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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 salt water 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 4 days traveling along the St. Lawrence I managed to spot dolphins, a harbor seal, an acrobatic porpoise, minke whales, and yes, lots of belugas.
Whale Spotting 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, 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. Quebec Maritime tourism recommends Croisières 2001, and Croisières AML to those looking for that classic whale watching experience.
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
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 nice 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. 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.
After paddling against a fierce wind which eventually led to an early end to the day’s kayaking trips, we never did end up seeing whales. There were just too many white caps and waves for us to get a good look. We did, however, enjoy a wind and current propelled trip back to the shore- no paddling required. I felt like a big kayaking cheater but Mother Nature seemed to be offering up a consolation prize and who am I to say no to a free ride from Mother Nature.
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. Cheeky porpoise indeed! Then, as we sat and at lunch on a picnic bench overlooking the St. Lawrence, we spotted a couple minke whales just offshore. We may not have seen whales while out on the water but they were sure to give us a show before we left Mer et Monde Ecotours.
Mer et Monde Ecotours
Minimum age: 7 years old
Length of activity: 4 hours
Dates and times: May through October. 8:00AM, 12:00 PM, and 4:00PM departures
Cost: $59 for adults, $45 for children (prices in Canadian dollars) Onsite camping available.
Whale Spotting by Land
One of the most amazing things about whale watching 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 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, 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.
Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre
Open mid-May to mid-October, hours vary.
Costs: Adults $12, Kids (17 and under) are FREE!!!!
Where to Stay
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. A friendly (and English speaking) French family purchased this patch of forest along the Saguenay fjord where they built the treetop cabins-which sit 16feet off the ground and offer a lovely view of the fjord- with their own hands. They blend seamlessly into their surroundings and focus on eco-friendliness without compromising comfort. Breakfast is included with your room, is hand delivered by the owners in adorable rustic containers, and is REALLY good.
High Season Rates (May 15th to October 15th): $160 /night for 2 people in a cottage with 1 double bed and 2 twins. $30 per extra person. Breakfast included.
Low Season Rates (October 16th to May 14th): $130/night for 2 people in a cottage with 1 double bed and 2 twins. $30 per extra person. Breakfast included.
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. I had an unusual discovery at Le Rialto, the property’s Italian restaurant. After noticing that almost every dish on the menu was served with a white sauce, I mentioned it to my native Quebec hosts. They reminded me that I was at an Italian restaurant, probably wondering why I would make such an obvious observation. I explained to them that in the USA, most Italian restaurants serve a majority of red sauce based dishes and we all agreed that it was interesting to see how different countries interpreted Italian cuisine. Nevertheless, my meal was wonderful, white sauce and all!
Disclosure: I visited the Québec Maritime region while on a guided press trip hosted by Québec Tourism. The Quebecer hospitality was incredible but all opinions are my own.