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Imagine the Grand Canyon underwater and you get the Gully. It's the largest submarine canyon in Atlantic Canada.

The Gully Marine Protected Area brochure
The Gully Marine Protected Area brochure
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) made the Gully a protected whale reserve in 1994. In 2004, they set up regulations making it the Gully Marine Protected Area (MPA).

Location and size

The Gully MPA is located 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Sable Island and 200 kilometers (125 miles) southeast of Nova Scotia on the Scotian Shelf.

How big is the Gully? It measures 65 kilometers (40 miles) long, 15-to-16 kilometers (nine-to-10 miles) wide and up to 3,000 meters (9,843 feet) deep.

Getting there

To visit the Gully, you need to apply for a permit. As passengers of an Adventure Canada Sable Island cruise, we were very fortunate.

One of the resource staff onboard was Sarah Wong, a marine researcher who has studied grey seals and seabirds. The Dalhousie University PhD has worked with the Canadian Wildlife Service and the DFO.

Sarah's permit allowed her to gather data for The Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea (ECSAS) program. As passengers on the same Adventure Canada ship, we had a unique opportunity to learn about the Gully first-hand.

Sarah Wong gives lecture on Sable Island seabirds and marine mammals on Adventure Canada cruise
Sarah Wong gives lecture on Sable Island seabirds and marine mammals on Adventure Canada cruise
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Marine life habitats

As we cruised toward the Marine Protected Area, Sarah presented a lecture about The Marine Mammals of the Gully. She explained why it has such a huge diversity of marine life.

"Very strong currents flow into the canyon and bring cold nutrient-rich waters up to the surface where light leads to the growth of phytoplankton. Zooplankton feed on them. Small fish feed on the zooplankton and larger fish and seabirds, in turn, feed on them."

Three ocean layers

Sarah described the three ocean zones in the Gully and what creatures inhabit each one. Phytoplankton, zooplankton, krill, fish and seabirds are found in the sunlight or epipelagic zone, from the surface down to 200 meters (656 feet).

Blue whales, sperm whales and northern bottlenose whales (which are listed as endangered on the Scotian Shelf), are also seen here, although they dive into lower zones to find the deep-dwelling squid that they like to eat.

Sarah explained that we wouldn't see the inhabitants of the twilight or mesopelagic layer (200 to 1,000 meters / 656 to 3,281 feet deep). However, she wanted us to know what was below us, namely cold-water corals, such as bubblegum coral, as well as bioluminescent lanternfish, sea cucumbers, sponges and Greenland sharks.

She also showed us photos of weird-looking hatchet fish with big eyes and jaws and the dumbo octopus (with fins that look like ears) in the dark midnight or bathypelagic ocean layer.

Marine life in The Gully
Marine life in the Gully
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The Gully zones

Showing us a map of the boundaries of the three management zones in the Gully, Sarah noted three habitat types.

Map of The Gully zones
Map of the Gully zones
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Zone 3 encompasses the shallow sandy banks, while Zone 2 includes some of the slopes and steep walls that go down into the Gully. In these two zones, you are allowed to do some activities, such as fishing, but they are highly regulated."

Zone 1, which comprises the core of the Gully, is the most highly protected area. "You are not allowed to do any fishing and you're only allowed to enter with a research permit that contributes to the greater understanding of the ecology of the Gully," she said.

Seabird survey

Most contributors to the Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea database do their surveys of seabird abundance and distribution from Canadian Coast Guard vessels. No surveys had even been done in June until Sarah Wong completed hers during our Adventure Canada cruise.

She explained how she followed a standard protocol to note the species and number of birds on the water within a 300-meter (984-foot) strip perpendicular from one side of the ship. "I use a computer and a headset with voice recognition to directly record my visual observations from the microphone into the database. I only use binoculars to confirm a species."

Sarah also explained how she used distance sampling to correct densities for birds that are farther away and harder to see. For flying birds, she did an instantaneous count of birds every 300 meters when her computer beeped. For marine mammals, she used a different monitoring protocol and estimated their distance away from the ship.

Sarah Wong, marine researcher, does Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea survey
Sarah Wong, marine researcher, does Eastern Canada Seabirds at Sea survey
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Whale watching

While Sarah conducted her survey of all three zones of the Gully, we joined other passengers on the decks to look for whales. At first, all we saw was water and waves.

Suddenly, our expedition leader, Stefan Kindberg, announced from the bridge: "There are nine northern bottlenose whales, just 800 meters from the starboard side at 3 o'clock!"

Passengers grabbed their cameras and binoculars and headed to the railings. We watched the whales, catching glimpses of their bulbous heads and small triangular dorsal fins.

Everyone was ecstatic. We were looking at 5% of the Scotian Shelf population of northern bottlenose whales!

Northern bottlenose whales

During her lecture, Sarah Wong had explained why this endangered whale species is so special. "On the Scotian Shelf, there are fewer than 200 individuals remaining. The Gully is critical habitat. They live here year-round."

We learned that the northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) is nine meters (30 feet) long, or as Sarah graphically described it: "as long as four divers head-to-toe." Its bulbous head makes identification easy.

Adventure Canada passengers whale watch on deck
Adventure Canada passengers whale watch on deck
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Echolocation sounds

Northern bottlenose whales are deep divers, descending for up to 30 minutes down to 800 meters (2,625 feet) deep, although their dives are usually less than 10 minutes. Sarah explained that they are curious about ships and come in closer if the ship is slow-moving. "But they don't bow-ride like dolphins."

She played a recording of what a northern bottlenose whale sounds like while foraging, and noted: "They find their prey by echolocation, so they emit sounds that bounce off their prey and surroundings and come back to them." Listening carefully, we heard faint fast-paced clicking.

We learned about threats to northern bottlenose whales, such as commercial shipping and fishing gear. They are also sensitive to pollution and sounds such as depth sounders and seismic exploratory testing done by companies looking for oil reserves.

Long-finned pilot whales

Just as we were leaving the Gully, another announcement came from the bridge. "There's a pod of eight long-finned pilot whales, just 200 meters (656 feet) from the ship!"

Ree Brennin, marine biologist, identifies whales for Adventure Canada passengers
Ree Brennin, marine biologist, identifies whales for Adventure Canada passengers
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Their long backs gave us an idea of their size. Males can be up to five meters (16 feet) long, while females may reach 3.7 meters (12 feet) in length. They like to eat the squid that inhabit the Gully.

While Sarah worked on her survey, Ree Brennin, another marine biologist on our Adventure Canada cruise, showed us a comparison chart of whale images and helped us identify our sightings.

Seabird and marine mammal sightings

After we returned home from our cruise, passengers received a summary of Sarah Wong's sightings from her ECSAS survey. For the 98.4 kilometers (61 miles) that she surveyed in the three zones and three habitats of the Gully, she prepared maps of the species sighted, with their locations.

Among the nine seabird species that she sighted were sooty and great shearwaters, northern fulmars, Wilson's and Leach's storm petrels, common murres, herring gulls, Manx shearwaters and south polar skua.

In addition to the nine northern bottlenose whales and eight long-finned pilot whales that we saw, she also observed one grey seal, five dolphins and three unknown distant whales.

Northern bottlenose whales
Northern bottlenose whales
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Photo ID catalog

Sarah Wong gave us and the other passengers the opportunity to contribute to research. She invited those of us with photos of the dorsal fins of northern bottlenose whales to send them to her.

She offered to forward them to Hal Whitehead, at Dalhousie University, who developed and maintains a photo identification catalog of northern bottlenose whales in the Gully.

We were delighted to contribute our photos.


Adventure Canada

The Gully Marine Protected Area

More things to see & do on Adventure Canada Sable Island cruises:

Sable Island National Park Reserve - Parks Canada - Weather Station

Sable Island Hiking - Horse Trails, Bald Dune, Freshwater Ponds and Beaches

Sable Island Horses - Questions, Answers, Facts and Information

Sable Island Birdwatching - Gulls, Terns, Petrels and Ipswich Sparrows

Sable Island Plants - Flowers, Berries, Shrubs, Grasses and One Tree