Dressed as we are in bright red Mustang survival suits, my five companions and I look like a group of Antarctic researchers preparing to venture into the frozen icefields of the far south. In reality, we’re about to head out on the St. Lawrence River in an attempt to spot some of the numerous species of whales that frequent the waters of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, roughly three hours north of Quebec City.
It’s two weeks past the normal end of the season and the weather in this part of Canada is even colder than usual for mid-October, so the six of us have been issued the survival suits as added protection. All zipped up, with several other layers of clothing beneath, we’re about twice our normal size – “marshmallows,” says one group member. We waddle out onto the dock and clamber into the oversized Zodiac-style boat under the command of Captain Marc. “Marc with a C,” he makes sure to tell us. That’s the French form of the name, and French is very much the first language of everyone around here.
Many people are surprised to learn that there are whales in the St. Lawrence, but the fact is that north of Quebec City the river is wide and very deep, a remnant of the region’s glacial past. In fact, the St. Lawrence estuary is the largest in the world, more than ample to accommodate a host of marine life, including thirteen species of cetaceans. And not just the smaller whales and porpoises either – the blue whale, the world’s largest creature, is a frequent visitor to these waters. Other whale species include minke, humpback, and fin whales, as well as an endangered population of around 1,000 belugas, the only whale species to remain in the area year round.
We set out from the small town of Tadoussac on the north shore of the Saguenay Fjord, where it meets the St. Lawrence. More than 60 miles in length, Saguenay Fjord is one of the longest fjords in the world. Its steep walls average around 500 feet in height but reach nearly 1,500 feet at their highest point. It’s a spectacular place and also a popular place for wildlife cruises. Beluga and minke whales are often seen in the fjord during the summer, and blue and fin whales are frequent visitors to the mouth of the Saguenay. Harbor seals are also common in the area, while grey seals may also be spotted.
On this day we make only a quick visit to the fjord at the end of our trip. Most of our time is spent out on the St. Lawrence. Those survival suits turn out to be a good idea, as the wind is brisk and cold, and the waves choppy. From Tadoussac we head straight out toward the middle of the river – straight out to sea, it seems, since the river is so wide here that the opposite shore seems like a distant island. Offshore from Tadoussac is a curious red-and-white lighthouse, a round structure anchored in the riverbed and accessible only by ladder from visiting boats. Someone in the group suggests that it would make a good spot for a café.
With the sea conditions so rough, seeing the whales is something of a challenge, but nevertheless, we spot some distant blows. Soon we’re seeing whales in several directions; the minkes are porpoising on our right, left, and ahead of us. In the distance we also catch sight of a couple of humpbacks. With the boat bucking on the waves and the whales’ surfacing so unpredictable, it’s impossible to get photos, so we just hang out and watch the action.
After a while we head back toward Tadoussac. Suddenly I catch sight of something white. Is it a whale or just another whitecap? I’m not sure. Then it appears again. I’m gesturing to the others and getting ready to shout to Captain Marc when he suddenly cuts the engine. It’s a pod of belugas making their way from the direction of the fjord to the river. They pass our boat at relatively close range.
Back on land, we divest ourselves of our survival suits and then head down the street to visit the Marine Mammal Interpretation Center overlooking the fjord. A 20-minute film about the marine life of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence region sets the stage for our exploration of the excellent interpretive exhibits, many of them interactive.
It’s a quick taste of a fascinating region, one that definitely merits further exploration. July, August, and September are generally good months for wildlife, we’re told, though whale watching tours are available from May to October. I’m thinking August sounds pretty good for a return visit – though I’m eager to get back out on the water to see more whales, I wouldn’t mind being able to leave the survival suit behind next time.
For more information: We went with Croisieres AML, one of several operators running whale watching trips on the St. Lawrence. Contact the Quebec Tourism Board for more information about the region. The Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park is jointly administered by the governments of Canada and Quebec.