Canada’s protected waters are home to many at-risk whales. Keeping waters as quiet as possible is key for their survival. This is where Parks Canada, in collaboration with partners, play an important role.

Photo: Mark Mallory

A world of sound

Sound is very important for toothed whales like Narwhals, Killer Whales, and Belugas. They use sound to navigate, hunt and communicate.

Listen to the St. Lawrence Estuary Belugas. Sounds bounce off underwater cliffs and echo throughout the mouth of the Saguenay, creating an unearthly sound when Belugas vocalize.

Text transcript [ underwater sounds ] Belugas whistling. Audio clip provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada Chair in underwater acoustics applied to marine mammals and their ecosystem (UQAR-ISMER)
An adult and a baby calf Killer Whale swim at the surface of the water, while another adult swims upside-down just below the water's surface.
Three Southern Resident Killer Whales, including a calf, swim in the water at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Photo: Miles Ritter
A close-up of a white beluga whale with its head above the surface of the water and looking with one eye towards the camera.
A Beluga Whale in Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: R. Pintiaux

Noisy homes

Underwater noise can mask sounds that whales use to navigate, hunt, and to socialize. Southern Resident Killer Whales and St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga Whales live and travel in some of Canada's busiest and noisiest waters.

A back and tail of two white beluga whales at the surface of the water.
Two Beluga Whales swim in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: R. Pintiaux

Boat noise can lead to changes in animal behavior, risk of collision, hearing loss and, in some cases, serious injury or death. Parks Canada works with partners to restore a calmer environment for whales. By protecting habitats from underwater noise, we are helping endangered whales recover.

Listen to the St. Lawrence Estuary Belugas as a boat travels by.

Text transcript [ underwater sounds ] The dull sound of a boat engine can be heard over top of Belugas whistling. The boat noise becomes very loud, eventually overpowering the sounds made by the Belugas. Audio clip provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada Chair in underwater acoustics applied to marine mammals and their ecosystem (UQAR-ISMER)

The mouth of the Saguenay is an important summer habitat for the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga, an endangered species. They go here to feed, to meet a partner or extended family, or to go to a quiet place. It is also the busiest section of the Marine Park, where each year thousands of boats travel in the Beluga’s habitat.

Baby beluga
A baby beluga at Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: R. Pintiaux
Three Killer Whales swim at the surface of the water. One Killer Whale is spouting water up through its blowhole.
Three Southern Resident Killer Whales swim at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Photo: Miles Ritter

Protected waters

The endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales live seasonally in the protected waters off British Columbia. Some of these areas include the waters around Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

An aerial view of forest covered islands with rolling hills surrounded by blue water and blue sky above.
The protected waters of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in British Columbia. Photo: Josh McCulloch

View larger map

Critical habitat area of the Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canadian waters around Pacific Rim and Gulf Islands National Park Reserves by Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Map description

A map showing the marine boundaries of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve along parts of the south west coast of Vancouver Island, as well as Gulf Islands National Park Reserve along the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island. A second boundary shows the distribution of Southern Resident Killer Whales starting at Vancouver, extending down the eastern tip of Vancouver Island, wrapping westward around half the Island, and stretching out to the Pacific ocean.

The St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga Whales are local residents of Quebec. Over 75% of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park is important Beluga habitat. The Marine Park and its surrounding areas are also important summertime habitats for other marine mammals.

An aerial view of blue still water surrounding a tree-covered rolling peninsula that spans far into the distance.
The mouth of the Saguenay Fjord in the St. Lawrence estuary in Quebec. Photo: M. Dupuis

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A map showing the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park as well as the area of critical habitat for Beluga Whales in Quebec.

Map description

Map showing the limits of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park and those of the beluga's critical habitat. The towns along the St. Lawrence River, from Baie-Saint-Paul to Escoumins and up to Bic (south shore), are shown as well as the islands and the Innu Essipit First Nation and the Wolastoqiyik Wahsipekuk First Nation.

The Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) is an important seascape in Nunavut. The area is known around the world as a natural treasure, where whales like the Bowhead, Narwhal, and Beluga are protected.

An inuksuk/cairn in the foreground of an Arctic inlet, with low lying snow-capped mountains in the distance.
The protected waters of Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area, showing an inuksuk/cairn located at Kangiq&ukuluk (Levasseur Inlet). Photo: Clare Kines

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The boundary of the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut.

Map description

A map showing the boundary of the Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area located in the eastern high Arctic in Nunavut. The National Marine Conservation Area is situated in Lancaster Sound to the north of Baffin Island, and covers an area twice the size of Nova Scotia. The National Marine Conservation Area borders Sirmilik National Park and two other protected areas to its south, with an additional two other protected areas located in its north and northwest reaches.

Whales speak up

Whales depend on protected areas as refuges from disturbances, like underwater noise. Both Southern Resident Killer Whales and St. Lawrence Estuary Belugas have been shown to communicate more loudly when boat traffic is near.

Loud underwater noise can mask calls between female Belugas and their calves. Areas that are important for whales need the most protection from noise disturbance.

Three Killer Whales swim. One swims vertically, while one swims at the water’s surface, and another blows water.
Three Southern Resident Killer Whales swim at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Photo: Miles Ritter
One small, and two larger dorsal fins of Killer Whales swimming through the surface of the water.
A one-day old Southern Resident Killer Whale swims with its Mom and Grandma at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Photo: Miles Ritter

Working together to protect whales

Parks Canada collaborates with other groups to create and manage protected waters that help at-risk whales and the entire ecosystem. This includes working closely with Indigenous groups and other federal departments. Research partners, non-governmental organizations, and locals are also involved. Together, we take action to improve the conservation of whales and their habitats.

A group of golden brown coloured seals lay on a sandy hillside.
Steller Sea Lions rest on an outcrop of rocks in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

Actions in the water

Parks Canada is doing marine research in many places to protect whales, including British Columbia, Quebec, and Nunavut.

British Columbia

See what it's like to do marine mammal surveys at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve!

Field Notes: Recovering Southern Resident Killer Whales

Text transcript

[Meaghen] My name is Meaghen McCord. I'm a marine ecologist here at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, on the traditional unceded territory of the Coast Salish Nations.

[Bronwyn] My name is Bronwyn. I'm a marine management officer. Right here I'm putting up our marine research flag that lets other boaters know that we are allowed to research the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

[Meaghen] The first thing we're going to do is head out to Saturna Island Interim Sanctuary Zone. And it's here that we're hoping we might have our first sighting of Southern Resident Killer Whales.

[Bronwyn] Batteries on. Now we're going to make sure that our boat is actually working today.

[Boat motor starts] [Bronwyn] That's a good noise.

[Bronwyn] Just leaving the harbour...

[Meaghen] Here we are right now at the entrance to Active Pass, a component of our transect survey where we stop, look and listen for Southern Resident Killer Whales. While we're doing our surveys, we're also deploying these acoustic hydrophones to monitor the amount of noise that we're hearing in the ocean environment. [Loud boat noises] What you can hear now is the sound of a small vessel with

[Meaghen] This noise actually prevents them from communicating with each other while they're socializing or hunting. So we hope by recording some of the vessel traffic and really better understanding the types of noise that we have here in the Southern Salish Sea that we'll be able to identify potential areas as no-go zones. So, areas where boats are not allowed, where whales can hunt and socialize as we know they love to do

[Bronwyn] We’ve got some pinnipeds off to the left side there.

[Bronwyn] We're going to be doing some visual surveys of Pinnipeds like harbor seal and sea lion. and these photographs are going to be shared with our partners, such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as part of a multi-agency approach to monitor species within the Southern Resident Killer Whale habitat.

[Meaghen] We’re trying to find a good location here at the Java Islets where Wynnie can hop off and see if she can find some harbor seal poo. One of the most important things to remember when you're working with pinniped or seal or sea lion poop, is that it's really smelly. So bringing your trusty gloves along is really important.

[Bronwyn] So we're here on the Java Islets and I am on the hunt for scat. One of the more glamorous sides of biology is we often will look for fecal residue from various animals that we are studying in order to get a better understanding of their diet, the population dynamics. And it just gives us a better sense of how Pinnipeds are interacting with their environment...

[Bronwyn] ...what their populations look like and what they're eating, which is very important as they are a large part of the food web within the Southern Resident Killer Whale habitat. All right. So sometimes science doesn't always work out. We've done our initial survey and I can't seem to find anything that is really going to be useful for testing for the variables that I mentioned earlier. So I think it's time to get back on the boat.

[Meaghen] We are about to deploy our baited remote underwater video system, which is comprised of two cameras and this really wonderful canister, really, that we're going to fill with our kilogram of herring. What we're hoping to do here is to deploy the B.R.U.V. and monitor the types of fish that are using the kelp forests of the protected waters in the Park Reserve.

[Meaghen] So our study here today is really aimed at understanding this complex environment that the Southern Resident Killer Whales call home and hoping to document the species that occur here and create this long lasting archive of the incredible fish that call the Pacific Northwest and the waters of Parks Canada and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve home.

The marine ecology team in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve carries out marine mammal surveys onboard a boat called the K'aka'win — the Nuu-chah-nulth word for ‘Killer Whale’. The team:

  • records underwater sounds to identify whales, dolphins, and porpoises by their unique calls
  • documents sightings of Southern Resident Killer Whales using visual surveys and photography
  • documents the number and location of Southern Resident Killer Whales that are present during the year
A Parks Canada staff member onboard a boat on the water listens to a device that helps her hear underwater noises.
A Parks Canada marine ecology team member listens to underwater noises during a marine mammal survey at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Photo: Selby Wilkinson
A Parks Canada staff member onboard a boat uses a telephoto camera lens to photograph seals in the distance.
A Parks Canada marine ecology team member uses a telephoto camera lens to take photos during a marine mammal survey at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Photo: Selby Wilkinson

This information helps Parks Canada identify important areas that the whales use to rest, socialize, and to eat. We also use it to inform protection measures that help Southern Resident Killer Whales. These include slow-down and distance measures as well as no-go zones for boaters. Parks Canada also leads education programs to inform boaters about these rules.

Two Parks Canada staff members onboard a boat record data during a marine mammal survey.
Two Parks Canada marine ecology team members lower a hydrophone that is attached to a fishing rod into the water and record data during a marine mammal survey at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Photo: Selby Wilkinson

Quebec

The conservation team at the Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park, in Quebec, studies whales from the shore, and on-board their research boat. Using mainly visual observations and hydroacoustic monitoring, staff work to:

  • better understand the distribution patterns of each species present in the Marine Park
  • identify and estimate the abundance of the main prey species (krill, capelin, sand lance)
  • describe and count boat types and activities, and characterize interactions with marine mammals inside the Marine Park.
A group of eight white beluga whales swim through water, one has its head out of the water.
A pod of Beluga Whales travel in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: R. Pintiaux
A staff member in Parks Canada uniform on a boat looks through their binoculars out over the water.
A member of the Parks Canada conservation team uses binoculars during a visual survey for marine mammals at the Marine Park. Photo: M. Dupuis
A Parks Canada staff member holds binoculars in front of a fence overlooking a waterbody and a large hill.
A member of the Parks Canada conservation team conducts terrestrial monitoring of marine mammals and boat traffic from the shore at the Saguenay–Saint-Laurent Marine Park. Photo: M. Dupuis

This data is used to improve our knowledge about how Belugas and other whales use the Marine Park. As well as to guide the management of the marine protected area. This allowed us to establish protection measures, like the temporary navigation closure area in a bay that is highly used by Beluga mother-calf pairs, and to establish a commercial excursion-free section. The shipping industry has also agreed to voluntarily reduce ship speeds in whale feeding grounds to reduce the risk of collisions.

“Sometimes overlap with navigation activities is unavoidable. Yet, we have to lessen the disturbance to whales. Speed reduction is one of the solutions that decreases the risk of collision and underwater noise.”

Samuel Turgeon
Ecologist at the Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park.

Photo: Jocelyn Praud

Measures to reduce speeds also help restore the tranquility of the Beluga’s habitat. Marine Park staff use a Marine Spatial Planning approach to conserve and restore the marine soundscape. This provides quiet areas for Beluga Whales. The team has also collaborated to create an online training for mariners and boaters on respecting the whales and the regulations in force.

The back of a white beluga whale swims through dark blue water, while the back of a juvenile beluga swims behind it.
Two Beluga Whales swim in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: C. Dubé

Nunavut

Parks Canada and partners are researching the effects of underwater noise on whales at Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut. Parks Canada uses Inuit traditional knowledge to help inform this study by working with partners like the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s Nauttiqsuqtiit Inuit Stewards. Using underwater microphones, they track the source and characteristics of underwater noise, including noise from ships, to determine how underwater noise may affect marine life.

A vessel used for deploying underwater noise monitoring equipment.
A Parks Canada marine research vessel in Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. Photo: Clare Kines

“This is such a good time for this study. The amount of vessel traffic in the area has dramatically decreased because of COVID. It’s an amazing opportunity to gather baseline noise levels without much human interference.”

Jordan Hoffman
Marine Ecologist, Team Leader at Parks Canada

Photo: Clare Kines

Up to 75% of the global population of Narwhal use Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA as a migration corridor and summering area. Narwhals are known to be sensitive to increasing levels of underwater noise.

The back of one narwhal and the head and long pointed tusk of another narwhal swimming together through icy Arctic waters.
Narwhals swimming in icy waters in Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area. Photo: Mario Cyr

Watch the deployment of an underwater hydrophone by Clare Kines, Parks Canada staff near Arctic Bay, Nunavut

Text transcript [ No sound ] A person standing in a boat traveling on the water steadies himself as he pushes a bolder that is tied to a buoy and a hydrophone over the side of the boat. The bolder, the hydrophone, and the buoy fall overboard one by one as the boat travels away.

How you can help protect whales

Protected waters managed by Parks Canada are special places where whales can often be spotted right from the shore. Explore over 100 sites listed on The Whale Trail to learn more about shore-based whale watching!

Two people sit on a rocky shore that overlooks silver blue water and a small whale that swims in the distance.
Two people observe a whale from the shore at Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Photo: M.-I. Rochon

You can also protect whales from home by:

  • eating sustainable seafood, especially salmon, using guidelines like Ocean Wise
  • using environmentally-friendly products to reduce ocean contamination
  • taking part in a shoreline clean-up to help ensure our oceans are plastic free
  • learning how to navigate in whale habitat
People sit on a bolder shoreline watching two large Killer Whales swimming close to the shore.
Visitors watch Southern Resident Killer Whales from the shore at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Photo: Miles Ritter

When viewing whales from a boat, it is important to follow local Marine Regulations. This can include keeping a distance of at least 400 m from whales, reducing speeds, and avoiding closed areas.