Ocean life is forever on the move. This list shows a few of the marvellous mariners that swim, sail, and soar in, on, and over our sensational seas.
Migratory species are as many and as varied as the migratory spaces that give them life. Their survival depends on strong links in long, unbroken chains between breeding, migrating, and wintering grounds. But oceans are pathways for people too. Migratory habitats may be harmed by oil spills, highways, shipping traffic, and countless other human impacts. If a single link in a chain is broken, many migrants may never complete their journeys.
Luckily, you can help put them back on track and keep the motion in the ocean by taking on action and awareness projects.
Atlantic Leatherback Turtle
The world’s largest living reptile has existed for 150 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs. A leathery back plate sets it apart from other sea turtles, which have hard shells. The biggest leatherback on record weighed almost a tonne, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
- Range: Found in all the world’s oceans, this species is seen most often in the tropics. An occasional visitor off British Columbia’s Queen Charlotte Islands, it is a regular summertime caller off the Atlantic provinces.
- Migration: Atlantic leatherbacks migrate from the Caribbean Sea along the warm Gulf Stream, which meets the icy Labrador Current off our East Coast. The turtles then cross the North Atlantic and swim down the west coasts of Europe and Africa. They finally come back across the Atlantic to the Caribbean. They cover about 15,000 kilometres in a single migration. Pacific leatherback migrations are still a mystery.
- Habitat: This species’ survival depends on tropical nesting beaches and open seas, where jellyfish, its favourite food, abound.
- Status: Scientists aren’t sure how many leatherbacks there are, since only females leave the ocean to nest. The world population of adult females has fallen from about 115,000 in 1982 to less than 34,500 today. The species is listed as endangered in Canada.
- Threats: Threatened on nesting beaches by predators, illegal egg collectors, and coastal development, this turtle is also imperilled at sea by pollution, ship collisions, and entanglement in fishing gear.
Conservation: The North Atlantic Leatherback Turtle Working Group is gathering data on reports of these reptiles, helping to solve mysteries about their existence in northern waters, and encouraging people to protect them. Satellite transmitters attached to leatherback turtles rescued from fishing gear could be the key to learning where they migrate worldwide and what they need to survive.
North America’s tallest, most magnificent bird is a powerful symbol of efforts to save endangered species, thanks to its recovery from near extinction. The species gets its name from its unique whooping call.
- Range: Breeding in Wood Buffalo National Park, on the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories, the bird overwinters in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Texas.
- Migration: Whoopers travel in pairs, family groups, or small flocks of three to five birds. Fall migration begins in mid-September, with the first stop 500 kilometres south of the breeding range, in northern Saskatchewan or Alberta. The 4,000-kilometre journey to Texas ends in November.
- Habitat: The bird needs muskeg (swampy coniferous woods) in the breeding season, prairie wetlands and grain fields during migration, and coastal wetlands over winter.
- Status: The only wild, migratory flock of whooping cranes numbers 130 birds. This endangered population is slowly increasing.
- Threats: Industrial development in the North, the effects of harsh weather on newborn chicks, collisions with microwave towers and power lines during migrations, and disturbances from shipping traffic down south all mean hard times for whoopers.
Conservation: The Canadian Wildlife Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have taken a leading role in whooping crane conservation, for example, by breeding birds in captivity for later release into the wild.
Pacific Grey Whale
This ancient mariner holds the record for the longest mammal migration on Earth. A row of humps on its lower back — instead of the dorsal fin of its more modern relatives — identifies this 15-metre-long giant as the most primitive baleen whale.
- Range: This species lives off the west coast of North America and along the Asian Pacific coast.
- Migration: Grey whales migrate up to 20,000 kilometres every year. After bearing their young in sheltered lagoons on the coast of Baja California, they head northward, assisted by offshore currents. They remain within 10 kilometres of the western shores of the United States and Canada until they reach their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas. A few stragglers spend the summer off Vancouver Island. The southward migration begins in September.
- Habitat: Shallow lagoons on the coast of Baja California are vital calving areas. Estuaries, bays, and offshore waters along our western seaboard provide safe havens for migratory and “resident” grey whales.
- Status: The Canadian grey whale population is not at risk. A second population, once found off our East Coast, is now extinct.
- Threats: The grey whale is threatened by industrial development in its breeding range, contaminants, predation by orcas, and low populations resulting from near extermination by whalers in the 1 9th century.
Conservation: Cetacean Protection Regulations ensure that grey whales are only hunted periodically in Canada for subsistence purposes by aboriginal peoples.
The sun seldom sets on this marathon migrant. Since it breeds in the Arctic (with up to 24 daylight hours) and spends the winter in the Antarctic (when the days never end), it catches more rays in its lifetime than any other creature. It also has the longest, most amazing migration of any species on Earth.
- Range: Breeding at the northernmost limits of land in Arctic and sub-Arctic parts of the world, this bird also nests on the Atlantic coast as far south as Massachusetts. It passes the winter in Antarctic seas.
- Migration: This long-distance seafarer travels about 18,000 kilometres between the High Arctic and the Antarctic. En route, it crosses the Atlantic Ocean and passes along the west coasts of Europe and Africa.
- Habitat: The arctic tern nests on islands, rocky beaches, and coastal tundra, as well as far inland around tundra lakes, rivers, and ponds. It spends most of the year well out to sea.
- Status: In most of the species’ vast breeding range, populations appear to be holding strong. At the southern end of its breeding range, its numbers are steadily declining due to human activities.
- Threats: Habitat loss, shipping traffic, and chemical contaminants may impact on the arctic tern, especially in parts of its breeding and wintering ranges with dense human populations.
St. Lawrence Beluga
The beluga whale gets its name from the Russian word for “white.” Called the “sea canary” by early whalers, it utters a variety of puffs, squeals, and whistles. Males have even been known to bugle.
- Range: The beluga ranges from Québec City east to Natashquan on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River and around the Gaspé Peninsula to Chaleur Bay on the south shore. Other populations inhabit Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia.
- Migration: In spring, most herds on the St. Lawrence River are found between Rimouski and Rivière Ouelle on the south shore and between Les Escoumins and Île aux Coudres on the north shore. They concentrate in and around the Saguenay River in summer (seasonal range appears in inset map below). The population disperses in early fall, and belugas are seen as far upstream as Île d’Orléans and as far downstream as Gaspé. By late fall, scattered groups form large herds around Île aux Lièvres and the mouth of the Saguenay River. In winter, belugas spread downstream. One concentration remains at the mouth of the Saguenay, another between Godbout and Pointe des Monts (fall, winter, and spring range appears in orange in inset map).
- Habitat: Shallow, warm-water bays, reefs, and island edges provide safe havens to bear and nurse young. Deeper, colder waters are favoured by adults. River mouths have abundant sources of food and powerful currents that keep the water from freezing over.
- Status: The St. Lawrence beluga is endangered, with only a few hundred whales remaining.
- Threats: Industrial contaminants, scarce food supplies, marine traffic, and habitat degradation are the principal reasons for this species’ sluggish recovery.
Conservation: The St. Lawrence River Beluga Protection Regulations of the Fisheries Act prohibit the hunting, killing, chasing, or wilful disturbance of these whales. Efforts to clean up the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes are under way.
This finned wayfarer comes in all shapes and sizes, depending on its stage in life — from pea-sized egg to fry (newly hatched) to parr (juvenile) to smolt (adolescent) to adult. Out of approximately 8,000 eggs laid by a female, only about two reach adulthood.
- Range : This wide-ranging fish inhabits the Atlantic Ocean and rivers in Eastern Canada, Europe, and the United States.
- Migration: Born in rivers and streams, salmon migrate downstream to the Atlantic when they reach the smolt stage (two to six years of age). As adults, they stay in the ocean for a year or longer and attain a weight of up to 20 kilograms. When they’re ready to spawn (or reproduce), they go back to the rivers where they were born. During this incredible upstream odyssey, which lasts from a few weeks to a year, they stop feeding until they return to the sea.
- Habitat: This fish spawns in freshwater streams but spends most of its life at sea.
- Status: Salmon populations are in steep decline, but the species is not at risk of extinction.
- Threats: Salmon populations are threatened by acid rain, overfishing, pollution, and dams that block their migrations.
Conservation: Scientists are radio-tracking Atlantic salmon to find out where they migrate and to learn why they’re having trouble surviving.
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