Nfld. & Labrador

Friendly beluga whale visits Newfoundland's south coast

A beluga whale put on a show for residents of Francois on Newfoundland's south coast over the weekend, but a DFO scientist says public should keep a distance.

Number of whales injured by boats, says Dr. Jack Lawson

A belgua whale put on a show for residents of Francois, on Newfoundland's south coast over the weekend. (Submitted by Sherry Fudge)

A young Beluga whale is drawing attention in the community of Francois on Newfoundland's south coast.

Despite the attraction, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) scientist, Dr. Jack Lawson, says people should keep their distance.

"They are covered off under the marine mammal regulations which state that it is illegal to disturb the natural processes of an animal — a marine mammal."

Lawson said belugas are not uncommon in Newfoundland waters, and don't always do well with human contact.

"We've had a number of them that have been in harbours for a few weeks, and end up being cut by outboard propellers," he said.

"We had one a few years ago on the southeast coast that surfaced under a larger fishing boat that was actually cut to pieces when the boat started it engine. So, generally, they don't do very well," said Lawson.

"If they're lucky, they just get away with a few scars and things. But I don't like to see them in around the wharf."

Sherry Fudge, who videotaped the whale, told CBC News the beluga is a very friendly and has been swimming around the harbour.

Could be repeat visitor

Lawson said this is likely a young beluga.

"It's a smaller whale, but it quite a light colour, so it's not a brand new baby. It's likely a few years old, maybe four or five by the looks of it. And it seems to be very curious around the wharf where the people are there."

He said, it's possible this whale is the same one that turned up in Grates Cove in September 2015. 

Back then, DFO had to intervene when overzealous spectators interacted — and in some cases even swam — with a young beluga.

"Thankfully, it disappeared, so I'm hoping it swam off and found a happy hunting ground, somewhere ... But you never know, this animal, they're able to move a great distance in a relatively short period of time. So, it's not impossible that the Grates Cove whale could be making its way around the coast."

DFO may visit Francois

Lawson said that given the interest in the whale, DFO might have to pay a visit to Francois.

"It is quite likely that fisheries officers would move into the area just to keep an eye out on the animal to see what's going on. And, as well, we have some signage that we'll put up to remind people to be careful around the animal and not to interfere with its natural behaviours."

Lawson also said that belugas are social animals, and have been known to seek human contact if they get separated from their pod. He says apart from the risk of getting struck by a boat, it's not good for belugas to get too comfortable near humans and hang around in harbours. 

"These animals are normally feeding out around the waters on more moveable stocks of fish. So, if an animal learns to stay in an area, it won't be, perhaps, getting as good a source of food as it would if it was out in the wild chasing after a school of fish."

With files from On The Go