Saguenay-st. Lawrence Marine Park, Quebec
The warm waters and calm currents in Saguenay–st. Lawrence Marine Park are the perfect place for female beluga whales to birth, nurse and rear their young. Their herd’s squeal-like chatter and bubble-blowing are easily heard by campers who land one of the handful of tent sites that dot the nearby shoreline. But despite the liveliness of vocalizations drifting across the water, all is not well for these already critically endangered animals. In the summer of 2017, 889 belugas returned here — a fraction of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 that once swam in these waters. And now, a very worrisome trend: mothers and their calves are increasingly dying in childbirth — yearly average calf deaths have increased from two to seven since 2010. Veterinarians that study the belugas think stress caused when boaters approach a pregnant female in the days before she delivers her calf, or during the delivery itself, is partly responsible. “This is a big issue for us in the conservation of belugas,” says park resource conservation manager Pierre Beaufils. “It’s the reason we work with boaters to keep them a safe distance from the animals.” In this national marine conservation area, protective regulations that prevent boats from getting too close are critical, along with ongoing research and monitoring to better understand how belugas interact with their environment. For example, Beaufils and other scientists are studying the availability of the prey species belugas feed on, which may also have an impact on birth rates. “If a female doesn’t have enough quality food to provide her energy to give birth, she might not be able to get pregnant, or she might lose the calf,” says Beaufils. Food availability is just one of many challenges belugas face, and protecting them will require building relationships with community members and people working in industries around the park, says Beaufils. “It is about connecting their hearts and minds to the place so they will become ambassadors of its protection.”
A beluga whale in the Saguenay–st. Lawrence Marine Park.