Whale-watching tips

An encounter with the whales of the St. Lawrence is an impressive and unforgettable experience. The river is a fantastic area for watching them, both from shore and on the water. “We protect what we love, we love what we know.”: a whale-watching cruise can raise participants’ awareness and inspire them to act for the sake of conservation. However, if best practices are not observed, a whale-watching trip can be a source of stress for cetaceans.

Here are a few tips to get the most out of your whale-watching experience, while doing so in a responsible manner.

 

When is the best time to go?

The answer might lie…in a crystal ball! Observations vary from one year to the next, and even in the course of a single day. Generally, rorquals are present from May to October, sometimes earlier, sometimes later. Occasionally, they are even seen in winter. Ultimately, it is impossible to predict when and where cetaceans will appear. Here are a few tools that can help, however.

  • Subscribe to the Whales Online newsletter or its Facebook page (only in French for now). Observations are posted on these sites on a weekly basis.
  • If you are passing through Tadoussac, come chat with the naturalists at the CIMM and enquire about the latest whale-related news. They will be able to tell you where and when whales have most recently been seen.
  • Some companies offer offshore excursions from May through October. During the peak season (late June to early September), departures take place at various times of the day. In the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park region, the most popular cruises are those that depart at mid-day.
  • The months of September and October are a nice time of year, with whales generally being numerous and quite active.

    A Minke Whale Breaching © Renaud Pintiaux

  • The presence of whales cannot be guaranteed. To increase your chances of seeing any, you’ll need to be patient! And take advantage of the landscapes, the seals, the birds, the wildlife along the coastline… The St. Lawrence is teeming with life.

By land or by sea?

The Côte-Nord region offers a number of places where whales can be observed directly from shore. The rapid drop-off in the seabed allows whales to stay quite close to the coast, which contributes to the attractiveness of this region for whale-watching. Viewing whales from land spares the animals stress. And, it’s a great way to combine multiple activities: hiking and whale-watching, reading and whale-watching, picnicking and whale-watching… The observation map can be used to identify the most promising lookouts.

At sea, whale-watching becomes an activity in itself. The presence of a naturalist on board the boat is a source of relevant information on the different species that are encountered. However, whether you’re in a kayak, a sailboat, a Zodiac or a cruise ship, the activity can be stressful for cetaceans. A company that is mindful of the animals’ welfare will reduce its speed whenever there are whales within view and maintain a respectful distance.

To observe belugas, it is best to do so from land, as it is against the law to approach belugas in a watercraft.

What type of boat should I choose?

Whale-watching cruises are offered on different types of boats. Which one should I choose? Big or small? Which company? It’s important to “shop around”.

  • Ask about the interpreting service offered on board. Will there be a naturalist on board? What kind of training will he or she have?
  • Is the content of the cruise diversified? For example, do they take the time to observe seals, birds, lighthouses, or other historical heritage elements?
  • All boats, no matter how big or small, are required to abide by the same rules when approaching whales. In Canada, and especially in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, whale-watching cruises are subject to specific rules and regulations.
  • The experience can vary depending on the the size of the vessel. The choice is yours! A smaller boat gives the impression that you are closer to the water, whereas a larger vessel will be more stable and may be more conducive to photo-taking.
  • Some companies operating in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park are members of the Eco-Whale Alliance. They have undertaken to implement practices that go above and beyond applicable laws and regulations and to support marine mammal research and education.

What should I take?

  • Dress for the season. Caution: even in summer, the waters of the St. Lawrence are quite cold and can cool the ambient air considerably.
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses
  • Binoculars
  • Camera (protected from moisture)
  • On shore: protection from biting insects is recommended in June and July.
  • On the water: if you’ve never been out on the water before, be prepared to take measures to prevent seasickness.
  • Do not litter or throw anything into the water, including food scraps.

What should I expect?

Each excursion is an unpredictable experience, just like any visit to a land-based observation site.

One should not expect to see what they show on television broadcasts, which often require hundreds or even thousands of hours of filming.
On the St. Lawrence, you will almost certainly encounter at least one marine mammal. How many will you see? Will they be quite close or far away? It depends on the animals, the captains, and the distances to maintain. If the captain of the boat or the kayak guide gives you an instruction, obey it. They are trained to offer a safe experience for you and the animals alike.

Whatever happens, an excursion out onto the St. Lawrence is a special experience, especially when you have a craving for adventure!

Your trip will be more enriching if you have some basic knowledge about whales and the region that you are visiting. Take the time to visit different museums and interpretation centres during your trip in order to better familiarize yourself with the similarities and differences between species and learn more about the ecosystem in which they live.

How can I spot them?

First, scan the water with your naked eye or your binoculars, ideally in teams of two, i.e. one person patrolling with their eyes and the other with their binoculars; try to spot large white columns over the water: these are whale spouts. They sometime resemble an “explosion of water” above the horizon. Once you’ve caught sight of the spout, continue to scan the water surface, as you might spot the back of a large whale. You’ll have the chance to see them several times before they dive for a few minutes. Stay alert: whales must always resurface to breath, though they can cover considerable distances in a single dive.

How can I recognize them?

How do I know what species I’m looking at? As a general rule, dark backs with a triangular-shaped fin are rorquals, small and fast-swimming grayish whales with diffuse spouts are porpoises or dolphins, and small gleaming white spots that appear and disappear just as quickly are belugas. If the white spots take flight, they are gulls and, be careful, breaking waves can create the illusion that there are belugas everywhere! If you see a diagonal blow followed by a brownish back lacking a prominent dorsal fin, it’s surely a sperm whale, the largest of the toothed whales. Is a whale leaping out of the water right in front of you? Remember that humpback and minke whales in particular perform full breaches.

For more identification tips: How can I recognize them?

How do I take good photos?

Photographing whales is no easy task!

  • Familiarize yourself with whale behaviour. How many of them are there? How often do they surface? In what direction are they travelling?
  • Concentrate on just one individual as it travels near the surface This will make it easier to frame the animal and bring it into focus.
  • On the boat, enjoy the cruise: even if you botch a few photos, you’ll go home with some wonderful memories!
  • A larger vessel will also generally be more stable than a Zodiac.
  • On shore, refrain from venturing too close to the water and beware especially of exposed boulders at low tide which can be quite slick: your experience might prove to be more “moving” than you anticipated!
  • Properly protect your camera from salt water and sand.
  • Don’t get discouraged: the photos you see in books and on postcards are often the result of thousands of hours at sea with the whales!

What factors can influence the presence of whales and observations?

Weather

The temperature, wind and sun have little influence on whale behaviour. No matter the conditions, whales need to surface to breath. However, these same conditions can have a great impact on our ability to spot them! 
Ideal conditions are a calm day with no wind so that white waves are not mistaken for the backs of belugas, a sun which is not blinding (sunrise is a good time to discern spouts, but difficult for perceiving belugas), clear skies and no fog. Indeed, a heavy blanket of fog will probably render whale-watching quite difficult. Nevertheless, it is worth stopping at a site and listening carefully. You might hear whale blows or bird calls amplified by the humid air. An extraordinary experience!
 When seas are rough, more adventurous observers will visit onshore observation sites and, with a bit of luck, will be able to view whales surface with exceptional dynamism, practically surfing on the waves.

Tide

Whales often use marine currents to travel; such currents are influenced by the tides. For example, at the mouth of the Saguenay, the movements of belugas are often coordinated with the changing tides. Tides also influence the whereabouts of the whales’ prey. Whales will thus be found wherever their prey are concentrated.

Capelin spawning

Capelin is a favourite prey of several species of whales such as the minke whale, the fin whale and the beluga. When they say “the capelin are rolling” in a region, this means that they have come to spawn on the beaches and that they are rolling in by the thousands. This is therefore a prime time for observing whales, which feed quite close to the shores during such periods.

© Renaud Pintiaux

What about winter?

The overwhelming majority of whale species that patronize the St. Lawrence are migratory, which means that they can be observed in our waters roughly from May to November. Opportunities for observing marine mammals in the region in winter are therefore rather limited.

However, belugas reside in the St. Lawrence year round, especially in the Estuary beyond Les Escoumins and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. By spotting ice-free areas, it is not impossible to see large spouts, even in the coldest months: some blue whales frequent our waters nearly all year long. One might also observe the harp seal, a winter visitor to the St. Lawrence (December through May), as well as the harbour seal, which is a year round resident.

 

Last updated: May 2017