Rare bottlenose whales discovered off N.L. already in jeopardy

Researchers believe they have found a population of rare northern bottlenose whales near the Flemish Cap, and they're worried about the impact of oil exploration in the area.

Scientists concerned about effect of seismic blasting near Flemish Cap

Bottlenose whales rest at the surface in the Gully submarine canyon off Nova Scotia. (Submitted)

Researchers believe they have found a population of rare northern bottlenose whales near the Flemish Cap, and they're worried about the health impacts of seismic blasting connected to oil exploration in the area.

A team from Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., confirmed the population during a three-week research expedition in the summer of 2016 — spotting 50 bottlenose whales in the remote Sackville Spur area, about 500 kilometres east of St. John's.

Dalhousie biology professor Hal Whitehead, PhD candidate Laura Feyrer and masters student Taylor Hersh on the sailboat Balaena during a research trip off Newfoundland. (Submitted)

"Some people have described them as a dolphin on steroids … a cute dolphin face, but they're large and robust, more like killer whale-size almost," said Laura Feyrer, a PhD candidate in the department of biology at Dalhousie.

"They're really wonderful and curious and they're fascinating to study."

Laura Feyrer says the charismatic bottlenose whale is very boat-friendly, and will breach the surface close to vessels and pop up alongside unexpectedly. (Submitted)

'Startling find'

The team realized there were bottlenose whales in the area after a similar research trip in 2015, when they sailed along the edge of the continental shelf in a 12-metre boat towing underwater microphones.

They didn't see the whales at the time because of poor weather, but when they got back to the lab at the university and ran the recordings through specialized software they heard them, and decided to make a return trip.

"This summer we sailed directly out there, and there they were," said Hal Whitehead, a professor of biology and bottlenose whale expert at Dalhousie. 

The crew took photos of 50 individual bottlenose whales over a two-day period in the Sackville Spur area of the Flemish Cap. (Submitted)

"They popped up around the boat, and once the fog moved off a little bit we had a lot of whales, at least 50, more like 100 or 200 in the area," said Whitehead.

"Which doesn't sound like very many but, given the whole population of Nova Scotia is only 140, it was quite a startling find."

Sounding the seismic alarm

The clicks of what could possibly be a distinct new population of bottlenose whales weren't the only sounds the team detected while sailing off Newfoundland.

The booms of air guns  — used in seismic testing by the oil and gas industry to map resources under the sea floor — were also a prominent part of the recordings.

Beaked whales, such as the bottlenose, are very sensitive to seismic activity.

"For reasons we don't fully understand … loud sounds can disturb them, injure them, and maybe even kill them," said Whitehead.

"Nothing is being done at the moment to protect these whales. That's why we're concerned."

Whitehead said it is very difficult to get information from the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board about who is doing seismic blasting and where.

"The Newfoundland offshore petroleum board is fairly close to the chest about what's going on out there … [it] gives very little information and also does very little from our perspective anyway to regulate how the industry works," said Whitehead.

In a written response, the C-NLOPB said seismic operations are finished for the season, but there were three conducted in the Flemish Pass area this summer. The board also said it doesn't provide specific coordinates of blasting operations, but it does provide general location information on its website.

Shutdown not required

Feyrer said companies operating in Newfoundland waters are not required to shut down seismic blasting when bottlenose whales are spotted in the area.

"Even though it's been shown to have a very negative impact, and without understanding the status of this particular new population — we don't know if they're endangered, we don't know if they're part of an existing population — I think it's likely that these whales are at risk from this seismic activity," said Feyrer.

Laura Feyrer, with a crossbow in hand, collects samples for genetic testing. (Submitted)

Part of Feyrer's doctoral research involves taking photos and collecting genetic samples of the Flemish Cap bottlenose whales to see if there is a connection to the populations off northern Labrador or Nova Scotia.

Feyrer said they haven't yet compared photos of the 50 or so whales in the Flemish Cap to the "mug shots" of the other bottlenose whale populations, but she said they are confident there are some distinct individuals in the area. 

With files from Central Morning and The Broadcast