Marine Mammal Observation Network– Species

Cetacean Species

Blue Whale

Latin Name: Balaenoptera musculus | French Name: Rorqual bleu

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Endangered
  • SARA: Endangered

The blue whale is the largest animal to have ever existed on earth and in the sea. Even the largest dinosaur never competed with its impressive size.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 20 and 28 meters
  • Weight: Between 75 and 130 tonnes
  • Long, slender body
  • Small triangular dorsal fin, located in the last quarter of the body

Special feature

  • Speckled gray-blue coloring

Behaviour

  • Often observed alone or in small groups of 2 or 3 individuals
  • Occasionally shows tail when diving

Distribution

  • The Northwest Atlantic population of blue whales is generally found in the cold, deep waters of Canada's East coast: North of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and in the Davis Strait. They are also found between Baffin Island and Greenland. In the St. Lawrence, their presence is greatest in August and September and they can sometimes be seen very close to shore. They generally migrate south for the winter, but some may remain at our latitudes all year
 
 

Minke Whale

Latin Name: Balaenoptera acutorostrata | French Name: Petit rorqual

Status: Not at Risk

The minke whale is the smallest species of baleen whale to travel the world's oceans. It stands out for its agility, speed, and typical eating behaviors in which it can spring out of the water up to half its body.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 8 and 9 meters
  • Weight: Between 6 and 8 tonnes
  • Dark gray, black or brown back
  • Relatively large and hook shaped dorsal fin

Special feature

  • Distinctive white patch on each pectoral fin

Behaviour

  • Very active and fast whale
  • Curves its back without showing its tail when diving

Distribution

  • The minke whale is a regular seasonal resident of the St. Lawrence territory, from March to December.
 
 

Northern Bottlenose Whale

Latin Name: Hyperoodon ampullatus | French Name: Baleine à bec commune

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Endangered
  • SARA: Endangered

Represented by a small population living year-round off Nova Scotia, the bottlenose whale holds the diving records, both in time and depth.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 6 and 10 meters
  • Weight: Between 3 and 7 tonnes
  • Dark cinnamon brown colored back
  • Small hook shaped dorsal fin

Special feature

  • Melon on the head and prominent beak

Behaviour

  • Rather curious by nature
  • Rarely shows tail when diving

Distribution

  • This species lives about 200 km off Nova Scotia regularly visiting the Gully submarine canyon of Sable Island as well as Shortland and Haldimand canyons. The observations are extremely rare in the rest of the territory.
 
 

Fin Whale

Latin Name: Balaenoptera physalus | French Name: Rorqual commun

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Special Concern
  • SARA: Special Concern

Second largest marine mammal in the world, the fin whale distinguishes itself from other cetaceans by its speed. It is nicknamed the greyhound of the seas.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 18 and 21 meters
  • Weight: Between 40 and 50 tonnes
  • Dark back, varying from gray to dark brown, almost black
  • Dorsal fin is relatively small and variable in shape, located two-thirds of the body

Special feature

  • Occasional presence of lighter chevrons on the back

Behaviour

  • Observed alone or in small groups
  • Rarely shows tail when diving

Distribution

  • The fin whale is a regular seasonal resident in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. It can be seen along the coast as much as far offshore. In the summer, it is found in krill and fish concentration areas such as oceanic fronts off Newfoundland, cold water upwelling near Tadoussac (Quebec) and turbulence areas in the Bay of Fundy. It feeds in the waters of the St. Lawrence between the months of May and October.
 
 

Sperm Whale

Latin Name: Physeter macrocephalus | French Name: Cachalot macrocéphale

Status: Not at Risk

Well-known because of the Moby Dick legend, the sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales. It is among the species that hold the diving records, both in terms of depth and duration.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 11 and 15 meters
  • Weight: Between 15 and 40 tonnes
  • Dark brown or gray body
  • Square and prominent head, representing over a third of the total body length
  • Absence of dorsal fin and presence of an embossed ridge on the rear part of the back

Special feature

  • Blow is oblique relative to the water surface

Behaviour

  • Usually shows tail when diving
  • Spends most of its time under water, in search for food

Distribution

  • Occasional observations of sperm whales occur between May and October in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence. The majority of the observed individuals were seen in the Gulf of Maine and off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
 
 

Long-finned Pilot Whale

Latin Name: Globicephala melas | French Name: Globicéphale noir

Status: Not at Risk

Physically resembling the beluga, but black, the pilot whale is a small gregarious whale that lives in herds. It is also known for its many mass strandings, therefore getting a lot of media attention.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 4 and 8 meters
  • Weight: Between 2 and 3,5 tonnes
  • Back completely black or dark brown, with a black or light gray saddle behind the dorsal fin
  • Hook-shaped dorsal fin located towards the front of the body

Special feature

  • Globe-shaped head without prominent beak

Behaviour

  • Swims by successive leaps, as dolphins would do
  • Rests regularly, remaining motionless at the surface

Distribution

  • The pilot whales in the North Atlantic is a summer resident of the southern portion of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gaspé Peninsula, the Cabot Strait and the east coast of Newfoundland. The visits are very rare in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
 
 

North Atlantic Right Whale

Latin Name: Eubalaena glacialis | French Name: Baleine noire de l'Atlantique Nord

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Endangered
  • SARA: Endangered

The North Atlantic right whale is the most endangered large cetacean in the world, with a global population estimated at only 400 individuals. There is no other population of this species in the world. Plump, slow and shy at the approach of boats, it is fascinating to observe and sometimes performs impressive aerobatics.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 10 and 15 meters
  • Weight: Between 30 and 60 tonnes
  • Wide back, smooth and black, brown speckles
  • V-shaped blow

Special feature

  • Absence of dorsal fin and ventral grooves, tail fin has a smooth edge
  • Presence of whitish callosities on the head

Behaviour

  • Spends a lot of time on the surface and moves very slowly
  • Shows tail when diving

Distribution

  • Right whales are regularly seen in the Bay of Fundy and west of the Scotian Shelf. They can also be seen off the coasts of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador. Roseway Basin and Fundy Basin are both designated as vital habitats for right whales. They can exceptionally be seen in the coastal and shallow waters of the St. Lawrence from July to September, especially in the area of the Gaspé Peninsula.
 
 

Beluga Whale

Latin Name: Delphinapterus leucas | French Name: Béluga du Saint-Laurent

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Endangered
  • SARA: Endangered

The beluga whale is easily identifiable because of its white color. This small toothed whale is known as the sea canary because of its diversified vocal repertoire. This arctic whale seems to wear a perpetual smile.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 3 and 5 meters
  • Weight: Between 650 and 1,500 kg
  • No dorsal fin, replaced by a dorsal crest

Special feature

  • Body entirely white in adults, light brown color in newborns and gray in young aged 4 to 6

Behaviour

  • Gregarious animal that lives in pairs, in small groups or in large herds
  • Occasionally shows tail when diving

Distribution

  • The beluga whale is a permanent resident of the St. Lawrence Estuary. Observations are rare and sporadic in the rest of the territory.
 

Killer Whale

Latin Name: Orcinus orca | French Name: Épaulard

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Special Concern
  • SARA: No Status

The killer whale is the largest member of the dolphin family. Star in movies and aquarium shows, it is found in all oceans of both hemispheres.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 6 and 10 meters
  • Weight: Between 3 and 7 tonnes
  • Triangular dorsal fin, pointed and very high in adult males

Special feature

  • Black back, white spot behind the eye and a pale gray crescent-shaped saddle behind the dorsal fin

Behaviour

  • Relatively fast and sustained swimming speeds (up to 45 km/h)
  • Capable of spectacular acrobatics

Distribution

  • In the past, a large number of killer whales could be found in the Gulf and in the Estuary of the St. Lawrence. Now they are mainly seen in the coastal waters of Newfoundland, particularly in the Strait of Belle Isle. Visits are rare and sporadic in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence. A small group lives near the French archipelago of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon, 25 kilometers off the coast of Newfoundland.
 
 

Humpback Whale

Latin Name: Megaptera novaeangliae | French Name: Rorqual à bosse

Status: Not at Risk

The humpback whale is a charismatic species. It is known for its prowess, both outside and under the water surface, as well as for its vocalizations and large and very slender pectoral fins.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 11 and 13 meters
  • Weight: Between 25 and 35 tonnes
  • Dark gray or black back, fin undersides are white with black speckles
  • Small dorsal fin perched on a hump, hence the origin of its name

Special feature

  • Whitish color pattern under the tail

Behaviour

  • Often shows tail when diving
  • Very active whale (breaching, hitting water surface with fins)

Distribution

  • The humpback whale is a regular seasonal summer resident in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean that can be seen in the feeding areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gulf of Maine, the Scotian Shelf, Newfoundland / Labrador and southwest Greenland. During the summer season, it is regularly seen in the coastal waters of the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence.
 
 
 
 

Harbour Porpoise

Latin Name: Phocoena phocoena | French Name: Marsouin commun

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Special Concern
  • SARA: Threatened

The harbor porpoise is the smallest cetacean species living in our waters. Fast and furtive, it is very difficult to observe in the presence of waves.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 1,5 and 2 meters
  • Weight: Between 45 and 65 kg
  • Black back, grayish flanks and white belly

Special feature

  • Large triangular dorsal fin located at mid-back

Behaviour

  • Usually lives alone, in pairs or in very small groups of 5 to 6 individuals
  • Very fast swimming movements giving the impression of rolling on the surface

Distribution

  • The Northwest Atlantic harbor porpoise ranges from north of the Bay of Fundy to northern Labrador, in three distinct populations around Newfoundland and Labrador, the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf and the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine. It can be found in the coastal areas of the St. Lawrence from June to September.
 
 

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin and White-beaked Dolphin

1 Latin Name: Lagenorhynchus acutus | French Name: Dauphin à flancs blancs

2 Latin Name: Lagenorhynchus albirostris | French Name: Dauphin à nez blanc

1, 2 Status: Not at Risk

The St. Lawrence's seasonal residents include two species of dolphins: the white-sided dolphin and the white-beaked dolphin. Close cousins, these two species are similar in both physical appearance and behavior but present slight differences which make them possible to dissociate.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 2 and 3 meters
  • Weight: Between 135 and 275 tonnes
  • Tall hook-shaped dorsal fin
  • Black back, white belly.

    Atlantic white-sided dolphin: presence of a white stripe and a yellow spot under the dorsal fin, towards the rear of the body.

    White-beaked dolphin: white nose and gray-white stripe on the sides.

Behaviour

  • Lives in herds of a few to several hundred individuals
  • Often jumps out of the water while swimming, often showing its entire body

Distribution

  • These two species of dolphins are regularly observed from spring to autumn in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, especially near the Lower North Shore and the Gaspé Peninsula. They are abundant in the Gulf of Maine and in the Cabot Strait.
 
 

Seal Species

Harbor Seal

Latin Name: Phoca vitulina | French Name: Phoque commun

Status: Not at Risk

The name Harbor Seal come from the fact that this seal is regularly encountered in bays and uncrowded coves where it can be seen outside of the water on the rocks or on the sand. The harbor seal is the smallest of the four species of seals that can be found in the estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: About 1,5 meter
  • Weight: About 100 kg
  • Coat ranging from light gray to dark gray or brown, with a paler underside and a superimposition of white stripes and spots on the back
  • Nostrils forming a V or a heart when viewed from the front

Special feature

  • Small round head with a concavity on the forehead and a short snout giving it the look of a dog's head

Behaviour

  • Coastal species that rarely moves away from the banks
  • Rather solitary in water, it can be observed in large groups on haul-out sites

Distribution

  • The harbor seal, along with the beluga, is the only marine mammal which lives year round in the St. Lawrence. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the foreshore of Kamouraska and Rivière-du-Loup, as well as numerous islands such as Île aux Fraises, Île aux Lièvres, Les Pèlerins, Île Blanche, Îles du Bic and the Métis sector are important haul-out locations for this species. In the Gaspé Peninsula, the harbor seal is regularly seen on the eastern sector of Forillon and the Petit Gaspé haul-out sites, which represents the most important haul-out sites in this sector. There are many other haul-out sites along the St. Lawrence that can be used by a small number of individuals.
 
 

Grey Seal

Latin Name: Halichoerus grypus | French NAme: Phoque gris

Status: Not at Risk

The gray seal is one of the biggest seals found in the coastal waters of the eastern Atlantic. It is particularly noisy. It makes loud calls that look like screams.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 2 and 2,3 meters
  • Weight: Between 150 and 350 kg
  • Male is dark brown, gray or black with small light spots, lighter color female, grayish or yellowish with dark spots and all young are white at birth
  • Parallel nostrils forming a II when viewed from the front

Special feature

  • Long and arched snout, especially in males (horse head profile)

Behaviour

  • Often observed in water with only the head exposed to air
  • Rather solitary in water, it can be observed in large groups on haul-out sites

Distribution

  • In Canada, the population is concentrated in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Sable Island and in the St. Lawrence Estuary where the main concentrations are located between Île aux Fraises and the mouth of the Saguenay. The gray seal is a seasonal resident of the St. Lawrence Estuary.
 
 

Harp Seal

Latin Name: Phoca groenlandica | French Name: Phoque du Groenland

Status: Not at Risk

The harp seal is the most abundant and the most well-known of seals that can be found in the waters of the northwest Atlantic. He gained notoriety because of the debates related to seal hunting. The young harp seal, the whitecoat, is well known to the public.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: About 1,7 meter
  • Weight: About 130 kg
  • Begins his life all white, then with black spots until it gains the appearance of adults' silver-gray coat with a black harp-shaped mark on the back

Special feature

  • Head usually all black with big bulging eyes

Behaviour

  • Gathers in large herds as much in water as on the haul-out sites
  • Often swims on its back with only its nose above water

Distribution

  • Each spring, the ice of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is populated by a large number of harp seal females who come to give birth to a single pup. Afterwards, they migrate north to near the Arctic where they spend the summer. In the fall, they migrate south and about a third of the population enters the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Many harp seals then go up the St. Lawrence to feed on schools of capelin in the region of Escoumins between December and February as well as after the breeding season. Small groups may occasionally be an exception to the general trend and spend the summer in this region.
 
 
 

Hooded Seal

Latin Name: Cystophora cristata | French Name: Phoque à capuchon

Status: Not at Risk

Among the seals that are commonly seen in the St. Lawrence Estuary, the hooded seal is the largest. It is easily distinguished from other species because of its unique physical characteristics.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 2,2 and 2,5 meters
  • Weight: Between 160 and 300 kg
  • Male has a black air bag on its snout and suspended when not in use; it forms a red balloon when in use.

Special feature

  • Silver-gray body with large black spots, head and fins entirely black in adults and blue-gray back with cream colored belly in young

Behaviour

  • Rather solitary and sometimes aggressive
  • Small groups consisting of a male, a female and a pup (family) often observed in breeding sites

Distribution

The hooded seal is a winter visitor in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Only a very small proportion of adults enter the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is thus possible to observe adult individuals in the estuary between December and April. After weaning and breeding, adults will continue their migration towards the north, mainly around Greenland in the Arctic, where they will spend the summer. As for the pups, they do not necessarily begin the same migration as adults and will wander in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence throughout the summer season. In fact, it is not surprising to observe blue backs stranded on the beach in summer, and some even reached the Montreal area.

 
 
 

Others species

Leatherback Turtle

Latin Name: Dermochelys coriacea | French Name: Tortue luth

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Endangered
  • SARA: Endangered

The leatherback is the largest turtle species on the planet. Feeding mainly on jellyfish and plankton, it swims up our high latitudes waters following large concentrations of prey.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Up to 2 meters
  • Weight: 500 kg on average, up to 1 ton
  • Drop-shaped shell with pointed end and covered with marine blue or white spotted black leather
  • Presence of seven longitudinal ridges on the shell

Special feature

  • Pink spot on top of the head and shell without scales

Behaviour

  • Can dive to great depths, up to 1,000 meters, and stay under water for more than an hour
  • Occasionally shows tail when diving

Distribution

  • The leatherback turtle is found in greater abundance in the waters of Atlantic Canada from July until the end of October, with an increased presence off the coast of Nova Scotia, in the south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and on the south coast of Newfoundland. The observations are rather rare and sporadic in the St. Lawrence Estuary.
 
 

Basking Shark

Latin Name: Cetorhinus maximus | French Name: Requin pèlerin

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Special Concern
  • SARA: ---

The basking shark is the second largest fish in the world, after the whale shark. Despite its enormous size, it is completely harmless since it feeds exclusively on plankton.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 6,5 and 9 meters
  • Weight: Up to 4 tonnes
  • Conical snout and gill slits starting from the back for almost merge under the throat.
  • When it opens its mouth, its head becomes enormous.

Special feature

  • Seen from the surface, it looks like a whale, but the back and forth movements of its tail are horizontal rather than vertical

Behaviour

  • Swims at the surface, mouth wide open, to filter plankton from water

Distribution

  • The basking shark is a migrant found in almost all of the world's oceans. In Quebec, it can be found in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence. It is seen near the coast from early summer until autumn. It is frequently observed around the Gaspé Peninsula, particularly in the Baie des Chaleurs.
 
 

Sunfish

Latin Name: Mola mola | French Name: Poisson-lune

Status:

  • COSEWIC: not rated
  • SARA: not rated

Also called mola, the sunfish is one of the heaviest fish species with a weight of up to nearly a ton. This tropical fish, which feeds on jellyfish, is sometimes observed in the St. Lawrence.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: 1.8 meters on average
  • Weight: 1 tonne on average
  • Very large flat fish in width and oval when viewed from the front
  • Small mouth and very hard skin, like a shell
  • Very small pectoral fins compared to its very large dorsal and anal fins

Special feature

  • Looks like a huge tailless fish head

Behaviour

  • Often swims near the surface where its protruding dorsal fin makes it look like a shark, but with a sculling motion
  • Often lets itself drift on the surface, the wider side of its body exposed to the sun

Distribution

  • The sunfish generally remain in hot waters of over 10 ° C. Its presence has been reported in colder waters, especially in the Estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence. It possibly ends up in these waters by following warm currents. However, an extended stay in waters with temperatures below 12 ° C can disorient the animal and cause its death.
 
 

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Latin Name: Thunnus thynnus | French Name: Thon rouge du Nord

Status:

  • COSEWIC: Endangered
  • SARA: No Status

The Atlantic bluefin tuna is one of the three species of bluefin tuna which are characterized by the red color of their flesh. Thanks to its warm blood, it is able to swim quickly and hunt in very cold waters.

Identification sheet

Physical description

  • Size: Between 2 and 3 meters
  • Weight: Between 300 and 500 kilogrammes
  • Very big fish with slender body
  • Has false fins which are located between the second dorsal fin and anal fin

Special feature

  • Moves in schools and mainly occupies surface water

Distribution

  • The Atlantic bluefin tuna is distributed in subtropical and temperate waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It migrates into Canadian waters from July to November. It can be found on the Scotian Shelf, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy and near the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is rarely seen in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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