Quebec chronicles – the marine mammals, part 2

Our whale-watching tour set off from a dock in the village of Tadoussac. A naturalist was on board, but she stood only at the front of the boat and her electronically-enhanced voice was difficult to understand with some static and heavy winds interfering. Our group stationed itself at the back of the boat so we would have unobstructed views of the birds and any possible whales. To our enormous delight, a fellow passenger called out a view of the first whale to swim near – a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), which is a type of baleen whale.

illustration credit: International Whaling Commission; https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/minke-whale

These smaller whales, which feed on krill and smaller schooling fish, are known for frequently breaching but that didn’t happen during our tour. It was cool to see this one swimming along though. We are unsure if we saw it again as they appeared somewhat similar to the fin whales, but the other whales we saw on the tour were a pair and minkes tend to be more solitary. Unfortunately, the minke is now the most numerous whale species worldwide and therefore a main target of the whaling industry.

Our next sighting way out on the river was a pair of harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), whose heads bobbed on the surface as we passed by. Then we were thrilled to see a “blow”, a whale spouting water into the air.

A pair of fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) was swimming around in our vicinity and though they did not breach, they did rise to the surface multiple times – once quite close to our boat.

Illustration credit: International Whaling Commission; https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/species/fin-whale

These whales, considered an endangered species, are the second largest mammals in the world and have been nicknamed the greyhounds of the sea because of their swimming speed.

They have sleek bodies that can grow to 80 feet in length. Sometimes, you could spot where they might partly surface due to a bit of turbulence in the water.

Their diet consists of krill, crustaceans and small schooling fish. If they get enough to eat, can avoid predators (e.g., orcas) and man-made threats, they can live to be 100 or more years old! (The minke whales live 30-60 years.)

A scientific group has been collecting photo IDs of fin whales since 1986; they now have some 100 identified individuals who have received names such as Capitaine Crochet, Triangle, Caïman and Zipper. Another group has a catalogue that has identified 450 fin whales since 1980.

While we were thrilled to have seen the minke and fin whales, a beluga sighting remained a wish. That evening after the boat trip, Chloe and I were talking about whales as we gazed out at the St. Lawrence Seaway from the balcony of our rental house. I was of the opinion that if we really made it our intention to see a beluga, we would (Illusions is one of my very favorite books!). Fleeta joined us a little later on the balcony and then excitedly called out – “Beluga!!!”

Everyone came running out from inside the house and a few of us ran for cameras, despite the fact that all we could really see was a white splotch against the blue water. Those with binoculars likely had a much better view, but I didn’t care – we had our elusive sighting! The following photos, taken on our last evening and the next morning when it was raining, are admittedly not good ones but do give you an idea of what we saw.

The beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) is the only white whale and is known as the canary of the sea for its broad range of vocalizations. This trait, combined with the species’ curiosity which causes it to surface near boats to look at humans, unfortunately has led to it being one of the aquatic mammals that are hunted and captured (and sometimes bred) for the entertainment industry.

In contrast to the fin and minke whales, the belugas are social mammals, often traveling in groups and also moving from one group to another. On our last evening in St. Irénée, we probably saw about 12-15 of them! If you look closely at the white spots, you will see there were seven in this photo.

Males tend to associate with other males and females and their calves (born about every three years) hang out together. The young belugas are born gray and turn white between 5-12 years. Another interesting fact is that these whales molt in the summertime!

The St. Lawrence Seaway belugas, the southernmost beluga population in the world, are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. This became necessary to multiple threats, a main one being massive hunting of the species. From 1880 to 1950, about 15,000 of these whales were killed, being blamed as “white demons” for threatening commercial fishing (which proved to be false). The latest estimate of how many now remain in this area is a paltry 889 individuals.

Hunting of belugas was outlawed in Canada in 1979 but other threats to the species persist. Besides chemical and plastics pollution, they succumb to getting hit by boats, being ensnared in fishing nets, and falling prey to predators (e.g., orcas). They may also be facing competition for their food sources, including the sardine-like capelin fish; here you see a couple that washed ashore.

 

Wildlife conservationists have been alarmed by a large number of female and baby belugas washing up on shore along the Seaway since 2008. Many of the mothers have died in the neonatal period and researchers are asking whether the mammals are lacking sufficient energy and failing to find sufficient food.

It is thought that the Seaway habitat may be changing with damming of rivers that flow into it. Noise pollution from whale-watching, boating, military sonar, oil and gas drilling may also be making life difficult for the whales as it disrupts their navigation. On the day we went out, a couple zodiacs zoomed a bit close to a pair of fin whales, even though they are supposed to observe the same distance rules as the larger boats. Hopefully, the authorities will be closely monitoring this.This is now being studied by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In 2019, the Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM) received a grant from the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation to study the increased mortality among the female and young belugas.

It would be great if the Beluga Whale Health Project could discover what is harming the belugas in the Seaway since these mammals can live more than 100 years of age in favorable circumstances. That is important for the species because it was recently documented that belugas have their own cultures in groups that stay together for generations; one researcher Greg O’Corry-Crowe, commented: “”We have compelling evidence, in our view, for the evolution of culturally inherited migration knowledge and behaviour.” This also has led to the intriguing question of whether their ability to learn from one another might help them cope with changing climatic conditions.

 

Hopefully, something can be done in the shorter term to help all the whales cope with the challenges and threats facing them. Outside the whaling and marine entertainment industries, many people would like to see them survive and thrive in the wild. They inspire artists as well, as shown by the metal beluga sculptures on display down the road from where we stayed.

At the Domaine le Forget in Charlevoix, another sculpture was called the Song of the Whales by Peter Lundberg.

It was a joy to see the whales during our trip, especially given the threats to which all the aquatic mammals are subject: hunting, getting caught in fishing nets, poisoning due to toxic chemicals from litter and oil spills, and ingestion of the ever-increasing plastic trash that is floating into our oceans. I would love to return to the area in warmer weather in the hope of getting closer to the belugas to see them better. I would again go on one of the large whale-watching boats because it appears that the smaller boats might be getting too close to the marine mammals. If we want to see the cetaceans in person, we need to think about how we can do it most responsibly while protecting them. The St. Lawrence Seaway is quite beautiful and will hopefully continue to offer a home to the southernmost belugas.

Quebec chronicles – the marine mammals, part 1

When our small band of independent travelers was formulating a plan last year to go to Tadoussac Dunes in Quebec to see the spring warbler migration, we all began investigating the area on the Internet. One of my first discoveries was that several species of whale live in the St. Lawrence Seaway, including the beautiful and rare belugas (Delphinapterus leucas). I began advocating that we include whale-watching options in our itinerary and fellow birder Chloe was also VERY enthusiastic! We were well rewarded during the actual trip, even though it was early in the season for these migratory cetaceans to be there.

On our first afternoon exploring after arrival in Quebec province, we stopped by a shoreline to look at birds and saw a shop for a whale-watching company. A lady working for the firm pointed out a herring gull sitting on her nest nearby and we had the pleasure of seeing our first harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) in the small cove next to the nest.

The next afternoon, we visited the Parc National du Fjord-du-Sanguenay. A 3.2-km trail led us through forest, along a couple meadows and inlets to the Baie-Sainte-Marguerite where belugas are often seen in the summer. Part of the trail was bordered by rocky areas with running rivulets of water nourishing mosses and other vegetation.

 

Many plants were growing in the rocky areas along the trail, including beautiful red trilliums (Trillium erectum L.), red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera – thanks to Lynda for the ID!) and trout lilies (Erythronium americanum).

 

 

Signs along the way told about the history of the Bay Mill village which had been built alongside the bay. Sawmill residue was used to fuel a steam engine, which in turn gave the village electricity.

Visitor center staff informed us that no one had seen belugas recently in the bay but we had a beautiful land-based view of the water.

 

The Sanguenay Fjord (water-filled valley carved out by glaciers) is unique in that it is the only navigable fjord in North America. The fjord is characterized by water stratification, with the bottom layer being as cold and saline as ocean water while the top layer is warmer fresh water, so that this area contains both saltwater and freshwater ecosystems.

There was a nice exhibition area with informative signs; in the summertime, a park ranger is stationed there to provide tourists with additional information. For example, we learned from the display how specific belugas have been identified so that naturalists can follow their lives over time.

The next day, four of us went on a whale-watching tour, which ended with a visit to the Sainte Marguerite Bay from the water side. No belugas were to be seen but to our great delight, there was a pod of harbor seals which had hauled up onto the rocks. “Hauling” is actually a “technical” term for seals getting out of the water temporarily for purposes such as avoiding predators, resting (also when molting, which I didn’t know they did) and engaging in social interactions.

They tend to hang out in familiar haul-out spots; this family group seemed relaxed, with some members sunning and others swimming nearby.

It is said they are easy to recognize by the sunbathing pose that they adopt, called the “banana pose” – lying on their side with head and flippers raised. No one in this group demonstrated the pose, however!

They mostly eat fish but also squid, shrimp and mollusks. Their color may vary from gray to brown, with some looking a bit more spotted than others.

We were lucky to see them since they migrate from eastern Canada to breed along the Maine coast in May and June. Occasionally, a few have been seen in North Carolina. And now on to the whales in aquatic mammal blog part 2!

A walk in the woods with a bit of local history

Ken Moore IMG_6384© Maria de Bruyn resOn a sunny afternoon in mid-April, volunteers at the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) had the chance to learn about Bill Hunt, a horticultural expert who donated hundreds of acres of land for environmental conservation to the University of North Carolina. Hunt’s work laid the foundations for the expansion of the Garden with the Hunt Arboretum and the Piedmont Nature Trails in woods behind the cultivated gardens. The trails were “re-dedicated” during a walk to commemorate the Garden’s first public offering, which was originally dedicated on 10 April 1966. A walk in the woods was quite a nice way to help celebrate the NCBG’s 50th birthday.

Ken Moore IMG_6398© Maria de Bruyn resWe learned about how the Nature Trails were created and maintained from Ken Moore, retired assistant director of the NCBG and the Garden’s first employee.

Moore was accompanied by other Garden staff who offered other interesting tidbits of information. For example, Johnny Randall, NCBG Director of Conservation, told us about how Mr. Hunt visited his rhododendron bushes along Morgan Creek and invited friends to swim at Elephant Rock and to forest picnics at his personal grill located creekside, all the while wearing a suit and tie in his beloved woods.

elephant rock IMG_6443© Maria de Bruyn resHunt barbecue IMG_6436© Maria de Bruyn res

Staff pointed out some of the lovely native plants seen in the springtime woods, including plants that were rescued from other sites such as the trilliums.

Sweet Betsy IMG_6405© Maria de Bruyn res Virginia pennywort IMG_6411© Maria de Bruyn res

Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)                 Virginia pennywort (Obolaria virginica)

The woodsorrels have three-lobed, clover-like leaves.

Common yellow woodsorrelIMG_6429© Maria de Bruyn   Violet woodsorrel IMG_6423© Maria de Bruyn res

.Common yellow woodsorrel (Oxalis stricta)   Violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea)

Indian plantain IMG_6439© Maria de Bruyn res         Spotted wintergreen IMG_6434© Maria de Bruyn res

Indian plantain (Arnoglossum plantagineum)   Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

We also heard about the non-native and invasive plants that were planted along the Nature Trails before conservationists were aware of how they out-competed native plants for space and nutrients. They pointed out that we should remove such vegetation during our volunteer hours and from our own gardens at home, such as Oriental false hawksbeard (Youngia japonica (L.)), which I realized is nestling in in my yard, too.

Special attention was given to the plant with the delightful name of Italian lords-and-ladies (Arum italicum). There were many clumps of these large-leaved flowers and numerous specimens were blooming. While Ken told us how to identify male and female plants so we could eradicate them, other staff demonstrated how to uproot them with gusto.

Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6481© Maria de Bruyn res          Italian lords-and-ladies IMG_6494© Maria de Bruyn res

Listening IMG_6499© Maria de Bruyn res

As we climbed out of the woods after a couple hours, some last words were said about invasive plants and then Ken sped ahead to greet everyone as we re-entered the demonstration gardens. He kindly offered participants a small booklet about Bill Hunt’s life, a nice gift to commemorate 50 years of the Garden. It will be interesting to think about what the next 50 years might bring.

Ken Moore Ed Harrison IMG_6524© Maria de Bruyn resrue anemone windflower IMG_6450© Maria de Bruyn res                       IMG_6466© Maria de Bruyn res

IMG_6468© Maria de Bruyn res                   IMG_6458© Maria de Bruyn res Wild comfrey (right, Cynoglossum virginianum)

Crabs save human lives!

horseshoe crab IMG_0182_1©Maria de Bruyn resOn a trip to Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina, we took a few walks along the Atlantic shoreline. There I saw the remains of numerous horseshoe crabs (Limulus polyphemus) as their empty shells were scattered among sea pork and sea weed on the beach.

Horseshoe crabs, which can become quite large, live in shallow ocean waters on soft sandy or muddy bottoms. They occasionally come on shore to mate. Behind their five sets of legs (the remains of which are seen in the photos below), they have book gills, which exchange respiratory gases. Two gills are seen sticking up in the center of the first photo.

horshoecrab IMG_0115_1©Maria de Bruyn horseshoe crab IMG_0117_1©Maria de Bruyn res

The gills are also occasionally used by the crabs to swim, which they usually do upside down.

horseshoe crab IMG_8506©Maria de Bruyn resWhen I posted photos of my crab shell spottings on Project Noah, a fellow Noah member informed me that the horseshoe crabs are used in medicine. So I decided to read up on them and discovered how they are utilized. These crabs have hemocyanin instead of hemoglobin in their blood to carry oxygen (this colors their blood blue). Their blood also contains amebocytes, which defend these creatures against pathogens. The blood of the horseshoe crabs is harvested to obtain the amebocytes to make a product that used to detect bacterial endotoxins in human medical applications.

The US Food and Drug Administration mandates that any intravenous drugs and forms of medical equipment that come into contact with patients’ bodies must pass through horseshoe crab blood to help rule out contamination with endotoxins. This includes items such as needles, surgical implants and pacemakers.

horseshoe crab IMG_8503©Maria de Bruyn res horseshoe crab IMG_0124_1©Maria de Bruyn res

horseshoe crab IMG_0164_1©Maria de Bruyn resTo obtain the supplies, about 600,000 crabs are caught each year and drained of about 30% of their blood before being returned to the ocean. Some 10-30% of the crabs do not survive the procedure and others are injured, becoming unable to mate and reproduce. As a consequence of the harvests, these magnificent arthropods, whose lineage dates back 450 million years ago, are now becoming threatened and alternative toxin-detection methods are needed. There is a website devoted to these interesting crabs. Walks on the beach can lead to new knowledge as well as enjoyment!

A marine mystery for the uninitiated

sea pork IMG_0159_1©Maria de Bruyn resFor my friends who know me as a staunch vegetarian, it might come as a surprise that I have become fascinated with sea pork (Aplidium stellatum). It is one of the most colorful yet odd forms of sea life I have personally encountered.

My introduction to this interesting creature occurred on Topsail Island in May 2013, where I found two specimens on the beach.

Sea pork IMG_7631© Maria de Bruynres sea pork IMG_7029© Maria de Bruyn

sea pork IMG_0136_1©Maria de Bruyn res

Then, on 19 January this year, I saw some sea pork again – oodles and oodles of it, actually, accompanied by sea liver as well!

So what is sea pork, you might ask? Each blob or globule is a tunicate: an invertebrate animal that can be one individual or a collection of individuals that reproduce to form colonies measuring an inch or more in height. The larvae look a bit like tadpoles until they join to create the colonies, living in water-filled sac-like structures that are rubbery or cartilaginous to the touch.

sea pork IMG_0152_1©Maria de Bruyn ressea pork IMG_0161_1©Maria de Bruyn resThese creatures are marine filter feeders. The sacs have two tubular siphons, through which water is drawn in and expelled during feeding and respiration. The zooids extract nutrients from the water.

What are zooids? These are the reddish-colored individuals that form a colony. You can see them in circular groups under the sac’s tunic, which varies in color, including creamy pinks, orange, green, red, lavender, deep purple and black. The colonies can become large, spreading 12 inches or more and weighing up to 10 pounds.

sea pork IMG_0153_1©Maria de Bruyn res sea pork IMG_0154_1©Maria de Bruyn res
Sea pork was given this name because the rubbery tunic bleaches to white, resembling salt pork or fatback, after the colony dies. While alive, sea pork is eaten by bottom-dwelling fish, sharks and skates.

sea pork IMG_0144_1©Maria de Bruyn res sea pork IMG_0190_1©Maria de Bruyn res
Apparently other creatures also find a home on sea pork, including barnacles and sea whips (Leptogorgia).

Sea pork with barnacle IMG_0141_1©Maria de Bruyn ressea pork and sea whip IMG_0126_1©Maria de Bruyn resSea liver (Eudistoma hepaticum) looks similar to sea pork, but the tunic is softer. It is said to feel slimy in comparison to sea pork but the consistency seemed the same to me.

sea liver IMG_0186_1©Maria de Bruyn ressea pork IMG_0147_1©Maria de Bruyn resHowever, the difference may be more apparent when they are in their natural habitat, fastened to the sea floor or some other substrate rather than torn loose from their underground homes and cast ashore.

I spent some time throwing live sea pork back into the ocean until I came on a stretch of beach that was covered with these blobs; I hoped the tide would come in and carry the creatures back to their watery homes where they might continue their colonial lives.

 

unknown alga IMG_0177_1©Maria de Bruyn resI now have a query in to a Smithsonian marine botanist for help in identifying this organism. A scientist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences ruled it out as a marine invertebrate and said he and colleagues surmised it is a marine alga. Suggested IDs are welcome!