Whar she blows?

The northeast Avalon Peninsula is a popular spot for humpback whales and for tourists. The whales come to feed; the tourists come to look at whales.

But whale boat captains and scientists are noticing not as many humpbacks are visiting our shores as they once did.

Shawn Hayward goes fishing for an explanation.

Illustration by Ricky King.

The humpback whale is an impressive sight as it rises out of the dark blue depths into the air, then crashing back into the frigid North Atlantic. Newfoundland is one of the best places to see humpbacks, especially around the northeast Avalon, where plentiful marine life brings them close to land.

Whale watching attracts tourists to the island, and most years they aren’t disappointed.

This year, however, whale watchers are returning to the pier having not witnessed as many humpbacks.

“People are calling and asking about whales, and I got to be honest,” says Keith Colbert, owner of Colbert’s Boat Tours and a whale boat captain himself. “The whales are scarce. It’s a couple you see, compared to five or six every other year.”

Humpbacks migrate to the northeast coast of North America around late spring and early summer after spending the winter in the Caribbean giving birth to their calves—but this year they began arriving off Newfoundland a month later than usual, according to Colbert, who operates out of Tors Cove.

In the 15 years he’s been in the whale watching business, Colbert says this year has been the worst, as some people choose not to venture out after hearing that the humpbacks are elusive.

“Business is down, but that’s all you can do,” he says. “You can’t expect to outdo yourself every year. It would be nice if you could, but we’re dealing with nature.”

Barry Rogers, captain of Cetacean Quest, says there aren’t just less whales this year, but their behaviour is also harder to predict.

“One morning they’re up the Cape, and next day they’re not there,” he says. “They’ve gone north to Logy Bay.”

Jack Lawson, a whale specialist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), says he, like Rogers, has noticed a change in behaviour that extends back to last year.

“Last summer we had quite a few animals show up in Witless Bay and then it’d go quiet for awhile,” he says. “It’s almost like there’s clumps of whales moving past, whereas four years ago it seemed to be an almost continuous stream of whales. This year and last year they seem a little clumped.”

Humpbacks aren’t staying clear of the entire province, according to Lawson. He says colleagues on the southern coast of Labrador and Twillingate have seen whales come earlier this year than last, and in large numbers.

From a global point of view, there are more humpback whales in the ocean than there have been in decades. The population has somewhat rebounded since killing them commercially was banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1966. There are estimated to be 30,000-40,000 humpbacks alive today.

So where are they all hiding?
The answer is just over the horizon, according to Wayne Ledwell, who helps rescue the gigantic mammals from fishing nets. He says more whales are becoming entangled by offshore nets these days, which indicates humpbacks are staying farther from the land.

“We’re seeing more and more whales caught in the offshore,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be as many whales around the areas where people are used to looking at them. We know there are a lot of whales staying offshore.”

It’s a trend which, for Ledwell, makes disentangling the whales a lot harder.

“Logistically it can be a nightmare trying to get to the animals,” he says. “Sometimes it’ll take you a day to get out there. That’s a headache and something we’ve had to deal with.”

According to Ledwell, they’re farther offshore because that’s where the capelin are. And the capelin are the reason humpback whales come north to Newfoundland. The summer is supper time for them—a chance to build up fat for the winter when they don’t eat at all.

Capelin stay offshore until ready to spawn on the beaches, but before that they have to pass through a feeding frenzy of birds, larger fish, and whales. It’s the capelin’s rush for the shore which brings humpbacks close enough to see from the land.

“The distribution and abundance seems to fluctuate relative to what the prey is doing,” says Lawson.

Late capelin
This year has been one of the latest capelin spawning runs in 20 years, according to Brian Nakashima, a research scientist with DFO who specializes in the tiny fish. At Bellevue in Trinity Bay where Nakashima does his research, water temperatures were averaging 14-15 degrees earlier this summer, while the norm is 5-8 degrees.

“Only when the temperatures dropped in Trinity Bay did capelin start rolling on the beaches,” he says.

And by that time most of the humpbacks had already eaten plenty of capelin while they were waiting offshore to spawn.

Winds are largely responsible for when capelin spawn, and this year the wind patterns have been different. The wind has been blowing more onshore, taking surface water warmed by the sun along with it and packing it into the bays.

What long-term affects the change in temperature will have on capelin numbers, and therefore whale numbers, is hard to predict, according to Nakashima.

“Water temperatures are very critical to development rates and the survival of eggs,” he says. “That’s something we’re monitoring at the moment.”

Hopefully next year winds and capelin patterns will return to normal.

Ledwell, who has worked with whales for 20 years, says this year has been an unusual one, but when it comes to humpbacks the present often does not predict the future.

“Next year it could be totally different,” he says. “It’s difficult to tell what the future holds. There are variations every year.”

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