'Their survival is at stake': Clock ticking to get Montreal whales back on course

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Minke whales don’t tend to buddy up. In fact, they’re known to be solitary, even antisocial creatures who rarely even swim in twos or threes, say researchers.

So what in the world could have brought two minke whales into Montreal’s waters within a few days of each other?

This incredibly rare event – the first like it in a century – has scientists coming up with theories, such as whether the pair could be a mom and baby or two food-seekers -- but not enough information yet to test those theories.

When the first stray whale appeared, it could have been “a disoriented animal, a very hungry whale, or a very inexperienced individual, or an individual with an exploratory character,” said Robert Michaud, the president of a marine-mammal research group called GREMM.

If you’re surprised that whales have personalities, don’t be, said Michaud. But now that the second whale has arrived, that complicates the plot.

“These animals have individual character sometimes,” he said. “But when we have two individuals, we have to review our way of thinking.”

Now, scientists are puzzling over whether there’s a relationship between the two whales, or some bigger event -- like an issue with their food supply -- that prompted two to make the same very risky move, which has a high chance of ending in their death.

“This is quite challenging, why two individuals would have chosen to go upriver like that, which is a very bad idea,” Michaud said.

“Over the last almost 20 years… we have had 12 minke whales that swam upstream from Quebec [City],” he said. “Ten of them, we found them as carcasses -- they were dead.”

For most, the cause of death wasn’t clear, he said. But since they’re not in their home environment, it’s also not surprising.

“Their survival is at stake,” Michaud said. “The longer they will stay… in freshwater, the shorter is their expected life expectancy.”

So what could have inspired both to arrive within days of each other?

“It's a good question, because minke whales are mostly solitary animals. They don't work in groups. They are not gregarious, they are not social,” Michaud said.

More answers will likely come when researchers can get a better look at the two whales, and particularly their size.

One theory is that they could be a mother and baby. It’s the tail end of the nursing season, with mothers travelling with their young.

It’s possible the young whale got lost, inspiring its mother to come find it. The first whale that arrived seems to be very young, so if the other one is an adult, that could support this theory, Michaud said, though admitting it’s “unlikely.”

“At that size, it could be an animal that was born last winter, so it is possible that it swam in the river with its mother, initially, and he got separated and now the mother is coming up,” he said.

But it could also be a sort of “good news story,” he said, if both whales appear to be young.

“If there is a baby boom in the population, there's a lot of young whales that were produced,” because the conditions were so good, he said. Maybe two young, inexperienced whales just happened to get lost.

Another option is that something in the food supply changed.

“Maybe it's the fish conditions,” Michaud said. “In the spring, small fish get upriver -- maybe it's an amazing season and more individual swere attracted by that food.”

But again, he said, they’re all “just hypotheses,” and there’s a good chance scientists will never know what motivated the two whales.

All the researchers know for sure is that whatever happened, “it’s a natural phenomenon,” said Michaud -- the whales arrived on their own, and even though the outcome may well be tragic, humans shouldn’t intervene.

While people sometimes do save whales that are caught in exceptional circumstances, this case isn’t one of them, he said.

Rescues only tend to happen when “human intervention” caused the problem, such as entangled fishing gear, or for endangered species of whales, which minkes are not.

“If it's not an endangered animal, it's not a human cause involved directly, our preference is to let nature go,” he said.

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