“Il faut aller voir” (We must go and see).
Hector and I both learned to love marine life by watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries when we were kids. And we think that whales are one of the most interesting animals found in the oceans. That’s why we visited the St. Lawrence River.
So why are there so many whales in this area? The waters of the Saguenay River, the St. Lawrence River and the deep Laurentian Trench (which funnels cold, saline ocean water westward) converge at the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord and are violently forced upwards by the abrupt end of the trench. This is called upwelling, and brings the nutrient-rich waters from the deep up to the surface, triggering an explosion of life forms that are the base of the food chain. A total of 13 species of whales may be found here at different times of the year.
In fact, the road east of Tadoussac is called the Route des Baleines – the Whale Route. The route stretches for 560 miles along the remote north shore of the Flueve St-Laurent and over many rocky headllands that whales sometimes swim by. So the road has many overlooks where people can whale watch from the shore.
Our campground was east of Tadoussac in the town of Les Bergeronnes. We had read that this area, the Lower Estuary of the Saguenay National Marine Park, was especially productive for whale watching. And a couple that was tent camping by the river at our campground spotted whales from their camp one morning.
But both of us also enjoy being out on the water and were very excited about going out in a zodiac again. As Jacques Cousteau once said, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever”.
We also knew we wanted to go out in a small boat because the larger whale watching boats, including one that accomodates 600 passengers, just don’t provide the same close up experience.
After interviewing a couple of our top choices, we chose the Croisières-Neptune whale watching company because we got a good vibe from the staff and also because they had both open and covered boats. Since the weather was iffy and pretty cool, that was a good option to have.
We also knew we wanted to go out twice, so Hector negotiated a special rate right off the bat. We went out in the covered boat the first morning, a rather chilly morning.
After being out a while, we got a brief look at a Fin Whale, the second largest animal on the planet, so that was pretty exciting as well as a first for us.
Fin whales have an asymmetrical color scheme, one side of their face is black, the other gray. They are also the fastest of all whales.
There is an interesting system of communication about whale sightings to all the captains of whale watching boats. That’s how our captain heard about a Humpback Whale sighting and then headed over to where the Humpback Whales had been spotted.
Even though Humpback Whales aren’t endangered, there is still a restriction on how close boats can get to them, and to any whale – about 100 yards. But, if your boat is stopped and the whales change course and come to you, that is acceptable.
Humpbacks also put on quite a show as they almost always show their tail flukes when they dive.
We were fortunate to get a pretty close look at the Humpbacks, but not as close as a zodiac directly in front of us, who got to see the fluke up close and personal as one of the Humpbacks dove right in front of it.
The weather was supposed to get colder and rainy, so we’d planned to return the next morning, but when we ended our initial cruise it actually looked pretty nice, so we got suited up in our thermal safety suits and turned right around and went out in the open Zodiac.
And it’s a good thing we went back out just then, because on that tour we spotted a Blue Whale, the largest animal ever in the history of the planet. The Blue Whale is an endangered species; the North Atlantic population only numbers 250 to 300 individuals of reproductive age and a few calves. Ten or so individuals visit the St. Lawrence Estuary, and they leave between September and October.
Blue whales in the Northern Hemisphere grow to about 98 feet and reach a maximum weight of about 200 tons (!!!). Because it’s an endangered species, boats have the same restrictions as for the Beluga Whales, they must not get closer than 400 yards.
But we could tell this was a massive animal. We got a good look (through binoculars and long lens) at the blowholes at the front, then a long look at it’s back as it cruised along, and finally the dorsal fin (tiny on Blue Whales) near the tail. We knew we were really fortunate to see one but didn’t realize until later just how lucky.
This was an outstanding whale watching day. You could look out in the distance and see multiple blows, some of which you could hear as well. Whales were everywhere.
Well, after all that excitement we decided to go out again in a couple of days. We enjoyed the open boat more and with the thermal suits and some layers underneath we stayed pretty warm. Also, the smaller boat was much quieter with a four stroke outboard so you can really hear the whale’s blow even at quite a distance.
So Hector once again negotiated a nice rate for us, and we returned. The weather was beautiful. That morning we saw two Humpback Whales, one of which swam right alongside of us. We got a really close look at the head, the blowholes (two of them … like nostrils), like a prehistoric monster coming towards us. Unbelievable.
Like Hector said “I just don’t get tired of seeing them”. Whales are so majestic and mysterious and there is still so much we don’t understand about them, I don’t get tired of them either. So we turned right around and went back out.
We also saw another humpback lazily feeding and followed her around a while. While watching the Humpback, we spotted some Harbor Porpoises, which are also Cetaceans and included in the 13 species of whales that visit this area.
Well, we’d spotted six different species of whales at this point and were pretty happy. But the whale watching operator offered us an extra special repeat customer discount to go out a fifth time. We didn’t commit. But the next day, we headed over there to check out the conditions. It was foggy and pretty cold, and the captain said he wasn’t going to go out.
But there was a couple there who only had one chance to see whales, and they asked them to please take them out, they were willing to take a chance on not seeing anything. So, what the heck, we went as well.
Visibility was terrible but we got a radio notification of a Humpback Whale and headed over there. The sea had gotten a bit angry, and there were some pretty high swells, but just over the swells, we saw her (I call them all her). She was not spending a lot of time on top, but diving quite a bit. And every time they dive, you lose them. Many times they change direction or travel much further out.
But this one was sticking around and she came up right behind our boat. Awesome. The sound of the “blow” when it comes up right next to the boat is startlingly loud! Seeing her so close was amazing. For a foggy day, this was an excellent sighting.
This was our last day, and the weather really wasn’t very nice, so we decided to cap the whale watching at five times :-). But we had tons of fun with the staff at Croisières-Neptune. They were really nice people but they probably thought we were crazy Americans. As it turns out, five outings by one customer was a record for them. Crazy Americans indeed!
That afternoon we visited CIMM, the Centre di’Interpretation des Mammiferes Marins. It’s a wonderfully educational museum, fairly compact, but packed with information. The museum is an arm of GREMM, a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research on the marine mammals of the St. Lawrence and education for the conservation of the marine environment.
There are a number of naturalists on site, and they are extremely informative. The center keeps tabs on the whale population, as they are the central point of communication for whale sightings and in turn communicate them to others.
They’ve individually identified a number of the whales through markings on their flukes, their dorsal fins and their backs. So we learned the names of two of the Humpbacks we saw. You know you’ve been out whale watching a lot when you start knowing the whales by name :-).
Siam is a beautiful lady who has a tail that looks like the eyes of a Siamese cat.
And Tic Tac Toe has criss cross scars and lines on his tail. We saw each of these beautiful animals more than once while we were out on the St Lawrence River estuary.
And one of the last things we learned was that there had been confirmed sightings of only two blue whales that week. Two blue whales in the river and we saw one of them! The naturalist kept telling us that we hit the jackpot. So now we knew just how lucky we were!
Will we return and go whale watching again? I sure hope so. The Grand Fleuve was just that … grand!