Heavy ice may have crushed 9 blue whales to death off Newfoundland

 Warning: Disturbing images. Blue whale carcasses were spotted on the ice off  the southwest coast of Newfoundland, while a sperm whale carcass washed up on the southeast coast.

Several endangered blue whales have been found dead in ice off Newfoundland – probably crushed to death by ice, says the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO).

DFO said the carcasses of blue whales were spotted last month, stuck in thick ice off of the southwest coast of the island.

Dr. Jack Lawson, a researcher with DFO, told Global News he and a colleague spotted nine dead whales while flying over the ice, about 40 nautical miles west of Cape Anguille. He said they were around 20 metres long – the “length of two school buses.”

Lawson said it’s somewhat common for whales to get trapped in ice off Newfoundland, saying there have been more than 50 recorded entrapments since the 1800s and probably even more that were never reported.

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“But the blue whale entrapment events have all happened in this part of the southwest coast of Newfoundland,” he said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “We’ve taken to calling it the whale trap.”

The first reported sighting of the whales was March 24, when a fisheries officer received a photo from a woman who believed she saw four dead whales caught in the ice. Another officer reported March 30 seeing seven dead whales.

Once Lawson and his colleague were able to get to the southwest coast last week and fly out over the ice, they determined nine animals had been killed. Because of the geography of the area, he said, strong easterly winds can push ice from the Strait of Belle Isle out away from shore and into the open water. That opens up a channel whales can swim into to feed.

Blue whales are known to feed in the area around this time of year, feasting on the first spring bloom of shrimp.

But if a westerly wind comes along, “it’ll actually move the ice close into the shore and crush them, which is what we think happened to these nine whales.”

The massive whales are accustomed to maneuvering around ice, but this has been a particularly bad year for sea ice off Newfoundland.

“We’ve had ferries unable to get across to Newfoundland. We’ve had ice breakers having a real tough time moving through this stuff. It’s under a lot of pressure and it’s thicker than it has been in the last few years,” Lawson explained.

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“So, it’s just too much for them.”

Blue whale carcasses were spotted on the ice on southwest coast of Newfoundland. Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans

What makes the deaths worse it that there are only about 250 adult blue whales in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, compared to between 5,000 and 10,000 in the Pacific Ocean.

Lawson said last month’s deaths represent about four per cent of the population.

Strong winds have pushed the ice further away from land and Lawson isn’t sure where the whales are now.

He has Fisheries officials working in the region keeping an eye out for the carcasses down so they can collect DNA samples and determine their sex; they were only able to determine the sex of about half of the whales.

Lawson added he’s also concerned about three live blue whales he spotted swimming in the same area of water.

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“At least they were heading south. If the ice moved in pretty quickly, they could be at risk, too,” he said.

Dead sperm whales wash ashore

Lawson isn’t as concerned about recent discoveries of dead sperm whales, found recently washed ashore on the coasts of the French island of Miquelon and on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.

The three whales found on Miquelon earlier in the winter were very decomposed and likely died some time ago, Lawson said.

But the male sperm whale found on the shore of Biscay Bay on Sunday is interesting because it showed no sign of having been hit by a boat or caught in fishing line.

A sperm whale was found on shore in Biscay Bay, on Newfoundland's Avalon peninsula, last weekend.
A sperm whale was found on shore in Biscay Bay, on Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula, last weekend. Ian Jones/YouTube

Lawson also said its death didn’t appear to be caused by ice or underwater sounds caused by industrial seismic or sonar activity.

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“Every year we kind of get a handful of dead sperm whales that are floating around the [Grand] Banks,” Lawson said. Their deaths can be caused by run-ins with fishing boats, but also because of old age.

Lawson said he and his DFO colleagues hope to get down to Biscay Bay in the coming days to find out more about the sperm whale and look for any obvious signs of what cause its death.

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