Whale watching in the St. Lawrence River? Thanks to the St. Lawrence River’s direct line to the Atlantic Ocean, Maritime Quebec and the St. Lawrence River are home to unique marine life, including beluga whales.
They move in pods, appearing at the surface suddenly like smiling ghosts of the sea. Most live in the Arctic waters occupying the upper reaches of the globe, making a trek to see the beluga whale both logistically difficult and cost-prohibitive for the average family.
Luckily, thanks to the glaciers which dominated the North American continent 20,000 years ago, approximately 1000 belugas live in the St. Lawrence River near the village of Tadoussac and the Saguenay Fjord in Québec, making a trip to see the belugas a reality for thousands of families every year.
I know what you must be thinking- don’t whales need to be in saltwater to live? They do, but the St. Lawrence is an estuary in this part of Québec and the waters are quite salty.
Several different aquatic mammals, from harp seals to blue whales- the largest animals on the planet- call the St. Lawrence home because its chilly waters are ripe with fish, shellfish, and plenty of krill.
During my four days traveling along the St. Lawrence I managed to spot dolphins, a harbor seal, an acrobatic porpoise, minke whales, and yes, lots of belugas.
Quebec City is a great home base for exploring this region. Here are 20 amazing things to do in Quebec City with kids.
Whale Watching in the St. Lawrence River By Boat
There are several different boats which will get out on the mighty St. Lawrence. The most traditional would be taking a whale-watching excursion onboard a zodiac or whale-watching boat. Some are even completely enclosed and heated which is ideal for not-so-ideal weather.
There are several different operators which take passengers out onto the protected waters of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park where beluga whales, minke whales, and fin whales are regularly spotted.
Blue whales, humpbacks, porpoises, right whales, pilot whales, three species of dolphin, killer whales, and sperm whales are also occasionally spotted in these waters.
If you are looking to cross from the St. Lawrence’s south to north shore (or vice versa) consider taking the Rivière-du-Loup – Saint-Siméon Ferry. This car ferry offers a practical mode of transportation as well as a great vantage point to see whales.
We saw several belugas coming up for air in between feeds in the frigid St. Lawrence waters during our 65-minute crossing. If the weather isn’t ideal for whale spotting, a children’s play area onboard will keep your little ones occupied.
Sticking to the north shore your entire route? You can still enjoy a ferry ride free of charge. Instead of building a bridge to cross the water way cutting into Saguenay Fjord, Quebec operates a car ferry which allows drivers to catch lovely views of the fjord’s entrance and yes, even whales, during this short 15-minute crossing.
Whale Spotting by Kayak with Mer et Monde Ecotours
Sea kayaking is quickly becoming one of my family’s favorite ways to enjoy the ocean. Sea kayaking in Quebec, however, is much different than kayaking in California or Hawaii.
For one thing, the water is freezing, but a well prepared kayaker will barely notice the temperature (you can trust me, I am a cold weather wimp). A warm, full body wet suit will go on over bathing suit, followed by a fleece (not mandatory but I recommend it), water jacket, and neoprene booties. Throw a knit cap on top of your head (you provide this) and you will be ready to hit the water.
Kayakers sit deep inside the kayak with a neoprene water shield covering the opening to the kayak, making you snug as a bug in a rug. If you hit the tides right, you will have the chance to paddle around in a little bay and spot a waterfall before heading out onto the river.
Mer et Monde Ecotours offers a variety of sea kayaking trips near the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord on the St. Lawrence River. Children as young as seven can participate in half day excursions that last about four hours.
If you have luck like we did, the tide will be draining water out of the bay faster than you can paddle and suddenly you will feel like you are paddling in an emptying tide pool instead of a coastal waterway! Luckily our experience led to lots of laughs and a very cool opportunity to see all that life on the bay’s bottoms.
While in the river, minke whales, beluga whales, and porrpoises are commonly spotted. Of course, you are subject to Mother Nature’s whims.
After kayaking, we were carrying our gear back up from the docks when I turned around and saw a porpoise jump right out of the water exactly where we had been paddling.
Then, as we sat and at lunch on a picnic bench overlooking the St. Lawrence, we spotted a couple minke whales just offshore, so be sure to stick around a bit after you paddle.
Whale Watching in the St. Lawrence River By Land
One of the most amazing things about beluga whale watching in the St. Lawrence River in Québec is that you can keep your feet firmly planted on land and still see plenty of aquatic life. We even saw whales from our car!
Simply find a good waterfront vantage point anywhere near Tadoussac or Rivière-du-Loup and keep your eyes peeled.
Our group spotted whales from the shore just before entering the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre in Tadoussac. It was as if the whales were welcoming us to learn more about their biology and efforts to protect them.
The Centre is a non-profit with a nice video presentation, an impressive skeletal collection, and educational exhibits about marine mammals. While the exhibits are in French, a free and easy-to-use English guide can be picked up from the front desk and English-speaking docents are happy to answer questions.
The Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre is open from mid-May through mid-October. Adult admission is $15 but children 17 and under can visit for free!
Where to Stay Close to Whale Watching in the St. Lawrence River
Canopée-Lit – I fell in love with the rustic, charming, eco-friendly, and simply beautiful little forest cabins of Canopée-Lit, just 20 minutes outside of Tadoussac.
The property features four-season cabins, summer cabins and bubbles which are completely spherical and transparent rooms perched on 18-foot stilts. Breakfast is included with your stay and is hand-delivered by the owners in adorable rustic containers. The breakfast is absolutely delicious.
Hôtel Universel – On the southern side of the river, the city of Rivière-du-Loup has many traditional lodging options including, Hôtel Universel.
This 170-room hotel features comfortable and spacious rooms, a pool, free wifi, and two restaurants. The highlight of the hotel is the outdoor nordic spa that provides a spa to relax and truly enjoy your surroundings.
Disclosure: I visited the Québec Maritime region and experienced whale watching in the St. Lawrence River while on a guided press trip hosted by Québec Tourism. The Quebecer hospitality was incredible but all opinions are my own.