Blue Whale (Atlantic population)
The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth. Its size is certainly impressive, but this does not make it invincible. For several years now, the blue whale has been on Canada’s list of threatened species, and the Atlantic population is currently listed as endangered. It lives in cold waters and has long been a favourite target for Atlantic whalers, which has greatly contributed to the species’ decline. Blue whales are easily recognized due to its imposing size, long body, prominent head, and particularly, the 9-metre spout of water from its blowhole!
The blue whale is a cold-water cetacean recognized by its long, slender body that is widest at the eyes. Its head takes up approximately one quarter of the total length of the body. Its dorsal fin is rather small and its pectoral fins are pointed.
Blue whales are part of the baleen whale family. The pattern of spots that cover its body can vary considerably, but it is unique to each whale and remains the same throughout its life. The pattern can therefore be used to identify individuals, which enables scientists to follow their movements and recognize their behaviours. The blue whale is enormous: the largest ever observed was 29.5 metres long and weighed more than 150 tonnes. On average blue whales are 20 metres long and females are generally larger than males. At birth, calves are around 7 metres long and weigh around 2 tonnes. That’s the size of a school bus and the weight of a minivan!
Did you think that the biggest creature to ever live on the planet was a dinosaur? Well, you’re wrong! The blue whale has the record! In fact, the largest of all dinosaurs only measured 24 metres and weighed 36 tonnes. The blue whale, however, can be up 29.5 meters and weigh 150 tonnes!
The blue whale spends most of its time in coastal waters and the deep sea. The Atlantic population of blue whales lives in the waters off the east coast of Canada. During the spring, summer and fall, these whales can be found along the north coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the east coast of Nova Scotia. During the summer, the Atlantic population can also be found along the south coast of Newfoundland and in the Davis Straight, between Baffin Island and Greenland. Blue whales generally migrate south for the winter; however, if the ice cover is thin, some whales may stay in the St. Lawrence for a good part of the cold season.
For several years now, the blue whale has been considered endangered by COSEWIC. A species or population is designated as endangered by COSEWIC if it is experiencing significant risks. The Atlantic blue whale is protected under the Government of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). It is also protected under the Marine Mammals Regulations, which fall under the Fisheries Act.
Some 200,000 blue whales once populated the world’s oceans. It is not known how many Blue whales are in the Atlantic population but between 20 and 105 are spotted annually in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Commercial hunting was the main reason for the decline of this species. Because of their large size, Blue Whales were highly desired by whalers as large quantities of oil and meat can be extracted from a dead whale. Even though commercial whaling ended in 1955 in the North Atlantic, there are still threats to the small populations of the Blue Whale left today. Current threats include disturbance by ships, collisions with ships, entrapment in fishing gear, pollution and environmental changes. Additionally, climate change is expected to have a significant impact on the Blue Whale’s food source in the near future, which will pose a new threat for the species.
The blue whale’s presence contributes in a very impressive way to the ecological diversity of the Estuary. During the 16th century, Basque hunters exploited this species in the St. Lawrence. For a long time, the blue whale hunt was the basis of an important industry. It is the over-exploitation of this species that led to its decline. Today, blue whales can only be “hunted” with a camera. Spotting a blue whale and being able to observe it in its natural habitat is an exceptional experience.
Populations of blue whales are relatively well distributed in the oceans, but the St. Lawrence is one of the rare areas in the world where they can be seen close to land. Therefore, it is even more important that we protect this special habitat so that we can continue to admire this impressive animal at close range.
The creation of new Marine Activities in the Saguenay St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations in 2002 is one of the most important measures by Parks Canada to encourage the recovery of the Atlantic blue whale population. These regulations, written in collaboration with the people who use the Marine Park waters, provide guidelines on the observation of marine mammals. The main objective of these regulations is to reduce the disturbance caused by human activities. The regulations were implemented in 2002, making it illegal to be closer than 400 metres to a blue whale or beluga – no matter what type of boat the use is in. Since their implementation in 2002, it has been illegal to get closer than 400 metres to a blue whale or a beluga - no matter what type of watercraft is being used.
Under the Species at Risk Act, a recovery plan for the Atlantic blue whale population will be created by January 2008. This plan, written by a recovery team made up of various partners involved in the protection of this species, will outline the necessary actions for the recovery of the Atlantic blue whale population.
Research and observation
Several research and follow-up projects have been done in the past and others are underway today. Parks Canada is participating in these projects, in collaboration with other departments and non-governmental organizations involved in the Marine Park area. Research on the blue whales focuses primarily on the development of the size of the population, its composition, the use of the habitat and the effects of human activities.
Raising public awareness
In the area of the Saguenay St. Lawrence Marine Park, several opportunities are offered to visitors who want to learn more about the Atlantic population of blue whales. Various interpretation centres as well as panels installed on the piers and river trails offer visitors information about this species. Three sites for land observation of marine mammals are also accessible. In certain areas, the blue whales can get as close as a dozen metres from the shore, such as at the Cap de Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Centre. At these sites, in addition to being able to observe the natural behaviour of these animals without disturbing them, visitors can also learn from the expertise of on-site naturalists.
Collaboration with partners
Staff at Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park work in collaboration with various governmental and non-governmental partners in the areas of research, species recovery and education: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada, Parcs Québec, the Maurice Lamontagne Institute, the Group for research and education on marine mammals (GREMM), Explos-Nature, ZIP committees (ZIP is short for “zone d'intervention prioritaire,” or area of prime concern) are among those involved in research and education on the Blue Whale.
- Behave respectfully toward blue whales when you observe them, whether at the Saguenay St. Lawrence Marine Park or elsewhere on the St. Lawrence. Watch them from land so that you do not disturb them.
- If you prefer to participate in a whale-watching trip on the water, choose a cruise company that respects the regulations on observing marine mammals.
- Be curious. Learn more about the blue whale and share your knowledge about this species at risk with your group. Meet with interpreter-guides at the Cap de Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Centre at the Saguenay St. Lawrence Marine Park.
- Always, and particularly at the Saguenay St. Lawrence Marine Park, dispose of your garbage in appropriate containers. When picnicking, use reusable containers and utensils. Too often, plastic bags and wraps, juice containers and other garbage fly away and end up in the water, where they can pollute the environment for decades, or even centuries.
- Adopt daily habits that respect the environment. Your use of water has an impact on the river’s health: save it and use ecologically friendly cleaning products!
- Does your municipality have a sewage system that effectively treats wastewater before dumping it in the rivers? If not, share your concerns about this issue with elected municipal and/or regional officials.