Whale watching in the St. Lawrence is the kind of experience nature lovers dream about. Watching giant whales surface in front of you amid spectacular scenery as you cruise down one of the world’s great rivers — it’s an adventure that’s both unique and fascinating. And last weekend, I was lucky enough to do it. Cross another one off the bucket list.
After a short but great visit to Quebec City, I hopped into a rental car and headed down Highway 138 into the region known as Charlevoix. That’s a broad strip of land that runs down the mighty St. Lawrence River, through picturesque towns and beautiful woodland, all the way to the great bay where the river meets the Atlantic.
That meeting of fresh and salt water creates one of the world’s great opportunities for seeing whales up close. Each summer, up to 13 different species of whales arrive at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. And many travel up the river to a place called Tadoussac, where amazingly, the water is salty: in this region, the sea pushes its way up the deep river channel, creating a unique environment for whale watching.
I was staying in La Malbaie, farther up the river, where my hosts, Tourism-Charlevoix, had snagged me a room in the famous Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu hotel. But I was booked for two whale watching excursions with Croisierès AML, one on their large excursion boat, the Grande Fleuve, and another on a zodiac, for a closer look at these creatures.
Arriving mid-afternoon, I made the spectacular drive to Baie-Ste-Catherine, the town that sits across from Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay River, for the last excursion of the day — the sunset cruise. The Grande Fleuve can take more than 600 passengers, so I quickly found myself a spot on the bow: I didn’t want to miss a thing. I came dressed in a ski jacket, with gloves to keep my hands from freezing — it gets cold on the St. Lawrence, even in summer.
Sailing toward the deep water, past the famous Tadoussac lighthouse, we scanned the waters for signs of life — nothing. But soon we began to see little shapes appearing on the surface. Whales? No — a pod of grey seals, sticking their heads up to see what was cruising by, then moving past us in a flotilla, churning up the water as they skipped along.
The seals were a good sign, because they’re often seen around minke whales, the smallest of the baleen species and a common sight in the St. Lawrence. And soon they began to appear, surfacing right around the Grande Fleuve and the Zodiacs around her.
We cruised on, looking for the plume of spray that signals a large whale. And a few minutes later, one appeared. Experts can tell the species from the shape of the plume, and the high, narrow spray signalled that this was a fin whale. These are the second-largest whale species, after the blue whale, growing to 25 metres, or 82 feet.
After a quick look, the whale dove, but then surfaced right beside our boat. We cruised alongside for a few minutes until it went on its way.
Later, a second plume signalled the presence of another big species — a humpback whale. I’d seen these giant creatures before, in Puerto Vallarta, but their sheer size (up to 13 metres, or 42 feet) always makes them a spectacular sight. This one stayed on the surface for a few minutes before diving, leaving us with the iconic sight of its tail disappearing into the deep (see photo at top).
The excursion ended with a cruise around the mouth of the Saguenay river, known for the dramatic beauty of its coastline. And with the sun sinking low, it was a wonderful sight. I only wished we could have stayed until the setting sun painted the whole scene pink.
The next day, I arrived at 10 for the morning cruise, this time on the Zodiac. Along with a couple of dozen other passengers, I donned the orange parka provided by AML and found a seat at the stern of the boat. I’ve been on small Zodiacs, most recently on my Arctic cruise, but this one was much larger, and much more comfortable, even if some spray did come flying now and then — that’s what the parkas are for.
As before, we spotted the minke whales first, splashing right near the boat. They surfaced here, there and everywhere, giving us all a good look.
The morning was bright and sunny, but as we cruised into deeper waters, it became foggy, and now and then shapes appeared as we looked through the fog bank. Dimly, like a ghost, the long back of a fin whale materialized, and swam beside us for a few minutes before disappearing, like an apparition.
Later, a trio of white shapes appeared, the famous beluga whales that have become a symbol of the St. Lawrence. These small whales are a common sight, but in reality they’re a rarity, in the “near-threatened” category. They bobbed up for a look, then disappeared before I could get a photo.
But the seals were less shy, swimming around us once again as we headed back to shore, and I was able to get some close-ups showing their odd, dog-like faces and their mottled skin. They looked like they were having fun — but then, seals always seem to.
So, my whale watching in the St. Lawrence was over. I didn’t see 13 species, but for the first time I’d seen a number of different kinds of whales, in good numbers, and some of them up close. I was satisfied.
Driving back to the Le Manoir Richelieu, I smiled as I cruised down the winding river road, through the picture-postcard towns of the Charlevoix. Another great adventure in a year that’s been full of them. Pretty soon I’ll need another bucket list.
How to go whale watching in the St. Lawrence
Readers have told me they’d like to go whale watching in the St. Lawrence, but don’t know how. And now that I’ve been there, I can shed some light.
The simplest way to get to the whale watching is to drive from Quebec City. It’s a two-hour drive to La Malbaie, and another hour to Baie-Ste-Catherine and Tadoussac, all on good roads. You can find hotels in both towns, and there are small hotels, motels and guest houses along the way. You can reserve your spot for the whale watching at Croisières AML, though other companies also offer tours.
It’s also possible to take the bus from Quebec City to La Malbaie, or right to Tadoussac, and stay there a couple of days. However, you’ll have to catch a ride to the local attractions. Failing that, you can do the whole tour in a day: AML offers one-day bus excursions from Quebec City that leave at 9 a.m. and return at 8 p.m. There are even packages from Montreal.
Finally, there is a train from Quebec City that reaches La Malbaie, where you can rent a car or take a taxi to the whales. There is shuttle transport available if you stay at Le Manoir Richelieu.
Photos taken with the Nikon COOLPIX P900 camera