Biologist not alarmed by four dead sperm whales

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Josh Pennell
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Nine dead blue whales much more concerning

A sperm whale that washed up in Biscay Bay during the weekend is just one of four sperm whales found dead near Newfoundland since Christmas. The other three were found on the French owned island, Miquelon-Langlade — the smaller sister island of Saint Pierre.

Pierre Ryan stands on a dead sperm whale that washed ashore in Biscay Bay the weekend. Link to the video on The Telegram website at thetelegram.com.— Photo submitted by Ian Jones

Marine biologist Jack Lawson with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) hasn’t yet been down to see the whale in Biscay Bay first hand. He did receive photos and video from seabird biologist, Ian Jones, who went down during the weekend out of personal interest to see the specimen.

From the photos, Lawson says the animal appears to be in good shape with little decomposition. It also didn’t show any obvious signs of having been hit by a ship or entangled in fishing gear.

“There might be a mark on the fluke that could indicate an encounter with a rope or line, but I’d need to have a better look at it myself,” says Lawson.

Sperm whales are known as an offshore whale, Lawson says, but that’s not always the case.

“In our region we have a lot of them up on the Grand Banks because in recent years they’ve begun to follow trawlers,” he says, adding that air surveyors spot two and three sperm whales following behind each trawler and feeding on the fish that slip out of the nets.

Lawson is hoping to get out to the sperm whale Thursday for a closer look. A few years ago when he opened up a sperm whale that was found near Holyrood it was discovered the animal had ingested a fishing net.

 

Three more whales

Three other sperm whales Lawson didn’t get to see washed up on Miquelon-Langlade in the first couple of months of 2014. He did see photos. He said the whales were in much worse shape than the one found last weekend.

“The animals were white at that point and disarticulated. It had been a while they had been dead,” Lawson says.

He says he isn’t sure how they died or even where, as they could have been floating around for months. He hasn’t found evidence of seismic or other types of sound exploration anywhere in these areas of Newfoundland since last summer. Seismic exploration can affect whales, he says.

Lawson says he’s not concerned yet.

“Every year I see a handful of sperm whales dead on the Grand Banks floating and we’re not sure always how they are (killed). They could have been struck by ships. They could have been entangled in lines associated with fisheries. And a lot of animals are here. They could die of natural causes,” he says.

If any more show up soon, he’ll start to get suspicious, he says.

 

Blue whales crushed by ice

A much more alarming event for Lawson is the recent discovery of nine dead blue whales 55 nautical miles west of Cape Anguille on the southwest coast of the island.

Blue whales are enlisted as an endangered species in Atlantic Canada

“This area here, we call it the whale trap,” says Lawson.

Blue whales hang out in the area in the winter and spring to feed, but get trapped by moving ice. They either drown or get crushed. Recently, a group of white-beaked dolphins were crushed by ice near Cape Ray.

“To see so many whales like that was just heartbreaking,” says Lawson, who was in the area Friday in helicopter. “We think that there’s only perhaps 250 mature (blue whale) adults in this population and if these nine animals — assuming it’s only nine and there might be even more — are dead that’s almost four per cent of the population gone in one event.”

Lawson says he would like to get a closer look at the whales to see if there are signs of trauma from moving ice. If the winds blow the carcasses ashore he may have a chance, but on Friday there was no way to land the chopper to investigate.  

 

 

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans

Geographic location: Biscay Bay, Holyrood, Island of Miquelon-Langlade Newfoundland Cape Anguille Atlantic Canada Cape Ray

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