Nova Scotia

Beluga whales charm nature lovers in Ingonish, but don't get too close

For about a week now, two beluga whales off the coast of Nova Scotia have been the talk of the rural community, but a marine animal protection group says people need to keep a distance for both their safety and the safety of the sea creatures.

'They're more interested, I think, in us than we are in them,' resident says

Whales off Ingonish, N.S., shores appear to be just as interested in people as people are in them. (Submitted by Levon Drover)

For about a week now, two beluga whales off the coast of Ingonish, N.S., have been charming locals and visitors, but a marine animal protection group says people need to keep a distance.

"We've been hearing about people swimming with the animals, and going up and trying to get near it or patting the animals and really engaging with them, and that is quite concerning," said Tonya Wimmer, executive director of the Marine Animal Response Society.

Curious creatures

The whales have been approaching boaters and paddleboarders.

Bernie Lamey, an Ingonish resident, said the whales are the talk of the rural Cape Breton community. He said he's been out to see them almost daily for the past four or five days.

"They're more interested, I think, in us than we are in them," Lamey said.

Lamey documented his encounter with the whales and shared it on Facebook. In his video, he goes from his paddleboard into the water and the whales swim up to him.

"They come within inches of you. They don't really touch you, but they come very close," he said.

Belugas in Ingonish before

​Levon Drover, a wildlife photographer, shot video of the whales with a drone and took underwater video with a GoPro and shared it on Instagram.

"It was a really cool experience to be underwater with them," Drover said. "You don't really understand how intelligent an animal really is until you're looking it in the eye. You can almost see it looking back at you thinking the exact same thing."

Both Drover and Lamey recall seeing beluga whales in the same area in Ingonish years ago.

"It was the last year I actually lived here and they were in the same area," said Lamey. "So it was pretty cool actually to see them back 25 years later."

Drover said the whale stayed for about three weeks before it left.

"I was just a little kid and I remember going out in the surf and you could see the white whale in the surf waves swimming along and everyone was out swimming with it, snorkeling with it," Drover said.

Safe distances

Drover said when he's gone out to see the whales this time, he noticed people were being careful around them.

"Everyone on those boats, they were ecstatic that they were getting to see this and everybody was really responsible around the whales and made sure they were clear of the whales before they kept on moving," he said.

"It was pretty impressive to see everybody treating the situation how it should have been treated."  

Wimmer said beluga whales are wild animals that can be unpredictable. She said keeping a safe distance from them is about human safety as much as it is about animal welfare.

Beluga whales approach a paddleboarder off Ingonish, N.S. (Submitted by Levon Drover)

Wimmer said beluga whales in particular can become attached to people, causing a whale to stay in an area for longer than it should and altering its natural behaviour. She said when a whale becomes too familiar, it can lead to devastating results.

"They want to go up and they want to look at the propellers on boats and look at the bubbles coming off it or if there are people in the water ... just because they're curious and they don't want to leave," said Wimmer.

Federal rules

Wimmer suspects the beluga whales in Ingonish are from the St. Lawrence estuary population, a group that is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act.

"Like with any wild animal, enjoy it but keep a safe distance," Wimmer said.

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans said people should never swim or dive with whales.

In 2015, when a beluga whale named "Whaley" visited Grates Cove, N.L., a DFO research scientist warned that some marine animals can carry harmful bacteria that can be transmitted to humans.

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About the Author

Anjuli Patil

Reporter

Anjuli Patil is a reporter and occasional video journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team.