The Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park is a maritime wildlife refuge three hours to the northeast of Québec City. 1200 square kilometers large, it harbors and protects the flora and fauna of the salty St. Lawrence River estuary. Among the marine species abundant there are half a dozen different types of whale that summer in the deep cold waters near Tadoussac.
Tourists, too, migrate there every summer to get a glimpse of these majestic creatures in their native habitat. Dressed in brightly colored and bulky high-performance water gear, they climb aboard agile Zodiac boats to get close – but not too close – to the marine mammals below. The outfitters that organize the trips provide not only the necessary equipment for the adventure, but also the information invaluable for understanding what the enthusiasts are seeing.
I was there several weeks ago with Les Écumeurs du Saint-Laurent. The Saturday afternoon my group had chosen was overcast and dramatic: the low clouds, the bursts of rain, and the distant lightning only added to our anticipation. Our guide, Cyril, charmed us with his expertise and good humor, reminding us that we were entering not a petting zoo, but rather a water wilderness that carried no guarantee of ready access to the whales.
But Cyril did not disappoint. He guided us to a spot just off Grandes Bergeronnes where we observed almost a dozen Minke whales as they came up for air on the choppy surface of the estuary. These whales – known as petits rorquals in French – are plenty big as far as I am concerned. Up to nine meters long, they are much bigger than the boat we were in. We learned to identify the particular arching movement that signals when the whale is diving deep. As an added bonus, we passed a lone gray seal going the other direction as we headed back to the dock. What a thrill!