Exploring the Whales of the St. Lawrence River

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

Tadoussac, Québec -- The calm water surface suddenly breaks without warning -- our kayaks sway in the displacement as 45,000 gleaming kilograms of Finback Whale executes a perfect arc within five metres of our crafts. In seconds, the Whale dives and is gone. "Lateral feeding lunge," calls my brother Arun, "she'll be back up in a few seconds!" Within minutes the sleek cetacean reappears about 20 meters ahead of us. A quick group consensus suggests that we should allow the Whale a clear path to continue its feeding track uninterrupted. Content to observe at a distance, we leisurely follow it's path southward into the main channel of the St. Lawrence River.

Overlooked by the charming villages of Tadoussac and Baie Sainte-Catherine, the St. Lawrence-Saguenay River confluence is home to several species of sea mammals. By car, one can make the journey from Toronto to Tadoussac in a pleasant 13 hours. Travelling eastward from Québec City, the St. Lawrence River route is astonishing: the geographic disparity between the Canadian Shield and the Laurentian coastal region made evident by the appearance of deep glacial valleys -- fast-moving rivers and spectacular waterfalls adorn the route. Approaching Tadoussac, visitors ride a ferry across the mouth of a breathtaking fjord, into the heart of the village. Tadoussac, harbouring a modest population of 840 residents, is noted for its excellent hospitality and exquisite regional fare. It was near this estuary that the French explorer Jacques Cartier wrote about the... "abundance of sealife that can be found on any clear day." These are just a few of the reasons why self-propelled eco-tourists, like the members of our group, enjoy visiting this confluence.

Travelling along in our in our flotilla of 4 sea kayaks, my brother, our respective fiancee's and I carefully avoid any intrusive contact with the cetaceans that we encounter along our route. This estuary is the home of an isolated population of endangered Beluga's, numbering somewhere between 360 and 715 animals. The St. Lawrence/Saguenay confluence supports a variety of cetaceans, including Fin, Blue, and Minke Whales, as well as various Seal and Dolphin species. During the peak Whale-watching period between May and October, the St. Lawrence Belugas thrive on the rich biological diversity in the estuary to build fat reserves for the following winter. Breeding occurs during this busy tourist season, so it is critical that stress on the Beluga population is minimal during this time. Earlier this August, the first ever recorded sighting of a Sperm Whale (near the Cap Bon Désir research station in Bergeronnes) reinforced the significance of this estuary as a critical cetacean habitat and feeding area.

The Whale easily leaves our kayaks behind and changes course in the direction of Cap de Bon Désir, a favourite feeding ground of all of the St. Lawrence cetaceans. We decide to venture south; earlier reports from a federal biologist indicated that two Blue Whales had been seen in the area. As we slip further into the current of the St. Lawrence, we notice a duo of Zodiac inflatables running parallel to our course. Both crafts are filled with tourists: we are reminded that many commercial operations task out of this fjord; sailing, scenic river and most prevalently, Whale-watching tours are the lifeblood of the confluence community.

Supported by a variety of interpretative and educational research centres, the dominant industry in Tadoussac today is most certainly Whale-watching. Although the Whales found in these waters are both residential and migratory, this estuary is a critical summer feeding ground to them. Unquestionably, it is in the best interest for the local residents and to preserve the area.

Each season, revenue generated by tourism in the estuary region exceeds $11 million dollars. Tadoussac, and the surrounding villages of Bergeronnes and Les Escoumins, support a number of Whale-watching expedition outfits. Stouthearted tourists can choose to explore the Saguenay estuary from small inflatables or motor-launches, while the more casual sightseer might select the luxury of a catered cruiser. More daring enthusiasts can view the estuaries inhabitants, as well as the newly established Saguenay Marine park, by sea kayak or covered canoe, although paddlers should be outfitted with their own crafts, as kayak rentals are unavailable in regions of the north-east St. Lawrence. During the summer months, aquatic encounters with various species of cetaceans are virtually guaranteed.

Around the harbour of Tadoussac, two walkways are strategically situated to circumnavigate the fjord and village. Scenic platforms along the route provide an excellent vantage point to see Harbour Porpoise and Minke Whale in the Bay. Occasionally, flashes of white mark surfacing Belugas -- the endangered white Whales who remain in the St. Lawrence year-round. Visitors can either follow the path or paddle directly to the Centre d'interprétation du milieu marin (marine interpretation centre), to learn more about the fascinating sealife of the St. Lawrence estuary.

After a few more hours of paddling interrupted by sporadic cetacean sightings, we turn our kayaks back north to our campsite at Bon Desir. Our path is intersected by a trio of Beluga's, including a grey-brown calf who slows down for a closer look at our kayaks. We pull our paddles out of the current to avoid startling the calf. After giving us a casual examination, the calf turns and rejoins it's companions. "They're going out for dinner," Arun jokes, "I expect that they'll be dining from the seafood menu this evening." With a grin, he eagerly sinks his blade back into the river, and leads us in a steady course toward the bay.

Expedition Planner -- If You Go...

Tadoussac is reached by Highway 138 from points east in Québec and Ontario. U.S. visitors can follow Route 201 north (in Maine) to Highway 173, and then east from Québec City. Tadoussac is a part of the greater Manicouagan region: Tourisme Québec prints a selection of comprehensive tour guides for free distribution. Write them at -- Tourisme Québec, P.O. Box 20000, Québec, (Québec), Canada G1K 7X2.

Hotels: a variety of hotels operate in Tadoussac. Below are a few that are listed by the Québec Ministère du Tourisme;
• Hôtel Tadoussac, 165, rue du Bord-de-l'Eau @ 1-800-463-5250
• Hôtel-Motel Georges, rue du Bateau-Passeur @ 235-4393
• Auberge du Lac, 187, rue Pionniers @ 235-4393

Campgrounds: reservations are recommended;
• Camping Tadoussac, 428, rue du Bateau-Passeur @ (418) 235-4501 • Camping Sacré-Coeur, Rue Jourdain @ (418) 236-9131

Whale-watching Tours:
• Cie de la Baie de Tadoussac - inflatables, scenic & Whale tours 145, rue Bord-de-l'Eau @ (418) 235-4548 • Les Croisières du Grand Fleuve Inc. - Cruiser, Whale tours 100, rue du Bord-de-l'Eau @ 1-800-463-6761

* For information about Ned Lynas and his workshops and seminars, contact: Ned Lynas, Ocean Research Information Society (ORIS), 2 Whittington Court, Ajax, Ontario L1S 1L1, (416) 463-5371.

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Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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Copyright A. Michael Kundu