One silver lining: the humpback that broke Montrealers' hearts in 2020 also left a legacy

Quebecers are a long way from done with this year’s heartbreaks, big and small—except for one, which may be ready for its epilogue.

It was a comparatively tiny moment of tragedy, but seven months later, it also turns out that it ended up leaving an outsized amount of good in its wake.

A young humpback whale delighted thousands of Montrealers by visiting their harbour this summer, only to leave them distraught when it died on the way home. But its story kept going: in the long run, the whale deeply changed some people and even gave an economic boost to a whole region.

“I wanted her to find her way home and I wanted her to be okay. But I guess that was too much wishful thinking,” said Amber Gilbert—or at least she felt that way in the immediate aftermath of the whale's death.

Gilbert was 18 last May when the whale arrived in Montreal’s normally busy harbour. She was one of thousands of people who lined the harbour for a week and a half to see the energetic humpback breach and play. 

No one knew why it had made the incredibly rare trip, far up the St. Lawrence into water much fresher than humpbacks’ normal habitat. But after the shock of COVID-19, two months of quarantine and thousands of deaths, people were ready to greet her.

“Whales have always been my favourite animal,” said Gilbert, who was already planning to enter a marine biology program when she started university this fall.

But she had never seen a real whale. “It was always a plan, you know?” she said. “We always talked about it. We just never had the chance to go yet.”

Even her plans to do her plans got derailed. “I was just planning on working all summer, saving up money to go to school and stuff, and then the pandemic happened,” she recalled. 

Then she opened her phone one day and saw a photo of the humpback.

“I didn’t really believe it at first… I was like ‘that’s not true,’” she said. But quickly she realized that she had to get down there.

“We got up to the fence at the pier…. just as I got there, I had my phone on the water. It came out right in front of me,” she said—she captured a magnificent breach, just feet away.

“I started crying as soon as it happened. I was so speechless,” she said. 

“She was pretty big, too. I’ve always seen them on the screen. To see them in person, I was just so overwhelmed. She was just really pretty.”

'EVERYBODY COMING TOGETHER'

She wasn’t the only one overwhelmed by having that experience brought to their doorstep.

“We were driving over the Jacques-Cartier Bridge,” recalled Matthew Legault, when his family saw people lined up along the harbour. 

Legault, took his two daughters, aged nine and six at the time, to join about 40 other people waiting and watching along Notre-Dame St. Sure enough, the humpback put on a show for them as well.

“The girls were really excited and… there was a really nice feeling, you know, of everybody coming together,” he said. The girls told their classes about it over Zoom, and their grandparents.

“What made it really special is that nobody had seen anybody for so frigging long, you know?” Legault said.

“Having this moment of sort of solidarity and togetherness, and everybody appreciating something really simple and really pure was the marking aspect of it.”

Nobody was happy when the whale’s carcass was discovered downriver on June 9, and even less so when a necropsy showed it had died not from disease or hunger, but from a boat strike.

It appeared that it really had just been an unusually curious, but healthy, adolescent whale that likely would have survived the trip otherwise.

Legault couldn’t even bring himself to tell his kids the whale had died. Gilbert said she was “overwhelmed with sadness” and that knowing it was a boat strike “made it a lot worse.” 

Then her perspective began to shift, just a bit. “I think it gives us a bigger look on everything,” she said later in the summer. 

“It came here, we don’t know why, you know?” she said. “It could happen more if we weren’t polluting oceans and stuff. My view on that has changed a little bit.”

Gilbert, already conscientious about the environment, had participated in last year’s student climate protests. She posted her whale video to Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook but felt everyone should be able to “experience this,” now and in the future.

“It was an extra boost to push me further,” she said. “Seeing her is another step, you know, to being better.”

'TOURISTS STOPPED ME IN THE STREET'

The whale seems to have inspired a lot of people in the ensuing months and may have played a role in giving Tadoussac, Quebec’s whale-watching capital, a surprisingly strong tourist season, considering its constraints.

“Quebecers were there,” Tina Tremblay, the general manager of the Hôtel Tadoussac, told CTV News. “They needed some fresh air, and this is what Tadoussac offers, nature.”

Usually, 65 per cent of the hotel’s clientele is European, she said. And the tourist season was only 108 days this year instead of 177. It had distancing rules and a lack of staff.

But still, it managed to maintain about 50 per cent occupancy, Tremblay said. “We are really happy that Quebecers took a vacation in Quebec and we sincerely thank them,” she said. “This allowed us to have a season and our regular employees were able to work.”

The “short but intense season” saved the local industry, agreed Claude Brassard, the head of tourism for the town of Tadoussac.

And how much was the humpback to thank? Well, “tourists stopped me in the street in Tadoussac because they recognized me from my television interviews,” said Marie-Ève Muller, the spokesperson for a small local marine biology group called GREMM.

People wanted “to tell me that they were here thanks to the humpback whale, that they wanted to discover the natural habitat of the animal,” she said. 

Muller was relieved that there were many other humpbacks offshore this summer for the visitors to see. It was, scientists believed, a good year for whales, with the decrease in cruise ships and much other traffic leading to much quieter oceans and lower whale stress levels.

NEW, TINY WHALE FANS

Other anecdotal information included an “incredible increase in traffic” on a website, baleineendirect.com, said Brassard. 

And GREMM also started getting children’s drawings in the mail. Merchants in Tadoussac reported similar acts of newfound whale devotion—in one shop, Boutique La Marée, a little boy got a plush whale toy and insisted it was the exact one that came to Montreal.

The whale has already been immortalized in at least one piece of art: a new sculpture in Montreal’s Parc de la Promenade that looks like whale ribs.

And at least one more is in the works: a Tadoussac children’s entertainer, Mme. Chose of the Biblio-Phage de Mme. Chose, told CTV News she went to see the humpback and “promised to tell the story of this whale to the children,” and was working on a piece of writing.

Gilbert said that at a moment when “we were feeling a little locked up,” the whale suddenly opened up a whole new set of possibilities, beyond what people imagined even before 2020.

“Like…she actually came here, you know?” she said. “Maybe it could happen again one day.”

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