Expert answers questions about fate of 2 minke whales swimming near Montreal | The Canadian News

A second minke whale was spotted in the St. Lawrence River in Montreal on Wednesday, and the head of a marine mammal research group says the prognosis is not good for the two sea creatures.

Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) director Robert Michaud said it is difficult to determine why a minke whale would venture so far from its usual habitat, which is some 450 kilometres downriver in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and beyond.

However, it does happen and this is not the first time in the last two decades that minke whales have been spotted upriver, he said. 

But, as he told CBC Montreal’s Daybreak on Thursday, most of the whales spotted upriver from Quebec City were dead.

Now he’s worried for the future of these two young whales in Montreal, he said. There are many factors, such as disease and passing boats, putting the animals at risk.

Below is his interview with Daybreak’s Sean Henry, edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction when you heard about the second minke whale?

Michaud: You want me to be honest? I said, ‘oh, no.’ It’s surprising. These events are relatively rare but not exceptional. It does happen. Some animals, whales included, get lost.

Since 2005, before this spring, we had 12 minke whales that were observed upstream from Quebec City. Only one, I think, in Montreal. But 10 of those 12 minke whales were dead when we first spotted them. They died during their journey in the river. 

Robert Michaud, director of GREMM, says it’s extremely difficult to direct whales on a different course, and ethically it is better to respect nature in a case like this. ( Jean-François Bouthillette/Radio-Canada)

These animals that stray, make a series of mistakes or explore a new habitat or chase fish because they are very hungry and follow a bad line. We don’t really know what goes on in the minds of each of these animals that went up in the river. These are our hypotheses and they are reasonable.

But now, dealing with two, we have to force our brain and think about other options. Is there something going on that might explain this? Again, the only thing we have are hypotheses. But it’s interesting to investigate why. 

How dangerous is it for them to be in the waters near Montreal? 

Michaud: It’s very dangerous. There are risks of collision because there’s quite a lot of traffic and the river is narrow. And we think that the humpback whale that visited the Old Port two years ago might have died of a collision. 

So there are dangers like that but just being in freshwater is a big challenge physiologically.

They are not adapted to the these conditions, so they are at risk of all kinds of disorders, physiological disorders, that could develop from this long-term exposure to freshwater. They can be invaded by algae. It happened to the humpback whale two years ago. So the shorter the stay is, the better the chance for survival. 

The minke whales have drawn people to Île Sainte-Hélène where they are lining the shore with hopes of glimpsing the marine mammals. (Charles Contant/CBC)

The prognosis for these whales is not very good. They look in good condition, at least for now. The first one has been swimming against the current very vigorously for at least three days. It must be exhausting. We think he might not be able to find suitable food that he knows how to catch.

We don’t know how long an animal can support these conditions. This is why we really cross our fingers and we would like to see these animals head back. They are in a dead end. This is as far as they can go.

I don’t know why they persist in heading west. Go east, young whales. Go east.

Is it possible to direct them east? 

Michaud: It is not easy. Some attempts have been made in the past for large whales to repel them or attract them with sound. But it doesn’t work, surely not for huge distances, like 450 kilometres. Catching them involves major risk because they are still pretty big animals. They are not huge like the humpback whale but are still pretty big.

But most importantly, we don’t really want to do that. We’re facing a natural phenomenon. There is no human intervention involved in the choices or adventures of these whales. 

We’ve developed an ethical framework for our response. Essentially, we would respond if it was human-caused. If a whale is caught in fishing gear, we would do everything, sometimes at high risk, to free these animals. 

If it was an animal belonging to an endangered species, we would consider doing something. If we could say that, yes, it’s feasible and reasonable that the animal will survive and that its survival might contribute to the re-establishment of the recovery of the population. 

If we say yes to all these questions, we might try. It might be difficult, but we might try it. And if there’s public security involved. We do relocate seals, for example, when they get in tricky places like on an airplane strip, for example, or in a schoolyard. Otherwise we try to let nature run its course.

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