ArcTrain Summer School – Day 2: Upwhaling

Blue whale’s jaw bone. Credit: Luisa von Albedyll.

Today’s first activity was a proper introduction that helped us to decide with whom to strand on a lonely island. This way well prepared for the wildness that will expect us in the next days, we headed off to the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre where we were welcomed by a marine biologist that introduced us to the center. The center does research on the local marine mammals, coordinates a large whale observational network, and educates the public, e.g. by the museum’s exhibition. We liked the beluga whales straight away –  after all they are an Arctic species and very social – just like us! Their thick blubber isolates them well in the cold Arctic waters, their smaller dorsal fin facilitates navigation in the ice and their white color camouflages them well in the sea ice. The belugas in the St. Lawrence river are the southern most colony – and threatened by human activity that introduces poisonous chemicals into their food chain and produces a lot of noise that stresses the animals. Further, we got introduced by one of the staff members to the extensive observational program based on volunteers along the river banks (Go Jade!) that report any whale encounters and stranding. The center assists in guiding the whales back to open water or organizes transport and necropsy of the carcasses. The museum’s exhibition allowed us hands-on experiences with a small blue whale’s jaw bone and provided us with detailed information on feeding, breeding and behavior of marine mammals. The belugas must have been curious to see us too, since we could spot two individuals at the fjord’s mouth, before we went off to prepare a delicious, shared lunch.

Our group, arranged by rainbow colors. Credit: friendly whale watcher.

Well-fed and rested, we dived into the next part of today’s journey through the varieties of the St. Lawrence estuary’s marine wild life. The name of our afternoon’s target, Cap-du-Bon-Désir (Cape of Good Wish) raised our hopes high and the afternoon fully lived up to them. Upon our arrival, our guide told us that today was an excellent day for whale watching and that they were approaching the number of 100 different individuals spotted today. Indeed, hardly some minutes passed until we had our first sighting and the next one and a half hours were interrupted minutely by shouts of “Aaah!” and “Ooooh” and “Uuuhh…look there!”, “Blimey, I missed it!” and “Uuuuhh, but there’s another one!”.

Our guide did not only tell plenty of entertaining stories about our current and next targets, but also explained the large abundance of whales in the St. Lawrence Gulf (get ready for some serious oceanography!): The gulf is about 350 m deep where we currently are and features three layers. The lowest is a bottom layer of cold and saline water from the ocean, then there comes an intermediate layer of cold, fresh melt water and at the top a surface layer of (comparably) warm water.

Mink whale. Credit: Damien Ringeisen.

The next ingredient for the enormous variety of marine wildlife is the bottom topography: a few tens of meters away from the coast, the water is already 350 m deep. Now, when the tide comes, it piles up the three water layers against this 350 m high boundary and the cold bottom layers are pushed upwards to the surface (we call it upwelling, or, worst joke of the day, ‘upwhaling’). Those cold waters bring lots of nutrients to the surface, these nutrients form the basis of a food web and this food web attracts, you probably guessed it, the whales – voilá!

After 90 minutes which felt like 90 seconds, we noticed the cold and dampness of 9 °C and drizzling rain creeping up our clothes and since the park was closing anyway, we drove back to the hostel, where we now look forward to dinner and examining our guide’s recommendations about Tadoussac’s vibrant party scene!

Written by Luisa von Albedyll and Valentin Ludwig.

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