© Photo by Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS)
Whale Tail by Artem Kovyazin

A sleek, massive tail rose majestically into in the air as streams of salty water slowly flowed off of it, falling back into the sea.  The black fluke contrasted against the bright-blue sky as it calmly descended back into the depths in what seemed like slow motion, disappearing beneath the surface.

A North Atlantic right whale dives in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in August 2016 (Photo: Mingan Island Cetacean Study)

Moments earlier we were holding on tight for balance as our zodiac raced against the waves towards the whale’s blow on the horizon – the first we had seen after hours on the water.   Now we all turned to look at each other as we struggled to stand because of the sea swells, incredulous at what we had just witnessed.  

For the four of us that were guests on the boat, this was an unforgettable first encounter with a highly endangered North Atlantic right whale — a species whose total population is estimated at about 500 individuals in the entire North Atlantic.  For the other three occupants – a field biologist and two interns, it was just another exciting day out on the water researching the Saint Lawrence’s whales as part of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS).

The organization studies many whale species, including the humpback, finback, minke and right whale, but is perhaps best known for being the longest-running continuous study of the blue whale in the North Atlantic.  It was this behemoth that founder Richard Sears focused his research on back in 1979 when he established the study.   The MICS invites tourists to visit their research station located in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan on the north shore of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in the Canadian province of Quebec to take part in what the they call “research sessions”.  A non-profit organization that depends greatly on private donors, these research sessions help to fund the organization’s operations while giving visitors a glimpse into the life of marine mammal field biologists.

Days earlier I was staring at the forested mountaintops and countless blue lakes from the window of a small plane while on my way to visit the station, when a voice broke the silence.

“Will this be your first time in Sept-Iles?” a woman sitting next to me asked with a European accent.

“I’m actually only stopping by Sept-Iles on my way to write a story on whales further east,” I replied.

“I’m going to see whales too, with the MICS,” she said enthusiastically.

There I was, traveling to an isolated part of my home province of Quebec, a place even most Quebecquer’s hadn’t been.  I had been wondering how many people I would encounter during my short stay that would have traveled this far north to take part in the MICS’s research tourism programs, if any.  Little had I known, Hanna, the person sitting next to me had left Hamburg, Germany the day prior to do just that.

“It’s my life-long dream to see a humpback whale,” Hanna continued, “if I could start over I think I’d be a biologist.”

“I hope your dream becomes reality,” I said as we stepped off the plane into the cool Sept-Iles air two hours after having left the sweltering heat of Montreal. “Based on their recent sighting reports it shouldn’t be problem as long as the weather allows us to go offshore.”

Sept-Iles, Quebec, Canada, August 2016.

Sept-Iles is a city of approximately 25,000 people and one of the northernmost cities to be connected to the province’s network of paved roads.  Anyone arriving in the region by air will land here, and depending on their plans, may have a day or two to burn before heading towards the research station.

Sept-Iles, Quebec, Canada, August 2016.

Located on the Bay of Sept-Iles, the city is a great place to find a spot on the beach and watch the sun set over the seven islands the city is named after.  You may even catch the glimpse of a whale in the distance.  There are also plenty of places and opportunities to learn about the local Innu aboriginal First Nation and their culture.

Sept-Iles, Quebec, Canada, August 2016.

The following morning I hopped on a bus that would bring me on a two-hour drive along the breathtaking sandy northern shores of the Gulf, passing bridges over raging rivers and alongside picturesque seaside villages with their multicoloured houses. I couldn’t help but wonder why we so often choose foreign countries for our vacations when these little-know dream landscapes are sometimes in our own backyards.

Upon arriving at the seaside research station, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the coordination of its dozen team members who use walkie-talkies to communicate around the station’s sections which include a museum, gift shop, library, laboratory, offices and a workshop.

A reproduction of a young finback whale is on display at the MICS station.

Reminiscent of a beehive, researchers and interns busily moved about the station, discussing projects, analyzing and storing data, examining pictures of whales and keeping radio contact with the boats on the water.  Over the next few days I would learn all about the research methods and tools utilized to gather information for their studies. 

The first thing I noticed were the thousands of pictures at the station.  Picture-identification being their main research method, countless pictures are stored there. Many of them were even developed in the station’s own darkroom in the decades before the digital era.  Mariners, whales watchers and other researchers from all over the North Atlantic also send them pictures of their whale sightings.  With the help of a specially designed software program, researchers compare pictures in hopes of making matches of individual whales by looking closely at characteristics like markings on the skin, scars, and fin shapes.

MICS team member Viri Jimenez compares photos of individual whales in hopes of making a match in August 2016.

I’d also learn about biological sampling and satellite tagging techniques.  Biopsies are performed using a modified arrow that is deployed from a crossbow and that collects a very small piece of skin and blubber as it quickly bounces off the whale, while satellite tagging is often accomplished with the use of a long pole that fixes the tag to the whale using a suction cup.

When used in combination with one another, these methods reveal important information about the whales including where they have traveled over time, the contaminants found in their bodies, their estimated age, as well as their sex and genetic codes.  Over time, they can also offer insights into population trends and mortality rates.

Team member Viri Jimenez displays a tool used to free entangled whales.

One of their recently incorporated research tools is the drone.  Its aerial perspective can aid in gathering behavioural data including group sizes, group hydro-dynamic movement formations, feeding behaviours and conflicts within groups.  Another recent innovation is the ability to collect feces using a manual water pump, which, in addition to providing information similar to that obtained by a biopsy, will also reveal the presence of parasites in stool particles. 

The information compiled by the MICS using these methods have helped to understand whales’ migration routes and seasonal distributions and has guided decisions to instate conservation measures in important habitats within their ranges.  The MICS’ blue whale data, for example, was consulted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, who designates the species’ status as “endangered”. 

Needless to say, I couldn’t wait to witness these techniques in action on the waters of the Saint Lawrence.  However, patience was needed as strong winds had kept us grounded since my arrival.

Meanwhile, Hanna and two other German tourists visiting the MICS were getting settled in at a bed-and-breakfast in the village, where research session participants are accommodated as part of their package. 

Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, a village with a population of less than 500, is situated along a beach, where, after a long day we would sometimes have a beer while we watched gannets, cormorants, grey seals and minke whales feeding off in the distance as the sun set.

Atlantic puffin.
Grey seal.

The village is in close proximity to the Mingan Archipelago National Park, famous for its limestone rock monolith formations and populations of Atlantic puffins.   It is also near the Magpie River, which is renowned for its great rafting and wildlife watching. There is therefore plenty to do on days when the weather makes it impossible to go offshore to study the whales.

The limestone monoliths of Quarry Island, Quebec, Canada.

“We do not offer fast-food whale-watching,” said Sears of the days out on the water.  Outings can be long, the rides sometimes bumpy, and the sightings unpredictable.  “We don’t want the research to yield to tourism,” he explained, “we want people to see what biologists really do.”  As a tourist visiting the MICS you are immersed in the authentic day-to-day work of marine mammal biologists, and for the four of us guests at the centre, this was exactly what had attracted us in the first place.

At dawn on the last day of my short visit there was a knock on my door – we were going out despite the relatively strong winds announced in the afternoon.  An hour later we were in our survival suits, heading out past the Archipelago into the Jacques-Cartier Strait and heading towards Anticosti Island, where the whales has last been seen days earlier.

A MICS zodiac slowly approaches a humpback whale on August 2016.

Not long after arriving on location, we would encounter and photograph the rare North Atlantic right whale, before coming upon a pair of humpbacks – one of which MICS biologists identified as “Tracks” in a way that only someone who had been passionately studying them for years could do.  After judging that the animals were calm we slowly approached and took a biopsy sample before backing off to let the whales continue on their way, careful not to stress the animals. As we continued our transect we would also spot a number of minkes and a finback whale.  However, as we struggled to comfortably navigate the wavy waters of the Gulf as the winds continued to strengthen, the decision was made to return to port.

After that incredible morning on the water, Hanna approached me as we removed our wet orange survival suits on the pier.  With a smile spread from ear to ear and her arm extended into the air, words weren’t necessary to understand how she felt as I gave her a high five. Not only had her dream of seeing humpbacks been realized – MICS’ field biologists were able to collect important research data about the species in the process.


Justin Taus