Canada: Right whales in wrong spot

3rd Sep 2002 Story:

A pair of endangered whales have been spotted near the mouth of Halifax Harbour, but officials say it's a locale that won't do much for the mammals' chances of surviving.

The two North Atlantic right whales were identified yesterday morning by a Halifax whale tour, about 14 kilometres from the city's downtown waterfront.

“This is not a good place for the whales to be,” said captain Jim Buckley of Peggy's Cove Express.

“That is the second-busiest traffic lane on the eastern seaboard of North America.”

Buckley has been running whale tours for nine years. He said this is only the second time he's seen right whales near Halifax.

The tour's crew saw the two whales, which are both more than 12 metres long, near Chebucto Head, about 15 metres from shore.

Hal Whitehead, a professor of marine biology at Dalhousie University, said that if the whales are near the harbour, they're putting themselves near a lot of ship traffic, and in harm's way.

“These are animals that don't move very fast,” he said. “They lie around near the surface, so they're quite vulnerable.”

Whitehead said collisions with ships are believed to be responsible for around 30 per cent of right-whale deaths.

He said that while most North Atlantic right whales migrate to the Bay of Fundy, some of the population's whereabouts remain a mystery.

There are only an estimated 350 North Atlantic right whales still alive, and the population is continuing to shrink.

These two whales may have been looking for food as they approached the harbour, Buckley said.

Despite concerns over their safety, Buckley said the whales were clear of shipping traffic yesterday. He said the animals appeared to be in good health, at one point swimming up to within five metres of his tour boat.

The boat's crew also put a warning into the service that directs local shipping traffic, asking passing ships to give the area a wide berth.

Dan Mombourquette is a marine biology student who works for Peggy's Cove Express. He's spent time in the Bay of Fundy, and recognized the right whales right away.

“It was just awesome,” he said.

“I told the tourists today, ‘You guys won the lottery twice, seeing two of those.'”