Whale watching trip in Quebec a humbling experience

Posted July 10, 2010, at 12:54 a.m.
A fin whale prepares to dive in front of a boatload of whale watchers near Tadoussac, Quebec. reaching 150,000- pounds, fin whales are second in size only to the mighty blue whales who are also spotted in the area. (photo by Julia Bayly)
A fin whale prepares to dive in front of a boatload of whale watchers near Tadoussac, Quebec. reaching 150,000- pounds, fin whales are second in size only to the mighty blue whales who are also spotted in the area. (photo by Julia Bayly)
The distinctive profile of a Minke whale gently breaks the surface of the St. Lawrence Seaway. (photo by Julia Bayly)
The distinctive profile of a Minke whale gently breaks the surface of the St. Lawrence Seaway. (photo by Julia Bayly)
A beluga whale gives a wave of its tail before diving near Tadoussac, Quebec. Easily spotted thanks to their distinctive white coloring, the 15-foot whales are a fairly common sight in the St. Lawrene Seaway. (photo by Julia Bayly)
A beluga whale gives a wave of its tail before diving near Tadoussac, Quebec. Easily spotted thanks to their distinctive white coloring, the 15-foot whales are a fairly common sight in the St. Lawrene Seaway. (photo by Julia Bayly)

TADOUSSAC, Quebec — There aren’t many people who can pull off looking good in a deep-water survival suit and I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit I’m not one of them.

Rather, the bulky one-piece inflatable suit made me look and feel like a cross between the Michelin Tire Man and Gumby.

Add into the equation it was past the summer solstice yet I was wearing two layers of my winter mushing gear under the suit and you may begin to get the picture.

But I was on a hunt that would take me from the balmy shores of Quebec’s North Shore out to the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway with only the fragile hull of a Zodiac between frigid waters and me.

Okay, so the Zodiac’s hull was in fact quite substantial but the air and water out in the sea lane were darn cold, which makes it the perfect summer feeding grounds for the 13 species of whales who call the area home.

It was in quest of those whales that a dozen of us piled into the zodiacs operated by Croisieres Groupe Dufour (www.quebecmaritime.ca/croisieresdufour) and sped out of Tadoussac Harbor on one of its regular whale watching charters.

The day of our trip it was flat calm out on the St. Lawrence as we all shielded our eyes from the sun’s glare and kept a sharp lookout for the telltale signs of the whales feeding in the cold waters.

It was pretty hard not to feel just a tad Captain Ahab-esque and harder still not to shout out, “Thar she blows” when the first minke whale of the day made its appearance, almost on cue, and a dozen of us raised and aimed — not harpoons — but cameras.

Now, whales are big but they are totally silent, so when one pops up a mere 20 or so feet from the zodiac, it’s an attention-grabber.

Minkes are the smallest of the North American baleen whales, reaching around 35 feet in length and weighing in around 20,000-pounds.

Our minkes that day were in heavy feeding mode as they surfaced and rolled in the waters, gulping in gallons of water, which they then force back out through the baleen at the front of their mouths to filter out the tiny plankton and other organisms that make up their diet.

Soon there were minkes in front of us, minkes to the right and minkes to the left and let me just say they put on quite the show.

After about 45 minutes the whales must have decided they’d had enough of entertaining a boatload of tourists and dove deep, not be seen by us again that morning.

So we headed farther out into the seaway after our captain got a radio report of a sighting of a fin whale.

It was all eyes front when we spotted the 30-foot geyser of a waterspout shot out of the fin’s blowhole.

Moments later the massive animal — second in size only to the blue whale, making it the second-largest animal on the planet — surfaced and slid gracefully just above the water for several seconds.

Fin whales grow to between 60 and 70 feet and can reach weights of 150,000 pounds.

It was a humbling thought to realize we were seeing only a small portion of this animal and imagined what it must look like gliding below the surface of the water.

Like the minke, the fin is a baleen whale, feeding on small plankton and krill.

And, like the minke, this particular fin whale seemed more than happy to oblige us whale watchers as it blew, surfaced and dove multiple times before arching its back for what the guide told us was a long, deep-water dive.

After that, it was time to head back to shore and along the way we were kept company by several pods — or groups — of beluga whales.

These bleach-white, 15-foot-long toothed whales are sort of the unofficial mascots of Tadoussac and the Saguenay River and are a fairly common sight close to shore.

With its small, blunt head and wide, grinning mouth, this is a whale that perpetually looks to be in a good mood.

Back on dry land and after shedding my survival suit and mushing layers, I took a walk over to the nearby Centre d’interpretation des mammiferes marins, an interpretation center dedicated to all things whales.

Inside were interactive displays, whale models and skeletons of whales found in the Saguenay River and St. Lawrence Seaway.

The bilingual guides were happy to spend time explaining the taxonomy, behavior and research around the area’s famous marine mammals.

The center is a project of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, or GREMM (www.gremm.org).

Founded in 1985, GREMM is dedicated to the scientific research on the marine mammals of the St. Lawrence and education for marine conservation.

While the whales are arguably Tadoussac’s most famous inhabitants, they were hardly the first and it is worthwhile to take a little time to explore the village on foot.

The explorer Jacques Cartier dropped by in 1535 followed in 1599 by Pierre de Chauvin, who built the first trading post.

A small museum dedicated to those fur trade years stands near the famous red-roofed Hotel Tadoussac facing the bay — itself deemed one of the 25 worlds most beautiful.

Along with whale watching, Tadoussac and the Saguenay River Fjord offer hiking, kayaking, cycling, golf or lazy walks along the sand dunes.

Numerous cafes, restaurants, bakeries, galleries and small stores line the town’s single street, which stretches about a half-mile along the bay.

And, once I was out of the zodiac, I didn’t need a survival suit or winter gear to experience any of it.

For information on what to do and where to stay in Tadoussac go to www.tadoussac.com

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