Whales!

August 13th to 16th, 2022

Because we have fallen behind on the blog, I’ve had several people ask if we were able to see any whales while we were in the St. Lawrence – pic or it didn’t happen, right? But rest assured – we saw LOTS of whales in Tadoussac!

Watching whales from your own boat is one of the major highlights of sailing. One breaching humpback can do wonders for even the crappiest of sailing days – especially when they show up just as you are heading into an anchorage, exhausted and starving from a long day on the water. We were fortunate enough to see lots of whales on the West Coast last summer, and I had been counting the days until we would reach Tadoussac, home to one of Canada’s Beluga Whale populations. I had only ever seen belugas in the Vancouver Aquarium, so I was eager to see them in the wild! (The Great Lakes are beautiful, sure, but they are seriously lacking in aquatic life!)

Our first glimpse of whales was only a few miles outside of Cap-√†-l’Aigle. The day was calm with almost no wind, so we had to motor for most of the day. We had also left practically at dawn, in order to time our arrival at Tadoussac with favourable tides. The almost glassy-smooth water made spotting whales much easier, especially at long distances. I spent a lot of the day looking through binoculars, and trying to capture the whales with the zoom lens (not an easy feat with fast-moving whales and a rocky boat!). We all love the idea of whales popping up within metres of the boat, but the reality is that we usually see whales from several miles off, so they seem more like moving blobs than actual whales. I’m including more of that kind of photo this time, since its a better reflection of our whale watching experiences.

The first whale we saw was actually a Minke whale (I think!). He popped up in the middle of the river, but didn’t stick around for long. After that, we started seeing the belugas: with the blue sky and calm water, their white and light grey backs were easier to spot from a distance. The grey belugas are the youngest ones – they are born dark grey, and become white at 7 or 8 years of age.

Tadoussac is located where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence River. The currents flowing in and out of the Saguenay can be very strong, so we needed to time our arrival to coincide with slack water and the beginning of the flood current into the Saguenay. As we approached the Prince Shoal Light and turned toward Tadoussac, it seemed as if all of the belugas decided to head up the river with the tide (it’s likely they were just following their prey!). There were probably about 25 or so belugas, travelling along in groups of 4 or 5 – we were going far slower than they were, but it was amazing to see them streaming by!

We motored into the Tadoussac harbour and picked up one of the marina’s mooring ball. It isn’t recommended to anchor here, since the tides rise and fall more than 4 metres over the course of the day and the nearby beach shallows out quickly. The mooring balls are easier (and cheaper!) than docking, but still give us access to the marina’s facilities – it just means you have to take your own dingy to the docks. The timing of the tides meant that we arrived in Tadoussac just after mid-day. We went ashore for a quick lunch, and then visited their fantastic Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre. The whale lectures were all done in French, so it was a great test of my comprehension ability! The result? I failed to understand most of the spoken lecture, but had better luck with the written signs and the ‘English’ setting on some of the interactive exhibits. Mike was fine with it all. Of course. ūüėČ

The following morning, we had to wait for the flood tide before we could journey up the Saguenay. As we lingered in the cockpit over coffee, a minke whale swam into the harbour in search of food. There’s nothing quite like sitting in your ‘sunroom’ watching a whale go by!

About 15 miles up the Saguenay is Baie Sainte-Marguerite, a known birthing and nursing ground for the belugas. Boats of all kinds are restricted from entering the bay throughout the summer. We sailed past the bay, but didn’t see too many belugas – I suspect that they were all back out in the St. Lawrence, where we’d seen them the day before. We were lucky enough to encounter a few minke whales as we sailed alongl they were mostly fishing in the areas where the river narrowed and the current picked up speed – which made for fun adventures trying to keep out of their way!

Our stop that night was Baie √Čternit√© – about 22 nautical miles up the river. There are tall mountains on either side of the bay – Cap √Čternit√© and Cap Trinit√©. Our cruising guide said that there were mooring balls in this bay, but it turns out that they were recently removed by the Park since they couldn’t stop them from slipping in bad weather. We were the only boat in the bay, so we were able to find one of the few spots in the area shallow enough to anchor on (a mere 13m deep – probably near were the balls used to be), but far enough off shore to be safe from running aground. We watched the surrounding hills go red as the sun set, and settled in for the night.

We were up early the next morning to go ashore and hike to the top of Cap Trinit√©. It is a 7km round trip, with about 450m of elevation gain. At the highest point of the trail is a refuge hut with a big kitchen area and a few wooden stoves and picnic tables. You can apparently stay overnight here, but you would want to bring your own mattress to sleep on. They also had some very cool armchairs which almost looked like leather in the shadowed interior – but it turns out they were very creatively carved out of a section of tree trunk. If anyone is inspired to make one, I’d love a pair of them on my future front porch!

From the hut, you go downhill a bit to the statue of Notre Dame de Saguenay. Created in 1881, it is made of wood wrapped in lead panels; it stands 9m tall, and sits 180m above the river. When they brought the statue to Cap Trinit√©, they realized that the only way to get it up the hill would be to cut the statue into 14 pieces – each weighing about 250kg – and carry them up one by one. I had enough trouble taking myself up that hill – I can’t imagine having to do it with pieces of a statue on your back! The statue was funded by a travelling salesman who fell through the ice while travelling up the river one winter. He survived the near-drowning and a subsequent illness, and believed that it was prayers to Mary that helped him survive. He commissioned the statue as a thank-you for keeping him alive. In the 1900s, when tour boats would bring wealthy travellers up and down the Saguenay, the crew would shine a spotlight on the statue as they went by in the evenings, playing Ave Maria in the background.

After a good night’s sleep, we worked our way back to Tadoussac – not much wind, so we motored most of the way. This time there were lots of belugas in Baie Sainte-Marguerite, and with the tide out you could see many people on the beach enjoying the show. We saw a few minkes as well – with all the whales swimming about, we had to pay close attention to keep out of their way. We picked up another mooring ball when we arrived in Tadoussac and then dinghied into town for a final visit before leaving the next morning. Tadoussac is such a great little town – its well worth a visit, and there are numerous whale watching tours to take you out to see the belugas!