With no other boats around and a quiet, calm morning on the water we were able to slowly drift in the current beside this fin whale while she swam along. I can still clearly remember the sound of her breaking through the water’s surface and forcibly exhaling before taking another breath and slipping back beneath the water.
This magnificent female fin whale has been returning to the St. Lawrence every year since 1989! While it’s hard to appreciate the scale in this photo, this whale is huge. Fin whales are second to only blue whales in terms of length (up to 27 metres or close to 90 feet) and weight (45,000-64,000 kg or 50-70 tons). You would think with this much mass that they would be very slow swimmers, but they are actually one of the speediest, reaching speeds of up to 37 km/hr or about 20 knots. This one was taking a bit of a break from feeding on krill and was just lounging around when we visited it.
While not a great photo of these belugas, it was still a very neat experience. In addition to the four adults, two infants were present as well. This sub-population is geographically isolated from the populations in the north and has been struggling to survive of late. There are only about 1000 individuals in and around the estuary and despite efforts to protect them over the past decade their numbers have not increased, which is not surprising given that they have some of the highest levels of pollutants (mercury, PCBs, etc.) recorded in marine mammals. Hopefully with the creation of the marine national park and additional measures (limiting pollutants from factories, reducing the amount of boat traffic in critical areas of their habitat) this population will start to rebound.
Apparently the St. Lawrence estuary is still a relatively unknown location for whale watching at this time of year (though they get about 1.1 million visitors per year), which is surprising given how numerous the whales are during August through September. A total of 13 different whale species can be seen in the estuary. They come for the abundant food created by the nutrient rich, cold, oxygen saturated waters. In under two hours we spotted minke, fin, and beluga whales as well as grey seal and harbor porpoise. With the early morning start (7am) we were the only boat around, the waters were calm and the whales were actively feeding. This photo, as with many, was a bit of good luck. With the wide angle lens on the camera focused on the closet whale, the one in the background burst through the water just as the photo was taken and captured the head and white chin of these whales.
The best way of predicting where the minke whales would surface was by watching the herring gulls. The gulls, initially circling above, would spot concentrations of krill, land and start feeding just before a whale would explode through the water surface and gulp down as many of the invertebrates as they could. The gulls would quickly have to get out of the way or risk being collateral damage from the feeding whales!