Northern Bottlenose Whales in Nova Scotia – 7/21

I want to share some stories about a cetacean that I’ve had the privilege of observing on research trips. This species is the Northern Bottlenose Whale, Hyperoodon ampullatus.

Before I tell the story, and because we are talking about a listed Species at Risk here in the Maritimes, I do want to clarify that this fieldwork was done under the necessary permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Now, you may never have heard of them before. They are a large approximately 10 meter long endangered beaked whale found in the deep pelagic waters offshore. Here in Nova Scotia they live around 100 nautical miles from the mainland in submarine canyons. There are species that very few people have had the opportunity to see.

My story starts in summer 2021. It was the middle of July. The research trip had been delayed by the pandemic and we were heading out about a week late. It took us a day and a half to make our way on a 40 foot sailboat called Billina. from Halifax to the gully, which is a large submarine canyon northeast of Sail Island. And when we got out there, we were wrapped in a blanket of fog.

Now you think the whales would be hard to find in the fog. But indeed, the Northern Bottlenose Whale are a very special beaked whale because they’re often curious and come up to boats. It was in this fog that I had my first encounter with a Bottlenose Whale. We were sailing along the contours of the canyon and out of the mist appeared alone individual brownish toned and patchy with diatoms this Bottlenose Whale approached our vessel gracefully it circled us once, twice, then three times, breathing steadily as it prepared itself for its next dive. Each time it broke the surface, you could see its distinctively rounded melon appear, sometimes with glimpses of its distinct, small and pointed bottle like rostrum. This visit allowed us a chance to take photos of its dorsal fin for identification catalog. Then, as quickly as it appeared, it dove off on its merry way to hunt squid in the deep waters at the Gully.

Over the next few weeks, we encountered many Bottlenose Whales. In some groups, there were very young calves and others simply adults. In one an extremely emaciated individual accompanied by two healthy companions. We encountered this particular group on several occasions during our time in the gully. The whale had no external marks or entanglement, perhaps just showing signs of old age or an underlying condition. But in general, most of the whales we found were fat and healthy.

The population growing the core of the submarine canyon has been set aside as a marine protected area and the small Bottlenose Whale population that calls it home has increased in the years following this designation. It is a great example of conservation at work.

The theme of this podcast is unique rostrums and this species fits very well into that category. I spent my encounters with Bottlenose Whales in awe of their very much cartoonish proportions. They are certainly more on the weird side of cute, but those who have had the privilege of observing them cannot help but be drawn into their world. After all, it’s not every day that one finds a friendly beaked whale. I would argue that the whales found us at least as frequently as we found them. Some groups curious, others disinterested.

My main purpose as a member of this trip was to capture footage of Northern Bottlenose Whale behavior using a drone. While I do not have time here to discuss all of these wonderful encounters in detail. I will sing you a verse of a song that our crew came up with during our time at sea and the long hours of watch we had staring into the night as we waited for Dawn and a new day of research. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

we’re off to sea to the gully we be in wind and rain by sail

in search of elusive creatures to see the Northern Bottlenose Whale

they dive down deep for squid they seek in waters far below

we’re off to sea to the gully we be and onward east we go

Drone footage of Northern Bottlenose Whales

This post was adapted from a voice recording in the forty first episode of the Whale Tales Podcast, listen here

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