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Whales and Wildlife of 2002Whales and Wildlife of 2002

by Dave Snowby Dave Snow
Members of the world's largest humpback gathering provide wonderful photos

The summer of 2002 provided some outstanding whale watching for our crew of Newfoundland and Labrador whale enthusiasts. Small numbers of humpbacks have always over wintered off the Newfoundland coast and we enjoyed regular sightings throughout the spring until early June when their numbers were swelled by thousands of whales including lots of small calves arriving from the Caribbean. We saw good numbers of humpbacks — and icebergs — along the northeast coast from the Labrador Straits to our favorite feeding beach at St. Vincent’s throughout the summer. There were also lots of minke whales about but we saw fewer fin whales and dolphins than in other years.

The biggest whale surprise of 2002 was the change in Orca distribution around the coast. After three summers of hanging out between St. Anthony and Battle Harbour, the Orca sightings of 2002 were distributed all along the northeast coast. The St. John’s area hosted a family of six Orcas for over a month (lots of sightings between mid July and August with the last sighting on November 24). The last sea day of our last Whale Study Week included a two hour session where we collected dorsal fin photographs of all six individuals. We also noted some interesting behaviors among the two dozen humpbacks in the vicinity of these Orcas — almost everyone did multiple breaches or loud lob tailing displays as the Orcas swam by. Perhaps they were advertising that they were strong and healthy in order to discourage the Orcas from approaching. We photographed several humpback tails with scars from Orca bites this summer so there are obviously times when Orcas will do more than encourage breaches and other loud displays. Interestingly, two minke whales came within 100 yards of some of these Orcas during the time we observed them. The relationship between minkes and Orcas is difficult to understand. Whale researchers here have observed Orcas killing minkes, humpbacks and other whales. This contrasts with Dr. Jon Lien’s Red Bay observation in the spring of 2002 where he saw an Orca and a minke feeding cooperatively.

Lennie, the beluga, is still enjoying her time in Newfoundland. In 2001 this curious white whale stayed in one Great Northern Peninsula community for most of the summer and fall before leaving for the winter. In 2002, Lennie traveled the northeast coast visiting dozens of communities for a day or two — and often swimming with kids — before continuing on in a generally northern direction. Biopsies (tiny skin samples collected from the whales) revealed Lennie and the two other “friendly” belugas that explored our coast this summer are all visitors from the Baffin Island area. In September, a new beluga swam into the Bay of Islands — we are waiting to find out his origins.

Our special 2002 Orca Expedition had six varieties of whale on its trip list and provided guests with some outstanding encounters with dolphins, seals, and a huge black bear. The large numbers of Orcas previously reported from the Expedition’s study area were not found and we wonder if the needless slaughter of 100 Orcas trapped along the Greenland coast during the early spring of 2002 caused this apparent reduction in Orca numbers.

The year’s two most unusual whales were a pygmy sperm whale on the south coast and a Sowerby’s beaked whale. Another rare sighting was a small group of right whales off the Labrador Straits. This area was once home to the world’s largest right whale population and the huge 16th century industrial complex that saw our right and bowhead whales slaughtered to light the lamps of Europe’s Renaissance.

We continue coordinating the Newfoundland portion of the global census of humpbacks. This is a big job since we are home to the planet’s largest feeding gathering. We have also started an Orca dorsal fin catalogue. Ask for our Orca card if you are interested in seeing some of our Orca dorsal fin photographs.

In addition, we pass along interesting wildlife reports and sighting to the appropriate research organizations. We welcome all photos and stories — they make our day!

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