On May 8th, a minke whale was spotted near the Cosmos bridge in Le Moyne channel off the St. Lawrence river in Montreal. Just a day later, a second minke was also seen around the same area. Minke whales are usually found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the North Atlantic ocean, but not this far upriver. A team of volunteers from the Québec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network (QMMERN) have been observing the whales out of concern for their safety.
Minke whales are not an endangered species, and their North Atlantic population is classified as “not at risk.” However, there is still a great deal of effort going into the protection of these wayward whales, as it is dangerous for them to be swimming in freshwater environments for long periods of time. There is also an increased risk of them being injured by the frequent boats that occupy the St. Lawrence. QMMERN is reminding boaters in the river to stay at least 100 metres away from the whales when out on the water.
This isn’t the first time a whale has strayed from its regular habitat and into the waters of Montreal. Back in 2020, a humpback whale also found its way into the St. Lawrence, with sightings in Québec City and Montreal’s Old Port—unfortunately, it did not survive, and its death was attributed to a potential collision with a boat and prolonged exposure to freshwater. The humpback’s presence was documented for just over two weeks before its body was found.
As for why whales are straying into unfamiliar waters lately, there’s no definitive reason. Sometimes whales wander because they are sick or injured, or because they are young and prone to exploring—the stray humpback in 2020 was between two and four years old. QMMERN has reported that they believe the minke whales in Montreal to be young as well.
A study published in the September 2021 issue of Oceanography suggests that ocean warming as a result of climate change has been known to alter migration and foraging patterns of endangered right whales in the North Atlantic region. Over the last ten years, changing temperatures in the Gulf Stream current has affected food sources of North Atlantic right whales, causing them to venture into the Gulf of St. Lawrence where they can encounter life-threatening fishing-gear entanglements and collisions with boats.
QMMERN has been monitoring the minke whales closely, and you can find updates on their status here. The latest update as of May 16th suggests that at least one of the whales may be traveling downstream, back towards the Gulf of St. Lawrence. If you are in the area and spot the whales, witnesses have been encouraged to notify QMMERN by calling their emergency hotline at 1-877-722-5346.