Life and Death of Montreal’s Whale

Whale enthusiasts from Quebec were both shocked and saddened when they heard about the loss of Montreal’s famous humpback whale visitor. This acrobatic animal, known for its many beautiful breaches in Montreal’s old port, was found lifeless in the east of Montreal about a week ago. In this post, we revisit the story of Montreal’s whale and offer you some good news regarding humpback whale populations around the world. Be sure to keep reading it until the end!

Sad news…

After monitoring Montreal’s famous whale for almost 10 days, whale watchers lost sight of it on Sunday, June 7th. Two days later, on June 9th, a boat found the dead whale near Varennes, just east of Montreal island. This was a shock to many of us since the whale had finally turned around and was heading towards the St-Lawrence Gulf. Fisheries and Oceans Canada retrieved the whale’s body and Dr. Lair from Université de Montréal, Faculty of Veterinary Science, performed the whale’s necropsy the very next day.

Rest in peace gorgeous © Laura Zeppetelli-Bédard & Anaïs Remili

The Necropsy revealed internal hemorrhage

Preliminary observations revealed that the humpback juvenile was a female, aged 2 to 3 years. There were signs of internal hemorrhage which strongly suggest that a ship strike was the cause of death. This part of the St-Lawrence River is very narrow and tanker traffic is heavy. A ship could have hit the whale without even noticing. 

Human Intervention? Or to let nature take its course

The public has greatly criticized the lack of human intervention in order to rescue the lost whale. However, we must remember that the GREMM, Fisheries, and Oceans Canada, and other organizations did consider all aspects of human intervention and concluded there were multiple challenges for such an operation. For instance, the whale ventured very far on its own: it swam 400km upstream. Redirecting a whale this far away from the coast is extremely challenging and often impossible. There are multiple theoretical ways to help guide a lost marine mammal back towards its natural habitat. For example, scientists could play predatory vocalizations upstream to steer the whale or they could also play humpback whale songs downstream to attract the whale. There are, however, two massive drawbacks to these practices. First, the river is loud and winding, and the sound can bounce off the river banks and become impossible to direct. Secondly, the sound can scare the whale.

Additionally, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the North Atlantic humpback whale population is listed as “of special concern” but not threatened. Actions would have been taken if Montreal’s whale had been a North Atlantic right whale – a threatened species requiring every single individual for its population to survive.

Finally, the cost and risks of a rescue operation for this Montreal whale were too high. Specialists agreed to let nature take its course while keeping track of its whereabouts. Besides, when a whale makes a navigation error in the wild, natural selection must play its part. Thus, it was decided that the whale would be observed and monitored daily. Citizens were also encouraged to keep their distances from the whale.

Lesson Learned? 

Let this humpback whale’s death be a grim reminder that sharing the ocean with such magnificent creatures comes with great responsibility. Sadly, such tragic events happen much too often. Between 2017 and 2019, 22 North Atlantic Right whales were killed by boats and are now facing threats of extinction. With only 400 individuals left, there is still a huge proportion of ships that do not respect ship speed regulations. Here is an excellent report on how boats are refusing to respect speed limits in order to protect whales.

A beautiful memorial video by Martin Brodeur, fellow whale watcher and drone operator

A bit of good news?

Humpback whale recoveries

Although the death of our beloved Montreal whale affected us, we would like to share some good news with you. Humpback whale populations are recovering around the world and the North Atlantic population keeps growing annually. Industrial whaling ended in 1966 according to the International Whaling Commission. Humpback whale populations, like most baleen whales, were hunted to near-extinction but they are now on the path to recovery.

Whales impact on oceans

This is fantastic news for our oceans as whales are important in the recycling of CO2. Many ecosystems rely on big whales to survive. Abyssal ecosystems, for example, benefit from carbon stored in whale carcasses to thrive. Since many whales disappeared in the twentieth century, these ecosystems struggled a lot as whales store huge quantities of carbon during their life (up to 33 tones). When they die at sea, their carcasses end up falling on the seafloor.

Life after death

The seafloor (or abyssal plain) looks like an underwater desert and species down there survive on very little food. However, when a whale carcass appears out of nowhere (whale fall), a full ecosystem blooms and transforms the carcass into an oasis. Sharks, hagfish, crustacea, mollusks, and bacteria will succeed one another and feed off the whale carcass for years. A whale fall can provide energy to a whole ecosystem for up to 100 years! With an increasing number of whales in the ocean comes more biomass and diversity for the abyssal world.

Thanks for reading! Time for your opinion…

What do you think we should do to protect whales from boat collisions? What laws should be created? Let us know in the comments.

Laura Zeppetelli-Bédard is a MS.c. cadidate and research assistant at Université du Québec à Montréal. She is currently participating in a research project aimed at monitoring contaminants in the tissues of northern belugas (Delphinapteurs leucas) as part of the Arctic Contaminants Program.

Anaïs is the founder of Whale Scientists. She is a PhD student at McGill University working on killer whale ecology and pollution. You can read more about her here.

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