‘Really shocking’: Sperm whales spotted near Pond Inlet

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Two sperm whales spotted near Pond Inlet, Nunavut, are a sign of underlying shifts in the High Arctic ecosystem, according to a scientist who saw the pair when out with an Inuit guide at the end of September.

The group was out at Eclipse Sound, about ten minutes by boat outside of the community, when they saw a pair of dorsal fins and thought they had spotted killer whales.

It was only when they got closer that Pond Inlet guide Titus Allooloo realized it was a kind of whale he’d never seen before.  

« They’re not known by us, we don’t know too much about them, » said Allooloo, adding that the whales are not traditionally seen near his community.

« It’s only the second recorded observation of sperm whales in the region. Back in 2014 local hunters spotted them, » explained Brandon Laforest, a World Wildlife Fund scientist. 

Laforest was on the boat to pick up acoustic equipment being used monitor the impact of marine traffic on narwhal for Environment Canada when the whales were spotted. 

One of two sperm whales spotted ten minutes from Pond Inlet at the end of September. The sighting is only the second time on record that a sperm whale has been seen so far North.

He says they’ve heard the call of sperm whales on their recordings before, but because the whales are known to have an extremely loud vocalisation, Laforest says it was assumed they were located further away in Baffin Bay.

He says it was « really shocking » to see these southern whales, so close to Pond Inlet and so close to freeze up.

With their fleshy dorsal fins, sperm whales are not adapted to the ice conditions of the Arctic waters, said Laforest.

« When we think about the whales that live in the Arctic year-round, such as bowhead, narwhal and beluga … they all have a bony ridge [on their head.]

« When the ice is forming, that fin [on sperm whales] will get in the way, whereas narwhal and bowheads can actually break ice and continue breathing. »  

(CBC News)

Southern whales moving North

He says the whales have probably gone back south now, but their presence indicates the habitat near Pond Inlet and other Arctic communities is becoming « more open for them to exploit in terms of accessing food. »

Laforest says that’s good news for sperm whales, but may not be so great for Arctic species like bowhead « which traditionally live without much competition because of their intense adaptation to live in a relatively harsh environment. »

However, Laforest says he doesn’t think the ecosystem is on the « verge of catastrophe, » partly because sperm whales are not predatory.

A group of sperm whale in the Indian Ocean. Unlike bowhead and other arctic whales the sperm whale has a fleshy fin and fatty head that is not adapted to breaking through ice.

Killer whales, which Allooloo says are becoming more common in the area, are another matter.

« Killer whales are coming in the North and they are actually hunting narwhal, » Laforest says.

He says Arctic waters pose some risks for both sperm and killer whales, which could get trapped under the ice, if they continue coming North, although he says they haven’t seen that happen yet.

« We see that with northern whales as well, but inexperienced whales exploiting a northern habitat may not know to leave early enough before the sea ice forms. »

Allooloo says people in the community also noticed two huge whales last summer that they couldn’t identify.

He’s hoping Laforest and his crew will be able to use their acoustic recordings to find out more about the whales that have been in the waters near his community.

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From ‘Jurassic Park’ to Blue Whales, meet the Canadian who assembles priceless fossils for the world’s museums

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When Peter May is asked what he does for a living, he usually responds by saying, “I’m the local dinosaur builder.”

People tend greet his response with a puzzled smile.

“They wonder what the heck you’re talking about,” he says.

Not many people know that May’s business, Research Casting International, is renowned around the world for its work with prehistoric fossils.

“We build dinosaurs for museums throughout the world. We work with the skeletons and the bones. We mould and cast them out.”

May’s company is the one paleontologists call when they make a discovery in the field. Research Casting staff extract the specimen, and then bring it to the company’s 50,000-square-foot workshop in Trenton, Ont.

ODD JOBS: Watch Global News’ full original series on YouTube

While there, the specimen is chiseled away from rock, cleaned and strengthened. After months of this tedious work, it’s then mounted and shipped to museums around the world, such as The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Beijing Museum of Natural History and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

“He’s the go-to guy if you want to make a dinosaur exhibit (anywhere) in the world,” says David Evans, the curator in vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.

“If you’ve been through a museum in Canada, or any major dinosaur museum in the world, chances are you’ve seen a skeletal mount that was produced by Peter May’s company.”

The dinosaur fossils May’s company works with can be up to 70 million years old and are extremely delicate to work with. “You can have the hardest rock in the world with a fossil stuck into it. You’re chiseling away a very hard sandstone from around a very delicate fossil. It takes a very good touch to do that. You have to be patient,” May says.

The process takes months, if not years, to complete. Intense attention to detail is needed to mount hundreds of individual bones together to make one complete fossil display. The process is “very similar to how a jeweler sets a diamond into a diamond ring,” Evans says. “But take a skeleton that has 400 bones and produce that setting for a diamond ring 400 times on a scale of a tyrannosaurus rex.”

READ MORE: University of Alberta researchers uncover new fossil species in Italy

A sculptor by trade, May started with the Royal Ontario Museum in 1977. He saw an ad in the paper one day for a paleontological technician. “And I had no idea what that meant,” May laughs.

“I didn’t really have any knowledge of dinosaurs. I probably knew what a T-Rex was, but at the time it was the band more so than the animal,” he laughs again. “My first introduction was when I first started working at the Royal Ontario Museum.”

He spent five years working for the ROM and then was asked to help build the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta.

“I was hired there as the senior technician doing the mounting, the molding and the casting,” May says. “We had met a lot of paleontologists who came by and the exhibits were just fantastic and at that time the world hadn’t seen anything like that.”

READ MORE: Well-preserved dinosaur found in northern Alberta named after Royal Tyrrell researcher

After completing the project, May returned to the ROM In 1986. “Then I was getting calls, would I mount a dinosaur in my spare time? That was probably from my reputation from building Tyrrell. So in the evenings, I’d mount dinosaur skeletons.”

He and a couple of others worked with molds and casts. They had a drill press and a welding machine. They’d mount the skeleton for the customer, then shut things down and put the tools away.

Yet more calls would come in, so they’d set things up and work on the next project. Eventually they had so much business they didn’t need to shut down.

Now 31 years later, May and his 35 employees have completed hundreds of dinosaur fossil exhibits on almost every continent — except for one. “We don’t have a museum in Antarctica, although they do have fossils coming out of there.”

READ MORE: Dinosaur figurines, replicas stolen from Alberta’s Jurassic Forest theme park

But perhaps his most famous work isn’t in a museum at all. “I think a really good example of Peter’s influence on the world is his work for the movie Jurassic Park — the most famous dinosaur movie, and one of the most famous movies in history,” Evans says.

“That last scene in Jurassic Park, where the raptors are battling with T-Tex around a T-Rex skeleton, Peter May actually built those skeletons for the movie. Of course, that’s an iconic scene in film. And Peter had his hand in that,” Evans says.

To protect the fossils he works with — some of them are considered priceless — security in May’s facility is taken very seriously. For instance, one client has had cameras installed just so it can observe its fossils 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

READ MORE: Dinosaur fossils discovered in Saskatchewan

May showed us some of those projects that are behind closed doors, though we weren’t allowed to bring in our cameras — and we aren’t allowed to say what we saw.

His clients want their fossils under a veil of secrecy for a very good reason.

“When we have an original fossil here, it’s priceless. To find a fossil is hard to begin with. To find a fossil that’s one of a kind, is even harder,” May says.

“A lot of museums like to keep it quiet. We’ll do the work. The museum holds everything for the opening.”

One fossil in May’s warehouse that isn’t under wraps is a Blue Whale. It’s the largest mammal on earth at up to 100 feet long (30 m) and weighing 170 tonnes. The whale is currently listed as an endangered animal by The International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“They’re having a tough time,” May says. “One thing that we’re finding, which isn’t very good, is that we’re doing more and more whale skeletons for museums. Is it a sign that these animals are going extinct and they’re giving it to a company that specializes working on dinosaurs and now we’re working on modern mammals?”

And this is where May feels his work in museums has the greatest impact.

“You see the kids come walking in, just in awe. They’ll look at the Blue Whale,” May says. “Hopefully we’re inspiring children to learn more to be a part of the world and the history of the world and it becomes a part of their lives. It’s up to us to appreciate what they are and hopefully help them survive.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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U.S. considers further measures to protect North Atlantic right whales

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A new U.S. government assessment of the plight of the North Atlantic right whale is questioning whether local fishing closures are enough to save the endangered species, pointing to the threat posed by vertical sea floor-to-surface fishing lines throughout their range.

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) evaluation of « recovery challenges » was released ahead of a meeting next week to address proposals to protect the whales that would alter the lobster fishery in New England.

Those proposals include reducing the number of sea floor-to-surface lines by 50 per cent over five years and a month-long lobster fishing closure in the western Gulf of Maine.

Single sighting shuts down fishery

American and Canadian authorities have used local area closures as a preferred management tool to protect the whales.

This year, Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans imposed severe restrictions on snow crab fishing in the Gulf of St. Lawrence after 12 right whales died there in 2017. 

In the Bay of Fundy in June, the appearance of a single right whale in a protected area shut down the lobster fishery on Grand Manan, N.B., for 15 days. The industry claims it cost a million dollars in lost income.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates nearly 85 per cent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, 59 per cent at least twice and 26 per cent of the regularly seen animals are entangled annually. (Center for Coastal Studies)

« They closed the lobster fishery in an area that hadn’t harmed a whale in several decades for absolutely no reason, » said Laurence Cook, president of Lobster Fishery Area 38.

« To close us down once because one was seen travelling through a box was economically damaging to the island and completely unnecessary to protect right whales. »

Still, after a catastrophic 2017, no right whales were found dead in Canadian waters in 2018.

A million lines in the water

NOAA said closures « while very effective, regionally, may not be enough » to stop the population decline.

It estimates there are a million vertical fishing lines in the path of the right whales, with 622,000 in U.S. waters from Georgia to the Gulf of Maine and the remainder in Canadian waters along the Scotian Shelf and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The agency said nearly 85 per cent of right whales have been entangled in fishing gear at least once, 59 per cent at least twice, and 26 per cent of the regularly seen animals are entangled annually.

« With a 26-per cent annual entanglement rate in a population of just over 400 animals, this translates to about 100 entanglements per year, which is significant for such a small population, » the report states.

1 in 10,000 chance of entanglement

The report acknowledges with more than 1 million lines out there, any single line has perhaps a 1 in 10,000 chance of entangling a whale in any one-year period, meaning an individual fisherman — and his or her descendants — could go several generations without ever entangling a right whale.

Scientists are working to map and model where the North Atlantic right whales main food source has been found in high concentrations in the past in order to get an idea of where they may be found in the future. (Pat Foster/Adrian Colaprete)

« Given this, it’s easy to believe that all these entanglements are happening somewhere else, regardless of where one fishes. »

« But by mapping known locations of gear that led to the entanglement of a right whale, one can see that there is no place within the fished area along the East Coast of North America for which entanglement risk is zero. »

Canadian role singled out

The NOAA report echoes a criticism from Canada’s Environment Commissioner this week that Canada waited until 12 of the whales died in the Gulf of St Lawrence to before taking « strong » measures.

« Notably until spring of 2018, very few protections for right whales were in place in Canadian waters, » NOAA stated.

« In comparison to recent decades, more right whales now spend significantly more time in more northern waters and swim through extensive pot fishery zones around Nova Scotia and into the Canadian Gulf of St. Lawrence. »

The New England Aquarium, which operates whale-watching tours, is one of seven organizations and governments to submit proposals to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team.

The aquarium claims only one-third of right whale deaths are detected each year, meaning an average of between 12 and 16 right whales are dying each year.

« We assume that 50 per cent of all right whales deaths are occurring in Canada, » the New England Aquarium states in its proposal.

Better identification of entanglement sources

While American advocates urge larger closures and line reductions, the state of Maine said more data is needed and proposes that its fishermen use specially marked gear to rule them out as the source of entanglements.

« The best available data on whale sightings, whale behaviour in specific areas, and entanglement data indicate a low probability of right whales interacting with Maine fishing gear, » said Erin Summers, of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, in a proposal to the Take Reduction Team.

Read more stories at CBC Nova Scotia

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