A juvenile beluga whale that has been spotted a dozen times in or near Montreal's Old Port since late September could survive, if it heeds nature's call to migrate downstream to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the next few weeks, said Quebec's leading marine mammal researcher on Friday.
Robert Michaud, the research director of the Tadoussac, Que.-based Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, or GREMM, held an emergency meeting Friday morning with a network of marine mammal experts, to try to assess the condition of the vagrant whale.
The beluga, believed to be a young male between five and ten years old, was first spotted in Montreal's Old Port on Sept. 28.
It's believed to be the same beluga sighted in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City two weeks earlier.
"If our story is right, we think this animal has been in fresh water for more than a month," said Michaud.
The beluga is about 500 kilometres from its usual habitat — and about 350 km from the upper limit of its range, in the brackish waters off Île-aux-Coudres in Quebec's Charlevoix region.
A GREMM researcher snapped the first photograph of the beluga off Montreal's Old Port on Oct. 17, when it was spotted three times.
"From the photograph, what we could see is what we were afraid of — that the animal would be affected by its long journey in fresh water," said Michaud. "You see its skin is all wrinkled. We don't know if there is any infection in the animal. We don't know either how long it could prolong its journey in fresh water."
Michaud said beluga whales are better adapted than other marine mammals, such as dolphins, to travel in brackish or fresh water — but for how long, scientists aren't certain.
The greatest risk to the whale right now is from human interaction, Michaud said. Nearly every summer, a beluga ends up close to human habitation, usually in the Bay of Fundy or along Quebec's Lower North Shore.
"Sometimes these cases have a sad ending," Michaud said. "The animal... gets used to the presence of boats. Often there is an accident, and the animal is killed."
The best chance for this beluga to survive, Michaud said, is for its migratory instinct to kick in, propelling the whale out of the harbour and downstream to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
"Normally belugas will start moving east in November," said Michaud. "So there is a kind of cue that should kick in pretty soon, telling this animal, 'Hey. You're not in a good area. You should move east now.'"
But Michaud added the whale could be getting lonely — and that also could compel it to stay where it is.
"These animals are highly social," Michaud explained. "If this animal was back in its normal range, it would probably be interacting with others all the time. So when they get lost, they tend to establish links with boats, with buoys or with fishermen or other humans in the area. They need that kind of stimulation."
This whale has not shown any interest yet in any particular object in the harbour, and so far whale-watchers at the Old Port have kept a respectful distance, as researchers have urged.
GREMM has dispatched a three-person research team to track the animal, hoping to collect more photographs and video, as well as underwater audio, if possible.
"We hope this weekend to start [audio] recording, to see if the animal is acoustically active," Michaud said. "It could provide us other clues as to the animal's condition."
The research group is posting daily updates on the whale sightings, as well as a map, on its website, Whales on line.
It's urging anyone who spots the beluga to contact the marine mammal network emergency hotline, at 1-877-722-5346.