Nova Scotia

Beluga whale spending summer in Liverpool Harbour

A beluga whale has taken up residence in the Liverpool Harbour this summer but whale experts are cautioning people not to interact with the beluga.

200 people attend public meeting to learn how to behave around Luke

Richard March shot a video of Luke the beluga whale in Liverpool Harbour. At the time, he says he didn't know interacting with wild belugas can be harmful. (Richard March)

A beluga whale is taking up residence in the Liverpool Harbour this summer, but whale experts warn people that its social nature could be putting it at risk.

The whale was first spotted in June and has been getting lots of attention as it pops up near Fort Point on a daily basis. Locals call him Luke, from Delphinapterus Leucas, its scientific name.

The trouble is whales are often attracted to people and boats. Catherine Kinsman, founder and project director with the Whale Stewardship Project, has studied solitary beluga whales in Atlantic Canada since 1998. 

She says belugas are social and in the absence of a pod, they start pursuing other ways to play.

"Over time and with the intensity of interaction, these whales become more and more habituated to human activity and to boats," she said.

"This puts them at greater risk because they're not as wary of the things that they initially have shown some caution toward."

Getting the town on board

On Tuesday night, about 200 people gathered in the Astor Theatre to hear Kinsman talk about how to behave around the whale.

Kinsman says if your boat has a motor, turn it off. Avoid engaging the animal and keep paddles and hands out of the water. 

Whales eventually lose interest, Kinsman says. It's safe to turn a motor back on when it's 50 to 100 metres away.

"Beluga whales are attracted to sounds in the water. They're very acoustic animals and they'll investigate sounds. We don't want Luke getting accustomed to coming up to propellers at the stern of boats and investigating them," she told CBC News on Thursday.

"As long as we don't surprise him in motorized vessels, we won't cause him injury. These whales are very good at positioning themselves where they need to be, as long as they're not surprised."

Marine biologists watch a beluga whale spout water from its blowhole in Liverpool Harbour in June. (Stephanie vanKampen/CBC)

Richard March recently kayaked out to see Luke in the harbour. He captured video of the beluga swimming up to his hand. 

"It came right up to my kayak and was very friendly," he said.

"So I wasn't too concerned about it. From there I was kind of addicted to it and going on a daily basis to interact with it."

But then he heard Kinsman's message and has since stopped going out and hopes the whale eventually leaves Liverpool Harbour. 

Mixed opinions

Glenn Parlee, who operates Liverpool Adventures Outfitters, says people are excited to have Luke in the community, but there are mixed views on how to handle the whale.

He says he discourages from people going out on the water specifically to see the whale. But he says boats are often spotted near where the whale pops up. 

"Our approach is if we have people on the water on tours, if we're paddling through the harbour, we just continue on our course," he says. 

He says the beluga has drawn people to the community, but the challenge is others still need and want to use the harbour.

"You don't want to turn it into a circus like SeaWorld where you come and see the whale every 15 minutes. You can't really shut down the whole town either," he said.

"It's a wild animal — you don't pursue it, you don't play with it."

The Marine Animal Response Society conducted a biopsy on Luke last month and determined it is a male, likely from the St. Lawrence River Estuary population.

Society coordinator Andrew Reid says it's believed to be the same animal that was spotted in the Halifax Harbour this spring, but it's difficult to confirm.

Safety tips around beluga whales

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