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Saguenay River: Sad Ballerina

Beluga whales face extinction from pollution

More on the Saguenay River:
Saguenay River:
Essence of French Québec

Aluminum Toil:
The river and its people make the modern metal

A World Apart:
The stronghold of Quebec nationalism

Sad Ballerina:
Beluga whales face extinction from pollution

Left Behind:
Arctic life survives deep in the fjord

Rumours of More:
Fur traders hear tales of distant wealth

Tide of Destruction:
Flash flood ravages a valley

Each summer, about 200,000 tourists head for Tadoussac to watch an aquatic ballet performed by four different species of whale.

The dancers are among the oldest mammals on earth and some of them, the blue whales, are the biggest animals of the planet. They move without apparent effort and appear to be in the best of health, except for the tiniest members of their troupe.

Unlike their big cousins who migrate to other oceans, the white beluga whale stays year round in its home waters of the St. Lawrence estuary and the fjord of the Saguenay. As a result, the little whale never escapes the flood of pollution collected from the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, and the Saguenay itself.

The whales live on plankton, small shrimp called krill, and fish. This food is contaminated with mercury, lead, and a poisonous alphabet soup of chemicals including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs. These industrial pollutants become more concentrated in the whales as they grow older.

Even worse, the chemicals concentrate in the milk of mother whales. Baby whales are poisoned from birth. There were an estimated 5000 St. Lawrence belugas a century ago. Today the pods total only 500 animals.

Since 1986, scientists and volunteers have been collecting dead belugas for analysis. Each of the 29 animals examined so far has had at least one tumour, some of them cancerous. Similar tumours have not been found in whale populations in other parts of the world.

Faced with threat of extinction of the St. Lawrence beluga, the governments of Canada and Quebec are moving to halt industrial and domestic pollution and to stop harassment of the whales by ship and small boat traffic.

There is some hope, but no guarantee, that the troupe's annual performance will continue to star its beloved little ballerinas in white.

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