Whale-watching tips

An encounter with the whales of the St. Lawrence is an unforgettable experience. Here are a few tips to get the very most out of your adventure.

  • When is the best time to go?
  • What type of boat should I choose?
  • What should I take?
  • What should I expect?
  • How can I spot them?
  • How do I take good photos?
  • What factors can influence the presence of whales and observations?
  • What about winter?

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 the same day.

  • Subscribe to the Whales On Line newsletter, which contains a synopsis of the observations of the week.
  • If you are passing through Tadoussac, come and meet the naturalists at the CIMM and enquire about the most recent whale-related news.
  • Some companies offer offshore excursions from May through October. In peak season (late June to early September), there are several departures throughout 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.
  • From shore, the presence of whales cannot be guaranteed. To increase your chances of seeing any, you’ll need to be patient!

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 received?
  • Is the content of the cruise diversified? For example, do they take the time to observe seals, birds, lighthouses, or other elements of historical heritage?
  • All boats, no matter how big or small, are required to abide by the same rules when approaching whales. The experience can be different whether you’re on a small boat vs. a large boat. The choice is yours!
  • Some companies operating in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park are members of the Eco-Whale Alliance. As such, they undertake to improve their practices to go beyond applicable laws and regulations.

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.

What should I expect?

Each excursion is an unpredictable experience, just like any visit to an 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, it is nearly certain that you will 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.

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 in the course of your travels.

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 the spouts of whales. 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 during their dives.

How can I identify 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 all around! 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 into the air before your eyes? Remind yourself that humpback whales and minke whales especially perform full breaches out of the water.

To identify them:  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 will go home with some wonderful memories!
  • On shore, don’t venture 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 influence 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 the backs of 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 attentively. You might hear whale blows or bird calls amplified by the humid air. An extraordinary experience!
When seas are rough, more adventurous observers will go to 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 of tides. Tides also influence the whereabouts of the whales’ prey. Whales will thus be found wherever their prey are concentrated.

Capelin spawning

Capelin is the 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, that means that they have come to spawn on the beaches and that they are rolling in by the thousands. It is therefore a prime time for observing whales, which draw quite close to the shores to feed.

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 approximately from May to November. Thus, opportunities for observing marine mammals in the region in winter are rather limited.

However, the beluga resides in the St. Lawrence year round, especially in the Estuary below 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.