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A humpback whale swims in the Old Port on Montreal, on June 3, 2020. This is the first time the species has been seen in the port.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Whale experts hope that Montreal’s most interesting visitor is in town for a good time and not a long time.

The male humpback whale that showed up in the city’s port last weekend is an unprecedented 400 kilometres away from its natural habitat in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Since it arrived, the whale has been breaching, slapping the water with its massive tail and otherwise thrilling onlookers with its antics, leaving experts to contemplate where it might all end.

“It’s behaviour is just amazing," said Robert Michaud, co-ordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, which is monitoring the situation. But, he added, the spectacle of a large whale cavorting in one of the country’s busiest shipping channels is also the setup for a story “that might turn bad.”

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Despite the city’s many charms, Montreal is an unhealthy place for a whale to be. While freshwater is not lethal to humpbacks for short periods of time, its effects on whale skin, cell regulation and the risk of exposure to unfamiliar parasites makes the environment a poor one for a lengthy stay. Montreal’s new visitor already has a rash that experts describe as the cetacean equivalent of a bad case of acne.

The more immediate concern, however, is the prospect of a collision in the narrow waterway that separates Montreal from the opposite bank of the St. Lawrence River. That stretch includes two small islands and the busy locks that serve as the conduit for freighter traffic heading to and from the Great Lakes.

“Right now, we consider this animal to be at risk and quite vulnerable," said Antoine Rivierre, regional head of the marine mammal response program for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

an unexpected journey

Eyewitness reports show that a humpback

whale took about one week to travel from the

St. Lawrence River estuary to Montreal.

No humpback has ever been seen venturing

so far up the river.

Humpback whale

(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Lifespan:

80 to 90 years

Length:

Adult: 12-16 metres

Juvenille: ~10 metres

Saint-Irénée

0

45

KM

St. Lawrence

River

Quebec City

QUEBEC

Portneuf

Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets

Sorel-Tracy

Lanoraie

MAINE

Montreal

May 24: Photographed at Saint-Irénée

May 26: Sighted by fisherman near Quebec

bridge, Quebec City

May 27: Recorded breaching off the docks

at Portneuf

May 28: Reported at Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets

May 29: Spotted through the day moving from

Sorel to Lanoraie

May 30: Arrives in Montreal

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE

AND MAIL, SOURCE: OPENSTREETMAP; noaa fish-

eries; Group for Research and Education on

Marine Mammals (GREMM)

an unexpected journey

Eyewitness reports show that a humpback whale took

about one week to travel from the St. Lawrence River

estuary to Montreal. No humpback has ever been seen

venturing so far up the river.

Humpback whale

(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Lifespan:

80 to 90 years

Length:

Adult: 12-16 metres

Juvenille: ~10 metres

Saint-Irénée

0

45

KM

St. Lawrence

River

Quebec City

Portneuf

QUEBEC

Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets

Sorel-Tracy

Lanoraie

MAINE

Montreal

May 24: Photographed at Saint-Irénée

May 26: Sighted by fisherman near Quebec bridge,

Quebec City

May 27: Recorded breaching off the docks at Portneuf

May 28: Reported at Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets

May 29: Spotted through the day moving from

Sorel to Lanoraie

May 30: Arrives in Montreal

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: OPENSTREETMAP; noaa fisheries; Group for

Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM)

an unexpected journey

Eyewitness reports show that a humpback whale took about one week to travel from

the St. Lawrence River estuary to Montreal. No humpback has ever been seen venturing

so far up the river.

Humpback whale

(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Saint-Irénée

Lifespan:

80 to 90 years

St. Lawrence

River

Quebec City

Length:

Adult: 12-16 metres

Juvenille: ~10 metres

Portneuf

Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets

Sorel-Tracy

MAINE

Lanoraie

QUEBEC

0

45

Montreal

KM

May 24: Photographed at Saint-Irénée

May 26: Sighted by fisherman near Quebec bridge, Quebec City

May 27: Recorded breaching off the docks at Portneuf

May 28: Reported at Saint-Pierre-les-Becquets

May 29: Spotted through the day moving from Sorel to Lanoraie

May 30: Arrives in Montreal

ivan semeniuk and JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: OPENSTREETMAP; noaa fisheries;

Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM)

The department has two officers on hand to work with police in keeping small boats and kayakers a safe distance away. Federal regulations require that whales be given a 100-metre margin on the water. On Friday, the department said it was documenting boaters who venture too close and “some investigations have been opened.” Penalties range up to $100,000. Daily alerts are also being issued to the shipping industry to keep captains of larger vessels informed of the whale’s position.

“We’re saying the better way to protect this whale is to leave it alone and observe it from the wharf,” Mr. Rivierre said.

A drone pass over the whale last weekend showed it to be about 9.5 metres long. It could weigh more than 15 tonnes. Based on its size and appearance, it’s likely to be one to three years old, experts say. It has not been previously catalogued among the hundreds of humpbacks that are known to frequent the Gulf of St. Lawrence, so this may be its first time in the region.

While no humpback has ever been seen so far up the St. Lawrence, in November, 2012, a beluga whale made a similar trip and ended up in exactly the same location. It stayed near the old port of Montreal for nearly a month before it disappeared. It’s still not clear what happened to it, Mr. Michaud said.

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In contrast, because of its size, the humpback’s movements have been easier to follow. It was first photographed near Saint-Irénée, in Charlevoix, on May 24. Two days later, it was spotted by a fisherman at the Quebec City bridge. Then, over the next four days, it appeared at various points up the river, reaching Montreal on May 30.

After arriving, the whale appeared to be exploring its new surroundings, but since midweek, it has spent most of its time in an area of strong current where it may be feeding. On Thursday, it relocated near the main shipping channel, which is a cause for concern, Mr. Michaud said.

He added that for now, he and his team are standing by to see if the whale decides to head back to sea on its own. That’s what happened in 2007, when a female humpback and her calf entered San Francisco Bay and swam up the Sacramento River. Efforts to lure the whales by playing sounds of other humpbacks, or by driving them away with loud underwater noises, were later deemed ineffective.

Mr. Michaud, in contact with researchers who were involved in that effort, said that similar measures would be considered in Montreal only as a last resort. One example would be if the whale were to move up the shipping channel that leads to the locks.

There are a number of theories as to why the whale chose to come to Montreal in the first place. It could be ill, but Christian Ramp, researcher director with the Mingan Island Cetacean Study said that the whale may have become disoriented while chasing capelin up the river estuary. Or it may simply be a case of youthful mammalian curiosity.

“It’s mostly the juveniles who are a little more adventurous,” Dr. Ramp said.

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A more intriguing question is whether the appearance is a sign of longer-term changes in the environment. For example, a warming climate is suspected of causing greater numbers of right whales to move into the Gulf of St. Lawrence from feeding grounds further south.

Jooke Robbins, senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Mass., said that humpbacks do not appear to be undergoing that kind of shift, although their numbers in the gulf have increased in recent years. Young humpbacks have also been spotted with increasing frequency off New York, she added.

As for Montreal’s humpback, "the presence of just one individual, even if it stays for an extended period of time, is unlikely to represent a larger trend,” she said.

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