Learning lessons from the whales

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By Michael Burzynski
Western Newfoundland has been in the news a lot in the last few weeks with stories about the nine blue whales that died in the ice close to Port aux Basques. Two came ashore at Trout River and Rocky Harbour, and others were last seen adrift north of Sally’s Cove. These dead whales clearly demonstrate two very important facts:

1. The Gulf of St. Lawrence is a species-rich, semi-enclosed sea. Everyone was surprised when several dozen white-beaked dolphins, a sperm whale and nine blue whales were killed along the southwest coast by the ice this winter.

The monumental size of the deaths hinted at an unseen richness. But these are just a tiny fraction of the living whales, seals, birds, fish and other hidden creatures that make the Gulf of

St. Lawrence their home (see the May issue of National Geographic for an indication of international interest in the diversity of the Gulf).

The Gulf is extremely important to marine life, to the fishery and to tourism, and it is very different from Hibernia and other open-ocean oilfields. When an oil spill occurs in the Gulf, floating crude will circulate around the shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia, smothering instead of dispersing.

2. What happens in the Gulf stays in the Gulf. The blue whales died somewhere off Cape Anguille, in the vicinity of the Old Harry geological structure. This is an area of great interest to exploration companies for its oil and gas potential. The carcasses were captured by the current and floated northward along the coast of the Port au Port Peninsula, past the Bay of Islands, and to Bonne Bay, where two ground­ed and others continued to drift in the direction of the Strait of Belle Isle.

This shows us clearly what would happen if there were to be an oil spill in the Old Harry area. The oil would be carried by the northward current, just like the dead whales were, coating the west coast in crude — including the beaches of this province’s tourism icon, Gros Morne National Park (watch the fascinating animation of oil spill scenarios in the Gulf at http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/9/5/054001/article).

Governments are currently considering oil exploration throughout the Gulf. Our overuse of hydrocarbon fuels has already tipped this planet into dangerous climatic change.

Oil exploration and exploitation are always accompanied by spills and leaks. Seismic mapping damages marine organisms. Shipping and pipeline construction bring their own hazards. There are other sources of oil, and other sources of energy. Is it really necessary to sacrifice the Gulf as well?

The Gulf of St. Lawrence oil industry began when the Basques arrived at Red Bay to harvest whale oil in the 1500s. This spring’s drifting blue whales have shown us that it should end now with a ban on hydrocarbon extraction in the precious and vulnerable ecosystem of the Gulf.

Michael Burzynski writes

from Rocky Harbour.

Organizations: National Geographic

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, New Brunswick Nova Scotia Cape Anguille Port au Port Peninsula Bay of Islands Bonne Bay Gros Morne National Park Red Bay

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Recent comments

  • Cape Anguille
    May 18, 2014 - 18:26

    Mr Burxynski should be aware that the present St. Lawrence Sea is a natural death trap to whales(blue whales) and dolphins and has continually reoccurred over the years. Maybe a few drill rigs and ice breakers in the area would open a few ice channels for the whales to get to open water. As for noted biologist attack on future oil drilling in the gulf, he should review that the province's safe extraction of oil from Ice berg Alley and the open North Atlentic has compared to the rather tame St. Lawrence Seaway. Mr. Burzynski should take an observation of his own turf where they allowed the moose population to get out of control and has done irreprepible damage to Grose Morne's Park forest boreal ecology. Cape Anguille