Habitat healthy for whale sanctuary, new research shows

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
August 19 2020

PORT HILFORD – When a handful of belugas rescued from captive isolation in North America finally arrive at this Eastern Shore harbour community, it’s likely their new marine home will already exhibit that lived-in look.

According to new research by the California-based Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP) – which plans to relocate up to six whales to a specially designed refuge it will build in the coastal waters off Port Hilford as early as 2022 – as many as 320 aquatic or semi-aquatic animal species currently ply these and nearby waters.

That’s good news for the new arrivals, says Amanda Babin, WSP’s Nova Scotia-based environmental analyst and an aquatic biologist who recently conducted the study. “There is already a lot of biodiversity in this area,” she told a local Facebook audience during a live-streamed public information session earlier this month.

“I did as comprehensive an inventory as I could and I came out with about 3,200 species of plants and animals including 24 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans) that have been seen off the Atlantic Coast of Nova Scotia.”

Pinnipeds (seals), semi-aquatic mammals, fish, invertebrates, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and plants fill out the list of wildlife associated with this part of the province.

Still, WSP Executive Director Charles Vinick was quick to point out “this doesn’t mean there are 24 different types of whales or porpoises or dolphins that are seen around Port Hilford. This is the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia; we’re getting the overall view with this species inventory. We also look at the data to (determine) where these species are found, and how many are observed closer to Port Hilford.”

The inventory is part of a series of environmental assessments that began several months ago – on everything from marine acoustics and temperature ranges to water quality – both to ascertain the condition of the habitat for the belugas and to understand the degree to which their presence could affect their surroundings.

Said Vinick: “We are doing this to identify, to understand, and to evaluate, but also to mitigate our potential impact on the environment so that we know exactly what we should be doing.”

For the belugas, the early news seems promising. In addition to the area’s apparent biodiversity, Babin said, “At least 70 per cent of the invertebrates in the streams that feed into the bay are indicators of good water quality. That’s good because it’s a biologically relevant measure of good water quality. It means that the animals that are actually living there are telling us that the water is good.”

She added: “We also want hard numbers as well. So, we actually took water samples. I can tell you that we measured for E-Coli, for 30 different metals, for pH, and for salinity. We found that nothing exceeded the human guidelines…So, thank you Amy Simon (WSP communications assistant in the Port Hilford area) for helping us with that.”

Last Saturday, Simon helped mount what she describes as “a COVID-friendly” Whale Sanctuary Family Day Camp. “We had several different stations set up that families could check out,” she said in an email. “It ranged from make your own whale t-shirt, sculpt a whale, get inside a giant bubble, learn about the noises whales make, to watch the short film Whales Without Walls and the TEDx Talk by Charles Vinick. We had 23 kids registered, 20 adults, volunteers and drop ins by the locals. It was definitely a whaley good time!”

Various assessments of the marine site will continue over the next few weeks. “We are using different kinds of sonars and they are going to give us a ton of information,” Babin said. “We’re going to know how the sea floor looks in a lot of detail, and also if there’s anything down there that we need to pull up – if, as Charles likes to say, somebody left an old car down there.”