The seas beneath the highlands of Cape Breton’s northwestern coast are full of marine life. Beyond the hidden coves and precipitous cliffs lies the preferred summering ground of a population of long-finned pilot whales. They arrive in late June, following the inshore migration of northern shortfin squids, and stay well into the fall – with some sightings reported as late as January before the pack ice drifts into the area. It is in these waters, sheltered in comparison to their winter residence out in the Atlantic, that the majority of their calves are born.
Our vessel left the tiny harbour of Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia on our second last day of fieldwork for 2018. A call on the radio from a local whale-watching company had alerted the captain that there was a small calf in one of the groups of pilot whales heading northeast along the coastline. As we headed out to look for the whales, I wondered how young this reported little whale could be.
The second group of pilot whales we came upon was a very well-known social unit. Immediately identifiable by a large male named “Key” (#551), this unit also has several other distinctively notched individuals – such as Lock, Gear, and Spacer. These whales are frequently seen along this stretch of coastline from Cheticamp to Bay St. Lawrence, returning each summer.
I have been studying this population since the summer of 2013 from opportunistic platforms through the Cape Breton Pilot Whale Project. We have several pilot whale families that we observe more often than others. Key’s group is one of them. Like resident killer whales, in this species both male and females offspring are thought to stay with their mothers throughout their lives and these long-term groups have be termed “social units”. Unlike resident killer whales, we don’t yet have a good understand the exact relationships between individuals within a unit.
It was not until ten minutes into our time with these pilot whales that I noticed a small splash to the outside of Lock. Sure enough, there was a newborn calf nestled into her slipstream – perhaps 24-48hrs old. Though pilot whales babysit regularly, a very young calf like this will spend the majority of time alongside their mother. We watched for another few minutes as this little calf surfaced high for air each time Lock did. Shortly after, we continued along to another group which was swimming northeast about a kilometer outside of Key’s group.
What an amazing end to my time on the water this past year. As winter closes in, planning begins for next season with the promise of more time with these beautiful creatures. And, of course, I will be on the lookout for Lock’s calf as these long-finned pilot whales once again return to the coastal waters under Cape Breton’s highlands for another summer.