Winter whales common off Newfoundland

Not all of the popular cetaceans head south for the season

Josh Pennell
Published on January 13, 2015
The tail of a humpback whale slips beneath the surface of Freshwater Bay.
— File photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

You might not spot too many tourists around this time of year, but you might still get a look at some whales.

On social media over the weekend it was mentioned that some people hiking and doing some winter birdwatching had spotted a humpback whale off Cape Spear.

While tangly ocean conditions and wiley winter weather might not be the best for seeing cetaceans, that doesn’t mean they’re not still off our shores this time of year.

“Most of the animals, not just humpbacks but fin whales and minkes, most of these animals are most abundant here in the summertime, when the caplin and other forage fish are spawning, but we do have them through the wintertime,” says Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientist Jack Lawson.

There’s even evidence of humpbacks staying around all winter.

Traditionally, it was thought humpbacks headed south to the tropics this time of year to breed, and many do, Lawson says.

The females calve in the warmer waters down south, and the thinking is that males go down to sing and breed. It has been suggested the humpbacks seen here in the winter months are females taking a break from breeding, but Lawson has seen proof of males staying for the winter, too.

Or more appropriately, he’s heard the evidence.

“We have ourselves, as well as researchers in Iceland last year, heard males singing off Labrador in the wintertime.”

Male humpbacks sing to attract mates. It might be possible these males are practising getting their song ready for when they go south to mate or, Lawson adds, it might be that they are mating over the winter season.

There’s still a lot of unknowns about what these wintering whales do around here, because little to no research is done during this time of year.

What is known is that places such as Twillingate, Fogo and south of St-Pierre are reliable places to see whales every winter, and offshore has its areas, as well.

“When I have flown offshore with the surveillance aircraft we see a heck of a lot of whales out off the Flemish Pass and the Flemish Cap in the winter because it is still quite warm out there and there’s fish,” says Lawson.

They have a broad diet of krill and fish such as capelin, herring and mackerel, so as along as there’s food to their liking around, they’ll stay. And who wouldn’t want to spend the holiday season spreading cheer with some whale-watching?

“The ones off the north coast have even been nicknamed Christmas whales sometimes because people have gone up there and they’re just always there,” says Lawson.