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The Gully Marine Protected Area: A Diversity of Life and a Sanctuary for Whales

To learn more about the Gully, visit The Gully MPA.


Fisheries and Oceans Canada presents the Gully marine protected area. A diversity of life and a sanctuary for whales.

In the North Atlantic Ocean, on the east coast of North America, 200 kilometers off Nova Scotia, 45 kilometers east of Sable Island, on the edge of the Scotian shelf. The sea floor suddenly drops away.

More than 3,000 metres deep, this is more than 30 times the height of the Mackay bridge the Nova Scotia's Halifax Harbour

The largest submarine canyon on the east coast of North America is 40 kilometers long and is up to 16 kilometers wide. It is known as the Gully. The Gully is a spectacular canyon, highly productive with the diversity of habitats and is home to fascinating and mysterious marine life like the spiny lobster larvae, amphipod shrimp, deep-sea isopod shrimp deep sea benthic octopus, Dumbo octopus, Pollock and Redfish orange roughy.

The Gully contains the highest known diversity of coral in Atlantic Canada with more than 30 species of coral that have been identified such as soft coral, Gorgonian Octocoral, and Paramurciea. Black coral here with northern krill, sea corn, bubblegum coral, Gorgonian Octocoral here with Epizootic Anemones, stony cup coral, sea cucumbers with sponge, deep-sea file clams and stalked crinoid.

In May 2004, the Gully became the first marine protected area to be established in eastern Canada. Many species of wildlife use the Gully including the Northern Fulmar, the Wilson’s storm petrel, the greater Shearwater, the great black-backed gull, and the Dovekie.

Visitors include the leatherback turtle, the swordfish, the blue Shaq, the Greenland shark and the porbeagle shark

Many marine mammals are attracted to the Gully because of the abundant food supply. Marine mammals in the Gully include grey seals, humpback whales, sperm whales, Minke whales, common dolphins, and pilot whales

Some marine mammals are found in the Gully seasonally, only stopping by during their annual migrations. Blue whales visit the Gully during summer months.

Blue whales can be up to 30 metres long and can weigh up to 180 tonnes. They are the largest animal known to have ever existed on earth.

Blue whales can live for more than 80 years. They can be identified using their spotted coloration.

They feed on krill. Krill are very small shrimp-like crustaceans. These whales can eat more than four tons of krill a day. Blue whales are extremely rare due to whaling in the past. More than 1,500 were killed in eastern Canada during the whaling period. For this reason, blue whales are endangered.

One of the least known groups of marine mammals are beaked whales. Some beaked whales are found in the North Atlantic ocean living in deep offshore waters.

Sowerby's and northern bottlenose whales are two of the five beaked whale species that occur in Atlantic Canada. The Gully is an important habitat for these beaked whales.

Sowerby's can be 5 to 6 meters long. Males have exposed teeth in the lower jaw and teeth are present but not erupted in females.

Sowerby's feed on deepwater fish and squid.

Due to the unknown impacts of noise, Sowerbys are of special concern. The Gully is home to northern bottlenose whales throughout the year. Northern bottlenose whales can be between 6 to 9 meters long.

Bottlenose whales are among the deepest diving whales in the world, frequently diving to depths of more than 1,000 meters. While at the ocean surface, northern bottlenose whales produce interesting sounds. While underwater, northern bottlenose whales make clicking sounds to locate their prey known as Ganatos or the arm hook squid.

Northern bottlenose whales are social animals. They have a distinct bulbous forehead also known as a melon and they have a prominent beak. Adult males develop a flat squared-off forehead while females and immature males have a smoother rounded forehead.

Scientists can study their behavior while they are at the surface. When resting, their behavior is known as logging.

Other behaviors at the surface include lob-tailing, head butting, spy-hopping and breaching.

Dalhousie University scientists have created a photographic catalogue to identify individual northern bottlenose whales. These scientists estimate the size of this population to be around 160 individuals. The Gully is part of the critical habitat of northern bottlenose whales and provides prey for the whales and allows them to socialize, mate and raise their young. In the 1960s whalers commented on northern bottlenose whales curiosity. Because they often approached vessels they were easier to catch. When a northern bottlenose whale was harpooned its companions would not leave it. More than 85 individuals were caught from the small population during the whaling period. Northern bottlenose whales are endangered. Beaked whales are threatened by intense underwater sounds, fishing gear entanglement, ship strikes, petroleum development and contaminants.

The Gully is the most protected habitat for beaked whales in Canada.

Hal Whitehead a professor in whale biology at Dalhousie University believes that the Gully is a real jewel in Canada's ocean crown. As a marine protected area under the Oceans act there will finally be some insurance that neither current nor future industrial development will harm the Gully and the whales that call the Gully home.

To learn more about the Gully, visit The Gully MPA.

Produced and edited by Catalina Gomez-Salazar

Co-produced by Derrick Fenton and Hilary Moors-Murphy

Video courtesy of Hilary Moors-Murphy, Kristi O'Brien, Hal Whitehead, The Whitehead Lab, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Underwater video courtesy of Marina Milligan.

Photography courtesy of Johanna Augusto, Dave Fifield, Catalina Gomez Salaza, Marina Milligan, Hilary Moors-Murphy, Kristi O'Brien, Tanja Wimmer, Sarah Wong, the Whitehead Lab, Canadian Shark Research Lab at Bedford Institute of Oceanography, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Animations by NASA and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Music courtesy of: the Modern Men from the album The Sensual Sounds of; Noah Tye from the album The Devlin Ewe; and compositions by Mauricio Garcia de la Torre.

Narration by Jayme Lynn Butt

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