Antarctica - Caspian Sea - Madagascar - St. Lawrence
||St. Lawrence, 1999: Return to the River
Twenty years after Calypso, her older sister, made this trip, Alcyone found herself on the St. Lawrence River. Using her Turbosails, she traveled up this great river into the heart of the North American continent.
The surface of the wide river is calm. Mile after mile, the St. Lawrence flares, spreading the forested banks. Miles upstream, a major tributary brings its waters to the St. Lawrence near the town of Tadoussac. The Saguenay River flows through a glacial valley, a deep fjord that opens a steep breach in the rocky masses of the coast. The Saguenay merges with the St. Lawrence at the western end of the Laurentian Channel, a tongue of cold seawater that wells up with an enormous quantity of nutrients and planktonic crustaceans. This is where whales gather. From Alcyone's deck, they announced themselves from far away by the nearly continuous jets of white vapor, splitting the horizon like explosions.
|In an instant, the dive team was in the Zodiac heading for a pod. Bernard Delemotte, the expedition leader, with all his experience, steered; he knew he must neither chase the whales nor cut them off, but approach them slowly and quietly. He operated with intuition and touch born of decades of experience dating back to the first expedition to this same spot. Eyes were riveted to the spot where the whales were last seen. Bernard smoothly and tranquilly heads for what seems to the divers to be some imaginary spot.Then, to their surprise, a blow rose with a "whoosh" and the immense head of a whale pierced the surface close to the boat. For a brief moment, its large, expressive eye seemed to observe the strangers. Then, not two meters away. there was a second blow, and a third, and a fourth. These were fin whales, that come to mingle with the resident belugas, or white whales, in the nutrient-rich waters.
||The waters were roiled by whales, one after another, piercing the surface. Huge backs emerged and the wash of tails made big circles of flat, smooth water in the middle of the tumultuous waves. The crew was in the center of the pod, buffeted by the movement of giant bodies and wet from the vapor of warm blows. Suddenly, one big whale glided through the water underneath the little boat while four or five immense backs encircled it. Dozens of whales surrounded the divers, more than the imagination could encompass. In every direction, powerful jets of vapor gushed and mixed with the white patches of hundreds of beluga whales that stood out against the deep black waters of the St. Lawrence.
Bernard was astonished. When he was here with Calypso in 1980, there were far fewer whales. Beluga herds were only remnants of a population believed to have numbered 5,000 as recently as the early twentieth century. A white whale fishery at Riviere Ouelle, upriver from Tadoussac, recorded a catch of 500 belugas on a single day in 1870. By 1940, the annual catch at the same location was fifteen. The industry disappeared but there were other threats.
In 1932, a government bounty of $45 each was put on belugas because fishermen believed them responsible for declining salmon and cod catches. The bounty was lifted seven years later after scientists determined that belugas feed on small shoaling species--capelin, herring, smelt and sandlances--as well as mollusks, crustaceans and polychaete worms. All whaling was banned by Canada in 1973, but the beluga herds continued to diminish to a few hundred at the time of the earlier Cousteau expedition. Canadian environmental organizations were pressing for greater protection for the belugas and other whales, encouraging the establishment of a reserve and of a whale-watching industry to generate support for conservation.
This time around, The Cousteau Society found that Canadians have done much to improve their environment, water quality and whale protection. It was obvious to Bernard that the first Cousteau expedition had had a determining effect on awareness and on efforts made in these issues. Together with the Canadians, the Cousteau team rejoiced at the state of the whales today and hoped for a resurgent future.
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