfoundland in 2014. For such a long-lived species, so slow to reproduce and already qualified as critically endangered, the loss of a single individual is a significant blow. So to lose nine at once reduced this population by an entire percentage point.

But after 38 seasons on the water, Richard told me the untimely death of these adults is only half the trouble facing our local blues.

The Empty Cradle

With hundreds of individual blues added to the MICS catalogues since 1979, there has arisen a troubling trend which Richard has outlined for me on several occasions. In all that time, of all the blues accounted for in the Northwest Atlantic, a mere 23 of them have been calves, at least since last year.

With the number of adult blues apparently in decline, our hopes for this population turn necessarily to the next generation, but for the most part, we find an empty cradle. The 23 calves Richard and his colleagues have identified on our coast suggest alarming reproductive failure among our remaining blues, the cause of which remains a mystery, as well as a thorn in the side of all those who study these animals.

I remember clearly on that day in early September, 2015, when a male and female pair of passed immediately in front of our small craft, bobbing at the surface as they sucked in tremendous gulps of oxygen in preparation for a feeding dive. To see that much muscle, that much blubber...that much life pass immediately in front of you is an experience unto itself. The largest animal in all of natural history, close enough for a free throw.

As we followed behind them Richard gained the front of our craft and sighed. Under his breath, I heard his mutter in frustration, “why aren’t these whales having calves?”

A Morning To Remember

On March 17 of this year, another of our local blues was struck from the reproductive pool as photographs were taken of a carcass at sea. The individual was first spotted off Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, and after an intermission of weeks was found again 50km off the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, reported to the Marine Animal Response Society (MARS) on April 9.

Tonya Wimmer is MARS’ founder and someone I’ve had the pleasure of encountering for previous articles. She and her colleagues are first responders of sorts, saving marine species in peril wherever possible and learning what they can from each that washes ashore. In the morning of Friday, May 12, I woke to her email.

She told me this particular carcass, after months at sea, had beached on May 2 in East Berlin, Nova Scotia, and after towing it onto a beach one kilometre north, MARS and a plethora of partners were beginning the necropsy that morning. I was out the door inside fifteen minutes.

In attendance was the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Oceanographic Environmental Research Society, Dalhousie University, the New Brunswick Museum, MARS and Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust, representing both the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative and the Atlantic Veterinary College, himself and MARS heading the effort. Each organization was lending a hand in exchange for its pound of flesh, eager to learn everything they could from this sad ordeal.

The body itself was sobering to me, having seen the living majesty of this species up close, all the same enamouring qualities now a twisted mess of tissue being pushed about by the rising tide. On this massive carcass worked the professionals, their students and volunteers, removing what wasn’t necessary and preserving the rest. The smell was awful.

Tonya told me this carcass was in relatively good condition, thanks to the seasonal cold of the ocean. When the animal died, however, the first thing it shed was its skin, including the unique pigmentation which might have allowed us to identify this individual in MICS’ catalogue. Now we must rely on DNA analysis to learn if it had a name, or if we know its parents.

The most telling characteristic, however, obvious to everyone on site, was its size. When it comes to sheer heft the blue whale has no rival, even from the age of dinosaurs, but the record length of this species is still unclear. The longest blue ever measured was killed on February 16, 1919, coming in at 35 metres long (115 feet), but the accuracy of this claim has met with some doubt. According to Dan Bortolotti in his book Wild Blue: A Natural History of the World’s Largest Animal, adults in the Northwest Atlantic can reach 25 metres long (80 feet) - humbler maybe, yet stupefying.

But while the blue whale of East Berlin was astounding in size, testing the dexterity of everyone at work, it measured a mere 18 metres long (60 feet) or thereabouts, Tonya told me. This blue, to everyone’s regret, was one of the few youngsters inhabiting the Northwest Atlantic. Worse yet, she was female.

“When you lose a female, you’re not just losing her,” Tonya said to me. “You’re losing every possible baby she could have had in her lifetime.”

She estimated this juvenile might have gone on to mother 5-6 calves in the coming decades, had fate been kinder; another loss our local blues could not afford. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was one of the 23 calves spotted by Richard and his colleagues, something we might never know for sure.

The question on hand that day was of course what killed her, which could take days or weeks to sort out as these scientists form their consensus, but according to Tonya the animal’s outsides offered no clues. As I watched the layers of this carcass stripped away our priorities were explained to me — the state of her bones, the contents of her stomach and the overall concentration of environmental contaminates.

All told the necropsy would take two days, Tonya hoped, but with an animal this size nothing is for certain. As of press time I wasn’t able to learn how they made out. The skeleton will go to the Dalhousie University Faculty of Agriculture, I’m told, so its remaining soft tissue can be safely removed. While the death of this animal is nothing short of tragic, the learning opportunity this necropsy presents is unparalleled and with luck, the recovered skeleton can stay in Atlantic Canada, unlike others gathered in Newfoundland and PEI which both ended up out west.

It was a difficult day for those of us rooting for this extraordinary species.

Critical Habitat

I began my association with the blue whales of the Northwest Atlantic by supporting the creation of their critical habitat in 2014. These are protected areas which all endangered species are entitled to under the Species at Risk Act, for the sake of their recovery. But the deadline for the identification and protection of blue whale critical habitat in Atlantic Canadian waters has long since passed, and not for lack of knowledge.

“For blue whales we’ve known where some of their core habitat is for a long time,” Tonya told me, “but there most definitely has been a lag in getting those areas legally identified and protected.”

In fairness, the Species at Risk Act only came into force in 2002 and there is a sizeable backlog of plants and animals waiting for critical habitat of their own. Just before taking my leave of this beach and its unfortunate whale, Tonya said the federal government has indeed been making progress toward blue whale critical habitat in recent years. She expects to see it before long.

Speaking as a keen observer, I’d say we’re at a crossroads in our treatment of species at risk in Atlantic Canada. For some it’s the eleventh hour and I can only hope the unfortunate and consequential death of this young female is enough for us to safeguard her surviving family, and that the mounting of her skeleton somewhere in our fine province will keep their fight for survival firmly in mind.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance environmental journalist, author, and writer of the Endangered Perspective. He operates out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.