A whale safari on Quebec’s Saint Lawrence river


Quebec City (Canada) : Blue whales, humpback whales and belugas swim deep into the Saint Lawrence river in search of food. The river, which is so wide it could be mistaken for an ocean, is an ideal place to go whale watching which attracts many tourists to the province of Quebec in eastern Canada.

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Quebec City is situated on the narrowest point of the river. The towers and battlements of the city’s huge landmark Chateau Frontenac are visible for miles as you drive out of the city.

The trip begins by travelling along the Route des Baleines on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence, which is the main artery of the French-speaking province of Quebec.

Pass by the coastal town of Baie-Saint-Paul with its galleries and then to Charlevoix National Park where you can catch a boat into the wilderness.

The car-ferry crosses Saguenay fjord that the deep blue waters of the St. Lawrence drain into. Not a single house can be seen on the fjord’s hilly, tree-covered shoreline.

It’s a different story in the busy village of Tadoussac – the capital of whale watching in Quebec. The harbour is criss-crossed by boats coming or going on whale-watching trips.

Families board one of the double-deck catamarans. “There they are!” cries a girl shortly after the boat leaves harbour.

To the elation of everyone aboard, a group of fin whales appears a few hundred metres from the boat.

“The unique thing is that we have a very diverse range of whale species here like the mink whale, humpback whale, belugas and even the blue whale,” says Anna Petraki.

The young biologist describes the whales to the whale-watchers over a microphone.

In the summer months, baleen and toothed whales swim in the nutrient-rich waters of the fjord, building up fat reserves for the coming months.

Thanks to the fjord’s system of currents, tonnes of krill, plankton and small fish are drawn into the waters of the St Lawrence, which explains why the fjord’s mouth is so popular with whales.

They are studied and counted by members of the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre (CIMM) in Tadoussac.

Each whale is given a name.

“We’ve known the humpback whales Tic Tac Tow and Siam for the past 15 years,” explains Patrice Corbeil, who heads the centre.

“We identify them according to their fins which are practically like finger prints.”

But the whale expert is muted when it comes to his prognosis for the whales’ future. “They might survive,” he says.

“We’re trying to sensitise our visitors to whale-protection.” The adjoining interactive whale museum provides an insight into the research carried out at the centre.

Whales have a magical attraction for people and up to 300,000 people visit Tadoussac every season.

“Whales are fascinating because they symbolise the spirit of freedom and they arouse our instinct to protect,” believes Andree Laurence, who works in Saguenay National Park.

A little further to the north-east along the coast in Portneuf-sur-Mer, marine biologist Dany Zbinden has established the Mericscope Research Centre which researches communication among whales.

“Whales can speak to each other over hundreds of kilometres,” says the Swiss scientist. “That explains why whales are very sensitive to noise.”

Close to the town of Trois-Pistoles, a tiny boat and a handful of people are on an afternoon excursion to Ile aux Basques.

This idyllic island is considered an insider’s tip. “In the sixteenth century, Basque whalers processed their catch here,” says Jean-Pierre Rioux, who is guiding the group over the uninhabited island.

A few kilometres further along is the peninsula of Ile Verte. “We’re highly dependent on the strong tides,” explains the captain of the tiny ferryboat “La Richardiere” which ferries 10,000 people to the green island every year.

More nostalgic people head straight to the lighthouse. “At almost 200 years old, it’s the oldest lighthouse in Quebec,” explains Gerald Dionne, 34, proudly. He is the curator of this historic place where guests can stay overnight.

The journey continues from the peaceful green island along Highway 20 back towards Quebec City. After about 236 kilometres, a huge bridge traverses the waters of the St. Lawrence river.

This is the place where according to folklore one whale came so far up river it could be spotted from the city.