Another season is underway, and here I am once again with field notes that you will find posted on this site periodically. In a few days from now, I’ll be back on the water as a guide/interpreter on board a whale-watching boat. In the meantime, I pace the shoreline, gazing out to sea.

Every spring in the Haute-Côte-Nord region, there’s a renewed sense of excitement and restlessness. What’s the cause of this “buzz” amongst marine mammal enthusiasts? Quite simply, it’s when whales return to the Lower Estuary en masse, after months spent in distant seas.

So here I am almost daily on the rocks of Cap de Bon-Désir, near the village of Les Bergeronnes, scanning for these arrivals. It was on April 7 that I felt my first dose of adrenaline with my first-of-year minke whale! What a thrill to hear its breath and see it at the surface before it took another dive. After almost 5 months without being able to observe this species, the first minke whale of the season always looks so big!

The days that follow, everything is still rather quiet, with not many other new arrivals. Quiet for marine mammals that is, because if we talk about seabirds, it’s been crazy! Every day, every hour, I notice the arrival of so many sea ducks:common eiders, scoters, mergansers, etc. Long-tailed ducks, a species that winters here, are everywhere. Elegant brant are also present and will spend some time with us before returning to their nesting territories farther north. Farther offshore, migrating red-throated loons stream past.

Razorbills, common murres and black guillemots are all beginning to arrive. Farther offshore, gannets alternatingly hover and follow the few fishing boats operating in the area. And then I have the chance to observe some rarer migratory birds like the striking harlequin duck.

On April 23, far offshore, I spot my very first fin whale of 2023. No photos this time, but with my binoculars I observe its characteristic ridge and can confirm the ID. The next day, April 24, the scenario repeats itself: a “large” fin whale (the same one?), again far off Cap de Bon-Désir.

April 27 is completely calm, with no wind and mild weather at the cape. Before the fog lifts, I hear a loud blast. And there it is… my first humpback whale of the year! I’m able to get a picture of its dorsal fin even if it’s moving along at a good clip. Two breaths and then it dives again without showing its tail. The same day, I saw my first harbour porpoise of the year swim by.

The next day, April 28, my second humpback of the season, this one spotted from the ferry terminal in Les Escoumins. Through my binoculars, I got a good look at its dorsal fin, which was quite different from that of the individual I had observed the day before. Just like that one, this second individual is also rapidly heading west and dives without lifting its tail out of the water. Again on April 28, I also noted a healthy arrival of minke whales, tallying 5 individuals in the space of a few hours.

Throughout the month of April, I was also able to observe a few groups of belugas. Is it safe to say this species has completed its return to our sector? For many individuals, yes, but I should point out that I was regularly able to observe a few individuals all winter long from the shores of Tadoussac, Les Bergeronnes or Les Escoumins. This year’s very poor ice cover no doubt explains the presence of a few belugas in the sector throughout the colder months.

But winter is well behind us now, and the new season is off to a wonderful start. Looking forward to seeing you very soon as the 2023 season gets underway on the waters of our great river.

Field Notes - 1/5/2023

Renaud Pintiaux

GREMM research assistant from 2003 to 2009 and from 2012 to 2014, Renaud Pintiaux is a passionate observer and photographer. Year round, whether from shore or on the water, he takes every opportunity to observe marine mammals and birds in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park.

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