Nfld. & Labrador·Video

Humpback ballet: Fishing duo captures breaching performance on camera

Two whales decided to crash Sarah and Sean Russell's fishing trip this past weekend.
Sarah Russell was fishing with her family in Conception Bay but what they caught was this incredible whale breach on video. (Submitted by Sean Russell)

A father-daughter duo out on the waters got the surprise of their lifetime Sunday morning, when two 45-tonne animals literally crashed their fishing trip.

Sarah and Sean Russell set out onto Conception Bay around 6 a.m., and started fishing near Kelly's Island, where two humpback whales were also nearby feeding. Sean Russell said the whales had been quietly doing their own thing until their behaviour changed, and the whales swam up to the boat.

Have you ever seen a whale do a barrel roll? The look on Sarah's face says it all. (Submitted, Sarah Russell)

"They came right up to us, and we thought we may have spooked them or something, but they dove right under our boat," Sean Russell said, in a video he and his daughter recorded shortly after the moment.

Russell grabbed his camera in the hopes of a picture, and got far more than he bargained for when one, and then the other, breached and twirled right in front of them, the swirls seemingly in concert, leaving the two almost at a loss for words.

"Mind-blowing," said Sarah Russell.

The Russells had front-row seats for a humpback whale ballet in Conception Bay. (Submitted by Sean Russell)

Sean Russell captured his daughter's jaw dropping on camera as the two whales breached in front of their boat.

"To have two of them spin, was absolutely amazing," said Sean.

"It was quite an experience I'll never forget with her. She's my fishing buddy."

Russell dubbed the video "Humpback Ballet" and uploaded it to Facebook, where it's been shared thousands of times.

A calorie-burning breach

While there's no one single reason a whale breaches — Jack Lawson, a marine scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says it can be useful to dislodge external parasites, show off strength or simply just for fun — a new study published this spring shows just how much effort goes into each awe-inspiring leap.

The study, which suction-cupped sensors onto five different whale species to measure in part how much energy gets expended during breaching, found that the biggest breaches "approach the upper limits of vertebrate muscle performance," and that the leaps of large whales may "represent the single most expensive burst manoeuvre found in nature."

It takes an incredible amount of energy for a humpback whale to breach like this, but the Russell family caught several soaring breaches on video. (Submitted by Sean Russell)

"For a large whale, say a humpback, a 45-tonne animal, it might be burning as much energy as a human adult does during an entire marathon," Lawson said of a typical breach, which lasts about eight seconds from start to finish.

While always amazing, seeing a whale breach isn't the rarest sight in Newfoundland and Labrador's summer waters, although one tour guide in Bonavista says 2020 has been more whale-filled than normal.

"It's been an exceptional year," said Bob Currie, the captain of Discovery Sea Adventure Tours, who said just one week ago he and a tour group watched a lone whale breach between 25 to 30 times.

Let feeding whales feed

Perhaps the whales can afford to fling their calories around, as their summers around Newfoundland and Labrador are an exercise in stocking up.

While in provincial waters, the whales are sucking up their favourite species in impressive amounts. Whales can gain as much as 12 pounds per hour feeding on several tonnes of food per day, Lawson said, before heading south to spend much of the rest of the year fasting and breeding.

"That's why it's so important we don't disturb them at this time, and have these no disturbance rules," he told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

DFO brought in regulations in 2018, requiring boaters to maintain a 100-metre buffer zone from whales, although that buffer zone can extend further for some species.

Under the Fisheries Act, breaching those regulations can bring fines between $100,000 to $500,000.

Lawson said boaters should also stay away from whales for safety reasons, as there have been occasions where boaters have been injured during a whale's performance, either by the whale landing on the boat itself or the massive waves it can generate.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Jen White and The St. John's Morning Show


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