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Quebecers receive rare visit as humpback whale travels up Gulf of St. Lawrence

A humpback whale has been spotted in the Saint-Lawrence river in Quebec. Thursday MAy 28, 2020.
A humpback whale has been spotted in the Saint-Lawrence river in Quebec. Thursday MAy 28, 2020. Courtesy: Bobby Guillemette, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

For the past week, Quebecers have been treated to a unique sighting: a humpback whale making its way towards Montreal, far from her natural habitat of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The whale was first spotted last Tuesday by a fisherman near the bridges connecting Québec City to the south shore.

According to Quebec Mammal Emergency Response Network (QMMERN) which received the alert, the fisherman said the whale was “was swimming freely, with no apparent signs of distress.”

READ MORE: 2 North Atlantic right whales spotted in Gulf of St. Lawrence

It was then seen in Portneuf, then near Laviolette bridge in Trois-Rivières and was last seen Thursday night in Sorel, Que.

According to Veronique Nolet, a marine biologist working for Transport Canada, the sighting is one of a kind.

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“Alive? Never happened before! At least not in the existing records,” Nolet said on Twitter.

QMMERN agrees.

“It’s extremely rare. For the Quebec Mammal Emergency Network it’s a first,” said Marie-Ève Muller, a spokesperson for GREMM. “We’ve had minke whales before, belugas but for such large whale like a humpback whale, it’s a first​.”

Humpack whales usually live in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and can be seen near Tadoussac,  Baie-Comeau and Rivière-du-Loup, all cities about 500 kms away from where the whale was last seen in Sorel.

The reasons why the whale has travelled so far are still unknown.

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“It’s hard to know what makes a whale wander. Usually they go around for food but not that far,” Muller said. “Is it disoriented? Is it exploring for a new territory?”

Whales usually live in salt water and can remain in fresh water likely for months, but it could be problematic, says Muller.

READ MORE: Nova Scotia coast chosen as potential home for retired whales raised in captivity

They can suffer from dehydration, infections and skin problems.

An adult humpback whale measures between 13 and 17 metres long and can weigh up to 40 tonnes.

Several humpback whales in B.C. gave tourists a show they will likely never forget
Several humpback whales in B.C. gave tourists a show they will likely never forget

Muller says that being out of its environment could cause distress to the mammal and given it’s large size, it could be hazard for people who are out on boats.

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“In the short term, the major threat here is the probability of collision,” Muller said.

“The river is quite narrow here and the whale could be having a hard time navigating.”

READ MORE: 10th North Atlantic right whale calf of the season spotted off South Carolina

Muller wants those who are out on the water to be very careful.

If you spot the whale, keep a 200-metre distance so the whale has room to turn back and call the 1-877-722-5346 immediately to report the sighting.

Agents from Canada’s Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans are out on the water patrolling the area, making sure people respect the 100-metre distance rule imposed by the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act.