Be Whale Safe
Newfoundland and Labrador is considered one of the best places for whale watching in the whole world! Around 20 whale species visit our nutrient-rich waters every year to feed along the coast, including the world’s largest population of Humpback Whales. Between May and September, thousands of whales can be found close to shore feeding and frolicking. While watching whales and other marine wildlife in their natural habitat may be an opportunity for people to better appreciate these majestic creatures, it also increases the risk of disturbing or harming them. Did you know that marine mammals are protected by marine mammal regulations under the Fisheries Act? This helps to ensure that these activities can still be enjoyed but with greater protection for marine mammals including Canada’s at-risk species.
To help spread awareness on safe boating practices with marine mammals, CPAWS-NL launched a campaign in 2021 called “Be Whale Safe”. Explore this page to learn all about common and less common marine species as well as species-at-risk that are often seen in our waters, threats that they face and ways that we can all help protect them!
Be sure to download a free copy of our Marine Identification Guidebook to become an expert on marine species in the province!
Newfoundland and Labrador has an abundance of marine mammals. Many whales flock here in large numbers during the summer to feed on the huge amounts of krill, plankton, and other schooling fish. While watching them in the wild is fun, it is important to remember that our presence can disturb, stress, or harm marine wildlife.
Marine mammals including at-risk whales, are protected under Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act. These rules provide a minimum approach distance of 100 metres for most whales, dolphins, and porpoises among other guidelines to protect against human disturbances. When out on the water, remember to follow these guidelines to avoid fines and ‘Be Whale Safe’:
Don’t Chase and Give Space: Keep a minimum distance of 100 metres from marine mammals and 200 metres away if they are in resting position or with their calf.
If you unexpectedly see a marine mammal closer than 100 metres, STOP and allow them to pass
Safely Approach: Do not intercept the path of a whale or approach head on. Instead, stay parallel at a safe distance
Slow Down: If you see a spout, fin, tail, or a ripple at the water’s surface make sure to reduce speeds and approach with caution to avoid a collision
Don’t Interact: Never attempt to feed, swim or touch marine mammals as it puts them and yourself at risk of injury or illness
Be Aware: Check your surroundings frequently and stay alert, especially in areas with known sightings. Avoid sudden or excessive noise when marine mammals are in the area
For more information on Canada’s marine mammal regulations and how to safely watch marine wildlife, please visit: https://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/mammals-mammiferes/watching-observation/index-eng.html
As may be expected, marine species, including whales, face many natural and unnatural threats while spending their lives within the oceans. Natural threats can include impacts from predators, competition within their environment, and so on. A focus here will, however, be given to anthropogenic threats whales face, those which are caused by human activities. These threats stem from commercial and recreational uses of the oceans, the human tendency to pollute and disregard the health of the environment, and the excessive human contribution to climate change. This includes impacts of vessel strikes, entanglements, marine debris, and noise pollution, all of which will be covered throughout the Whale Safe Project.
Newfoundland and Labrador is surrounded by ocean waters which are teeming with marine ecosystems and diverse marine life. This includes several species of whales that are impacted by the aforementioned threats. These species and waters are an important part of the culture of Newfoundland residents, emphasizing the importance of spreading understanding about these threats, working towards preventing their exacerbation, and mitigating their impacts to preserve these important parts of our ecosystem and lives.
The use of boats in the ocean waters around Newfoundland is an important part of our culture, economy, and industry. This includes commercial uses, such as our famous cod fishery, and recreational uses, such as private boating and fishing. Both of these pose threats to whales and other marine species through the interactions between these species and boats.
Vessel collisions and strikes are a big threat to marine species. These occur when a boat physically hits a whale or other species while travelling through ocean waters. This issue has become more prominent as the vessel traffic within our oceans has steadily increased, causing more boats and marine species to cross paths. This can cause serious harm to the animal, leaving permanent scarring or disabilities and in some cases causing death. With the high traffic of vessels within Newfoundland waters, including fishing vessels that go out on a daily basis, it is important that individuals understand how to avoid whales and other marine species and prevent harming them.
Fishing Gear Entanglements
Another prominent threat to many marine species, including whales, are entanglements. Entanglements occur when a marine animal interacts and gets caught up in fishing nets, ropes, and gear, or other marine debris including plastics. Whales are susceptible to this threat as entanglements around their fins, tail, and mouths are common. Entanglements can cause physical injuries to marine species, can prevent them from feeding if their mouths are blocked, and can even cause marine mammals to drown due to the weight of the debris responsible.
Fisheries are a cornerstone to the economy within Newfoundland and Labrador and are a massive part of our local culture and lifestyle. This does, however, lead to the occasional loss or abandonment of fishing gear which can contribute to the issue of entanglement and affect local marine species. Species can also be affected in a similar manner due to bycatch while fishing. This emphasizes the need to inform the public about their possible impact on marine species and promote safer alternatives, such as wildlife-friendly fishing gear and avoiding outdated or unsustainable fishing practices.
Pollution within both terrestrial and marine ecosystems is another big issue that has resulted from human activities and affected marine wildlife. Marine debris describes garbage and other materials which make their way into the ocean and remain there. This can include all sorts of litter of varying sizes. Micro and macro plastics are a big part of this problem as these materials take hundreds of years to break down within the oceans.
An emotional example of this issue can be observed in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch seen below. This patch is the largest offshore plastic accumulation zone recorded and has resulted from the approximate 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic that enter the ocean as debris each year. The collection of marine debris sits in the North Pacific Ocean.
The immense degree of marine debris in our oceans poses a risk to whales and other marine species as these animals commonly consume these materials accidentally while feeding. When this happens, the plastic debris cannot be digested by these marine species and remain within their stomach. This can make the animals feel full and can prevent them from feeding and taking in nutrients in the future. Some debris can also mimic food sources and as a result, can trick marine species into eating them. Images of beached whales with stomachs full of plastics have become more common within the media in recent years, showing the devastating impact of this issue and stressing the importance of reducing our impacts on the oceans.
Photography by Ray Boland, NOAA.
Noise pollution is another pollution type that poses a threat to whales and other marine species. Anthropogenic noise describes sounds within marine environments that result from human activities, spread throughout the environment, and affects species within it. These sounds can result from vessel traffic, pile driving and seismic activities, windmills, oil and gas exploration and drilling, SONAR, and construction activities. The impacts of noise pollution are especially concerning to whales and other marine mammals which are highly vocal and rely on sound and echolocation to function in their environments. Masking, for example, is a common result of anthropogenic noise which reduces a marine animal’s ability to detect sounds of interest within their environment as these sounds are drowned out by human activities.
The impacts of marine noise pollution can include inducing behavioral changes in affected species, displacement in their environments, shifts and influences to migratory paths, avoidance, unnecessary stress on the animals, animals becoming stranded, and hearing damage or acoustic trauma. The latter of this list can include temporary and permanent threshold shifts which affect the range of sounds the animal can detect and can seriously affect their livelihood. Within Newfoundland, noise pollution created by vessel traffic in our fishery and recreational areas should be of concern. Therefore, communication of these possible impacts to boat-goers within our province is important to protect our marine species and preserve our local ecosystems.
Climate change is a continual concern to species and environments worldwide. Within our oceans, temperatures are rising, species are shifting Northward in search of cooler waters, habitats are becoming uninhabitable due to temperature changes and ocean acidification, and ocean waters are rising as sea ice and glaciers melt. The changes in ocean distribution of species caused by these impacts of climate change affect their habitats and migratory patterns but also impacts our fisheries, culture, and tourism. These three aspects are a big part of Newfoundland life, with our long history in the fisheries, the industry founding our economy, and our use of local whale species and other marine species as tourist attractions to draw people to our province. This local example stresses the impacts that climate change can have on the ecosystem and our lives and the importance of combating these trends and working towards resolving the climate crisis.
Report animals in distress
When seeing an animal in distress, it can be a common response to want to help them right away. However, if not helped properly, the animals and the people helping them could get hurt. If boaters see animals in distress, it is important that they not try to help on their own. Calls should be made to the proper authorities that can safely free trapped animals. Calls for marine mammals in distress in Newfoundland can be made to Fisheries and Oceans or to Whale Release and Strandings.
Report species at risk
Reporting sightings of endangered species can also help to protect marine mammals. Some species, like the North Atlantic Right Whale, are critically endangered. It is important that any time someone sees these animals to report them to proper authorities. CPAWS Marine Species Survey can be used to report sightings of all marine mammals, including those that are endangered. These reports can paint a clear picture of population numbers and population distribution of marine mammals. This in turn can help with the development of recovery strategies for species at risk.
1) You can help save marine mammals (whale, dolphin, seal) or sea turtles in distress by reaching out to:
Whale Release and Strandings Newfoundland and Labrador (Tangly Whales Inc.): 1-888-895-3003 or 1-709-895-3003
2) Help us better understand marine mammals and sea turtles by reporting your sightings:
Marine mammal signtings: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reducing litter and plastic use
Garbage and plastics can end up in our waters and animals may ingest them, or they can become tangled in certain types of debris. Properly disposing of old fishing gear and reporting lost fishing gear are also a great way to help marine mammals and prevent entanglement. Some plastics can resemble the food that marine mammals eat. For example, plastic bags look a lot like jellyfish in the water. Leatherback Sea Turtles can mistake plastic for food and end up ingesting it. This can lead to an inability to feed or cause failures of their digestive tracts. Large plastic debris or fishing gear can cause marine mammals to become entangled; entanglements can result in drowning or inability to feed. Therefore, reducing litter can keep it out of our oceans and help to protect marine life.
Organizing and participating in local beach cleanups is another great way to help protect marine mammals. Litter from beaches can end up in the oceans and cause problems for species that live in our oceans. Volunteering in local beach cleaning events with local conservation groups like CPAWS can help to prevent waste from ending up in our oceans. Beach cleanups can also help to identify the most common types of litter on beaches and determine the sources of the litter. This can help to reduce more waste build up in the future. For example, in recent years, plastic straws were commonly found on beaches during beach cleanups, this has caused some businesses to switch to paper straws, and some individuals to carry their own metal straws.
Share your knowledge
Sharing knowledge of Marine Mammal Regulations and ways to help with friends, family, colleagues, and everyone in between can help to protect marine life. The more people that know the information, the more species that will be protected now and well into the future.
Aquatic Species at Risk in Newfoundland and Labrador
- Species at Risk Act (SARA)
- Blue Whale
- Fin Whale
- North Atlantic Right Whale
- Northern Bottlenose Whale
- Sowerby’s Beaked Whale
- Leatherback Sea Turtle
- Sei Whale
- Great White Shark
We see many marine wildlife species in our waters, some of which are considered at risk of becoming extinct! In Canada, we protect wildlife species at risk and their critical habitats through the Species at Risk Act (SARA), which was enacted in 2003. Prohibitions under the Act make it illegal to kill, harass, capture or in any way harm a species that has been listed under SARA. The ultimate success of SARA in protecting species depends on the cooperation between the public, government and industry.
Once species are assessed, they can be classified under one of four SARA categories:
Scientific Name: Balaenoptera musculus
SARA status: Endangered
Appearance: The largest animal living on earth, they are coloured dark to light grey, every individual has a pattern of marks on their skin called mottling. Their dorsal fin is small compared to their bodies, it sits very far back, almost at the end of the body. Their tails are large and straight or slightly curved, with a slight notch in the middle. Their blow is very tall and slender, it can reach 9m high.
Behaviour and Diet: Blue Whales migrate in small herds, spend summers in northern waters and winters in temperate waters. They feed on krill and need about 4 tons a day. They feed by gulping large amounts of water. They typically dive for 5 to 15 minutes, and sometimes up to 20 minutes. They swim at sustained speeds of 2 to 8 km/h but can reach top speeds of 36 km/h. They are the loudest animals on earth, their calls are louder than a jet.
Distribution and Population: Blue Whales are found in all oceans of the world. The whales seen in Newfoundland are part of the North Atlantic subpopulation. They generally leave at the end of summer but in years of low ice they may remain in the Gulf of St. Lawrence for much of the winter. Exact population numbers for this population are unknown, between 20 and 105 are seen annually in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Most Vulnerable to: Past commercial whaling of Blue Whales is the main reason for declining populations. At least 11,000 Blue Whales were killed before 1960. Since the end of commercial whaling, human threats have come from ship strikes, entanglements, and pollution, particularly oil spills. Vessel strikes can harm or kill whales, the risk is higher in shipping areas with high vessel traffic. They can also become entangled in fishing gear including traps, pots, and nets. They can end up with compromised ability to feed or serious injuries which can result in death.
Scientific Name: Balaenoptera physalus
Local Name: Finner, Razorback, Fin Back, Flathead, Herring Whale
SARA status: Special Concern
Appearance: They have asymmetric coloration; the right lower jaw is mostly white, and the left lower jaw is mostly dark. Their dorsal fin is sickle-shaped and curves towards their back. Their tails are very rarely seen, they are slightly rounded with a notch in the middle. Their blow is narrow and cone shaped, it can reach up to 6m tall.
Behavior and Diet: Fin Whales are the second largest baleen whale. They are migratory, feeding in cooler northern regions and breeding in warmer southern regions. They feed on krill, small schooling fish (herring, capelin), and squid. They feed by lunging into schools of prey with their mouths open. They fast in the winter when travelling to warmer waters. They are fast swimmers, and they travel in groups of two to seven whales.
Distribution and Population: Fin whales are found all over the world, they winter in tropical regions and feed in northern regions in the summer. Estimates of population size have not been made since commercial whaling stopped, but it is believed that the Atlantic population is recovering. There are two subpopulations in the Atlantic, one summers in Newfoundland and winters near the coast of Nova Scotia. The second summers off Nova Scotia and winters further south. Fin whales may be seen near Newfoundland all year long but are more common in early spring to late fall.
Most Vulnerable to: Historically, whaling lowered numbers and since the end of commercial whaling, populations seem to be recovering. Depletion of capelin stocks in the North Atlantic may have an impact on whales. Chemical pollution has also been shown to cause injury and death in Fin Whales. Entanglements in fishing gear and vessel strikes also play a role. The increase of vessel traffic in the North Atlantic has increased the risk of strikes. Whales can also be entangled in pots, traps or gillnets, which can result in drowning or inability to feed.
North Atlantic Right Whale
Scientific Name: Eubaleana glacialis
Local Name: Right Whale
SARA status: Endangered
Appearance: Large black baleen whale, they have thick lower lips, and many callosities (thick hard areas of skin) on their snouts, lower lips and above their eyes. Males can reach approximately 15m long and females can reach approximately 17m long. Their tails are black like their bodies and can often be seen then they are diving. They do not have a dorsal fin and have short, uniquely shaped fins. Their blow is V-shaped.
Behavior and Diet: Right Whales feed by opening their mouths while they swim through plankton. They filter the plankton out of the water using their baleen. They feed anywhere between the surface and the bottom of the water column. Groups of Right Whales can socialize on the water’s surface and mating can occur during these socializations. They communicate using low-frequency moans and groans and these noises can maintain contact between individuals or be used for other social reasons. Right Whales also swim much slower than other baleen whales.
Distribution and Population: The North Atlantic population of Right Whales winters near the shore of Bermuda, Georgia, and Florida. They are occasionally seen off the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in the summer while they feed. Populations are extremely low, one estimate for the North Atlantic population was less than 350 whales.
Most Vulnerable to: Whaling lowered their numbers to critically low. Their name comes from being the “right” whale to hunt since they swim so slowly and have a thick layer of blubber. They also face threats from vessel strikes, entanglements and noise pollution. Because they swim so slowly, they are very vulnerable to being hit by vessels, causing serious injury or death. Their migration routes also fall along major shipping routes, further increasing the risk of hits. Entanglement in gear also causes problems for the whales, gear can cut the whales, cause them to drown or impair their ability to feed. Noise pollution from shipping, construction and oil exploration also cause problems for the whales. Because they communicate in low frequencies, they are especially at risk to noise pollution. This can affect their ability to find food or mates and navigate in the ocean.
Northern Bottlenose Whale
Scientific Name: Hyperoodon ampullatus
Local Name: Bottlenose Whale
SARA status: Endangered
Appearance: They are medium-sized whales that reach between six and nine meters in length and weigh up to eight tons. They have a distinct beak, their lower jaw extends slightly further than the upper, they also have a bulb on their heads. Young whales are dark brown to black, older whales are light to yellowish brown, with white beaks and foreheads. Their blow is small and bushy and is about 1m tall.
Behavior and Diet: Usually travel alone or in groups of four to ten individuals. Males will fight each other, using their large heads to hit other whales. They are deep divers that feed on deep-sea squid, herring, shrimp, sea cucumbers, and sea stars. They can regularly dive to more than 800m and the longest recorded dive was 70 minutes.
Distribution and Population: Only found in the North Atlantic, in cool and subarctic waters. There are two distinct populations: the Scotian Shelf population and the Davis Straight population. They have also been sighted off the Grand Banks and Georges Bank. The Scotian Shelf population is estimated to be about 163 whales, there are no population estimates for the Davis Straight population.
Most Vulnerable to: Noise pollution is a threat to these whales. Disturbances include military exercises, oil and gas exploration and extraction, and vessel and aircraft traffic. Noise pollution can lead to strandings and can displace whales from their habitats. Vessel strikes and entanglements also pose threats, though the threat seems to be low. Over 30 years, only 9 entangled bottlenose whales were documented by DFO. Some individuals were also observed to have scars from vessel strikes or entanglement in gear.
Sowerby’s Beaked Whale
Scientific Name: Mesoplodon bidens
Local Name: North Atlantic beaked whale
SARA status: Special Concern
Appearance: They are medium-sized whales, reaching about 4.5 to 5.5m long. They are dark grey colored with light spotting. Their blow is hardly ever seen, and they have a small, wide dorsal fin that is slightly hooked, it sits about 2/3’s down their back. They have a dolphin-like head, a long snout, and a bulge on their heads.
Behavior and Diet: They are suction feeders that dive in deep waters to eat deep sea fish and squid. They tend to swim alone or in small groups of two to six whales. They are generally hard to spot because they are weary of humans and keep a low profile. Sightings are extremely rare, especially in Newfoundland.
Distribution and Population: They are only found in the North Atlantic, but their distribution is poorly known due to limited sightings. There are no estimates of population size. Rarity of sightings may mean the species is in decline, or it may mean there as been little search effort and that identifying the whales is very difficult.
Most Vulnerable to: Threatened by underwater noise pollution, particularly from sonar and seismic surveys. They rely on sounds to feed, communicate, and navigate in the ocean, therefore sound pollution can disturb their behavior, cause injury to hearing structures or drive them out of areas they use to feed and breed. Seismic noise can also lead to whales beaching themselves. They are also at risk of ship strikes and entanglements in gear. Ship strikes are less likely due to their solitary nature, but with increases in vessel traffic, the risk is still present. They are also at risk of entanglements in gear such as gillnets. Entanglements can lead to drowning or impaired ability to feed.
Leatherback Sea Turtle
Scientific Name: Dermochelys coriacea
Local Name: Leatherback
SARA status: Endangered
Appearance: Do not have a hard shell, instead they have a soft, leathery one. They have a pink spot on the tops of their heads that is thought to play a role in detecting seasonal changes. They can reach up to 1.8m long and weigh between 750 to 1000 pounds. They have notches on their upper jaws and no teeth.
Behavior and Diet: Leatherbacks have the longest migration of any sea turtle. They are strong swimmers and can dive approximately 1200 meters below the surface. They can stay below the surface for up to 85 minutes. They do not have teeth to crush or chew hard food, so they eat soft bodied animals like jellyfish and salps. Their throats have backward faced spines that help to keep their food down. When not diving, they swim at the surface.
Distribution and Population: The North Atlantic subpopulation ranges from low latitude nesting beaches to northern feeding areas. Current population estimates from the IUCN estimate the numbers of mature individuals to be between 29,000 and 34,000. While the North Atlantic population appears to be increasing, globally the species is still in decline. Over 1000 turtles are thought to visit waters off Atlantic Canada in the summer months to feed.
Most Vulnerable to: Entanglements and vessel strikes pose a threat to Leatherbacks. Entanglements can impair their ability to swim and result in drowning and result in an inability to feed. Because they swim at the surface, vessel strike can cause both lethal and non-lethal damage. Ingestion of marine plastics poses a big risk to Leatherbacks. Plastic bags can resemble jellyfish and the turtle may eat them. Since they have spines in their throats to keep down food, the plastic gets stuck in their stomachs, causing a feeling of “fullness” that doesn’t go away leading to malnutrition or starvation. Plastics can also block their digestive tracts, leading to death.
Scientific Name: Balaenoptera borealis
Local Name: Rudolphi’s rorqual or pollack whale
SARA status: Endangered
Appearance: Long, slender bodies that are bluish gray to dark grey with a white underside. They can weigh up to 20 tons and reach 14 to 15m long. They have distinct grooves on their necks which allow their throats to expand when they take in water. Their dorsal fin is tall and hooked, it is about 2/3’s down the body. They have a short blow that reaches about 3 meters high.
Behavior and Diet: Sei whales are filter feeders that skin the surface of the water to eat. They do not lunge or take big gulps like other baleen whales. They mostly feed on plankton but will also eat schooling fish or squid. They are the fastest baleen whale, reaching speeds of up to 50 km/h. They generally travel in groups of two to five but may form larger groups during times when there is an abundance of food.
Distribution and Population: Sei whales are found all over the world, they make seasonal migrations from tropic areas in the winter to colder waters for feeding in summer. Sei whales are found off the coast of Newfoundland in the summers for feeding. Some individuals are also present year-round. Little is known about the North Atlantic population of Sei Whales. Aerial surveys only identified 7 whales between 2007 and 2016, which suggests a population of a few hundred individuals or less.
Most Vulnerable to: Threats to Sei whales include noise pollution from seismic surveys, shipping, and military exercises. Noise can disturb their normal behavior by drowning out their calls, it can also drive them out of their normal feeding or breeding grounds. They are also vulnerable to vessel strikes or entanglements in fishing gear. Boat strikes can kill or injure the whales and increased shipping routes across the Atlantic further increases the risk. Entanglements in fishing gear such as traps, pots or gillnets are a huge threat and entanglements can result in drowning or inability to feed.
Great White Shark
Scientific Name: Carcharodon carcharias
Local Name: Great White, White shark, Atlantic population of White Shark
SARA status: Endangered
Appearance: The Great White Shark is the largest predatory fish in the world, averaging 2 to 6 meters long. They have black eyes, a pointed dorsal fin, and a sharp colour contrast between its grey or black back and its white underside. The sharks have a sharply pointed conical head and snout with a torpedo-like body. In their mouth, they have 5 rows that house about 3000 teeth. When a tooth is lost, it’s simply replaced by a new one meaning sharks use about 20,000 teeth in their lifetime.
Behavior and Diet: These sharks are known for being highly mobile and preying upon fish and marine mammals, including whales. Great White Sharks have a specialized blood vessel structure called a countercurrent exchanger that allows them to quickly adapt to different water temperatures.
Distribution and Population: Great White Sharks travel long distances making long migrations every year. Sharks found in Atlantic Canada are likely seasonal migrants belonging to a widespread Northwest Atlantic population and are rarely seen in Newfoundland and Labrador. They are widely distributed in the sub-polar and tropical seas of both hemispheres. There are no estimates of population size in Canadian waters, however, in Atlantic Canadian waters there are 22 confirmed sightings between 2009 and 2018. Satellite and acoustic tags have recorded White Sharks in several areas throughout eastern Canadian waters including the St. Lawrence Estuary, the Grand Banks, and the Bay of Fundy.
Most Vulnerable to: Incidental mortality from fishing otherwise known as bycatch. Although measures to improve fishing practices have been introduced, the primary threat to these sharks continues to be death related to incidental capture by fishing industries. This threat perseveres due to their low reproductive rate. In some places, sharks are still targeted in commercial and recreational fisheries and harvested for their teeth and jaws for jewelry. Pollution, underwater noise, and offshore and coastal development activities also pose as threats.