Humpback whale could stay in Montreal for weeks

The humpback whale that went up the St. Lawrence River to Montreal is likely to remain in the region for a few weeks, according to experts who monitor the situation of this animal, which is hundreds of kilometers from its natural habitat and who could be in a collision with a boat.

Four days after arriving in Montreal, the humpback whale, which is attracting more and more curious people at the Quai de l’Horloge in the Old Port, was still present in the same area on Tuesday. She therefore continues to swim against the current, in the river, between Île Sainte-Hélène and the entrance to the Old Port. On Monday, after spending the whole day without making any significant trips, she even made a total of 50 jumps out of the water in the early evening.

The scientific director of the Research and Education Group on Marine Mammals (GREMM), Robert Michaud, explains that the experts are also preparing for a situation that is likely to continue, even if they want the animal to leave. itself towards the St. Lawrence estuary. “The cases documented elsewhere have usually lasted at least ten, even a fortnight,” he recalls.

“According to our starting scenarios, we thought that when the whale reached a dead end, it could turn around and start again. But if she stays, she could stay for a few weeks. Our plan A, now, is to provide that the animal will stay in place for at least two weeks, “added the man who has studied cetaceans in the St. Lawrence for over 35 years. A protocol for daily monitoring of the behavior of this young humpback whale is already in place. Scientists also plan to monitor the animal’s physical condition and health, including regular operations to photograph the whale.

The watchword, however, remains the same, says Michaud: there is no question of being “intrusive” and disturbing the whale. Rather, it is a question of letting nature take its course, since the whale went to Montreal by itself. She could therefore very well decide to turn around and go back to the St. Lawrence estuary, more than 400 kilometers away.

Risk of collisions

Several citizens met by The duty at the Quai de l’Horloge in recent days have suggested the idea of ​​making sounds underwater to scare the whale, or to attract it to the downstream portion of the St. Lawrence. This type of strategy does exist, explains Robert Michaud. “But the experiments tried before have not shown satisfactory results, and when there were results, it was a question of very short distances. Here, we have an animal that has more than 400 kilometers to go, so there are more risks, since a flight reflex would risk causing it to make mistakes and run aground. “

Citizens have also raised the need to install a beacon on this animal in order to track its movements. “There are significant risks for the animal if we use such a subcutaneous tag, since it does not have the antibodies to fight pathogens in freshwater. In addition, the animal is continuously monitored. Whatever its position, it will be reported to us quickly, ”says Robert Michaud.

For the moment, he underlines that the main risk remains a collision with a commercial ship, or even with a pleasure craft. “And the risks are shared. If a watercraft passes by the whale while it is resting, it is impossible to predict its reaction. ” Monday and Tuesday, The duty has in fact witnessed at least seven situations where boats have passed directly and at full speed in the restricted area where the whale was, despite federal regulations, which requires keeping a minimum distance of 100 meters from a Marine Mammal. This type of situation can lead to injuries that can be fatal for a cetacean.

The movement of boaters is however subject to surveillance, assure the authorities. And the Old Port said Tuesday that the marina will not be open until June 19. “We will work with the agencies involved if the whale is still around at the time,” said a spokesperson.

Mysterious jumps

Beyond the real risks for the survival of the animal in the short and medium term, this whale is arousing more and more interest, especially since the images of its spectacular jumps out of the water were disseminated. On Saturday, Sunday and Monday, this two or three year old humpback whale made several jumps, usually in the early evening.

How to explain this behavior? “There are several possible functions for this behavior, but in the specific case of this animal, I do not believe that there is a precise explanation. Even for animals that live freely, in their natural environment, there is no single explanation for these jumps, “says Michaud.

According to the various hypotheses put forward over the years to explain this regular behavior in humpback whales, “jumps can be used for hunting strategies, to communicate with other whales in the area, to express their stress or their aggressiveness, but also to play, which would explain that these behaviors are more frequent among young people.

Another mystery for scientists: can the whale feed in the fluvial section of the St. Lawrence, where we do not find the usual prey of the humpback whale, such as herring or capelin? Mr. Michaud explains that it is “possible” that this whale can feed in the area of ​​strong currents where it is found, “but nothing allows us to confirm this, just as it is difficult to confirm in a natural environment “

Humpback whales, which migrate several thousand kilometers each year, are able to live without eating for a period of time. “These animals are able to make prolonged fasts, but after two to four weeks, if she cannot eat, that could result in a deterioration of her physical condition. We are not talking about days, but weeks, “said Robert Michaud.

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