Highlights of the field season 2011

Nov. 30, 2011 – The summer season 2011 was remarkable with regard to both, the field work and the lab projects. We were able to get substantial distribution data of minke whales, blue whales, and belugas for our habitat model. In an attempt to recover two radio tags for Dr. Brian Kot from Texas A&M University at Galveston, we covered a large portion of the estuary with our tracking equipment from land and from air.

This season, minke whales were by far the most abundant baleen whale species in our research area and they were present until late October. We were able to get a lot of photo IDs and we observed some spectacular lunge-feeding behaviours in two prolific upwelling areas. From July to October, we regularly encountered blue whales in two distinct areas of the estuary, but not in high numbers. One animal had a conspicuous and very large lesion on its right side, which did not seem to be due to a ship collision or entanglement in fishing gear. Belugas were also present throughout the season, mainly groups of males, and they clearly preferred the deep portion of the Laurentian Channel.

Dr. Brian Kot from Texas A&M University at Galveston, who used to be a team member at the Mériscope for his Master thesis and his PhD project, has tagged two finback whales north of Anticosti Island on 27 July with suction cup radio tags. Both tags were lost, i.e. they stayed on the whales longer than expected, and since they were archival tags, the data were lost, too. We had some radio tracking equipment at the Mériscope, which we modified to match the frequencies of the tags, and we covered most of the estuary from elevated points on the north and the south shore as well as with a float plane.

In addition, the Radio Amateur Club of Baie-Comeau and some of their colleagues on the south shore tuned in on the tag frequencies and helped to cover as big an area as possible from mid-August to mid-September. Despite the considerable effort, we were not able to pick up a single signal from the tags, nor did a survey vessel of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans out in the gulf, so the data and both tags were lost. This experience clearly demonstrated the difficulty to recover archival tags from fast-swimming marine animals with little site tenacity.

At the lab, the marine mammal database of the Mériscope was amended with all relevant observations from the 2005 season thanks to an untiring effort by Kevin Osterheld from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Anne Herrmann, at the University of Greifswald in Germany, has completed her Master degree with a thesis on passive acoustic monitoring on harbour porpoises in the St. Lawrence estuary. Finally, our minke whale catalogue was updated with all the photo ID data of the 2011 season, mainly thanks to three of our interns, Sandra Striegel from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Anne Mancosu from the University of Zurich, and Lars Krokoszinski from the University of Jena, Germany.