If you choose a whale watching cruise

Un des avantages d’embarquer pour une croisière aux baleines, c’est l’apport des capitaines, guides et naturalistes expérimentés. On the boats, experienced naturalists are an excellent source of information on the species encountered during a trip. They also get you involved in the process of finding whales. However, whether you are in a kayak, sailboat, Zodiac or another vessel, it can be stressful for the cetaceans. A company that is mindful of the animals’ welfare and believes in respectful wildlife watching will reduce its vessel’s speed and follow regulations in the presence of whales.

Tip: If you are hoping to watch belugas, watch them from the shore, as it is illegal to approach them on the water. As for blue whales: a distance of 400 meters needs to be maintained between a boat and a blue whale.

Whale watching trips are offered on various types of vessels. Here are some questions you could ask to help you decide.

  • Ask if it will be a guided tour. Will there be a naturalist onboard the boat? If so, what kind of training will he or she have? How many naturalists will there be? What is the maximum capacity of the boat?
  • Will the naturalists’ content be diverse? Will they take time to show their passengers other marine life, including seals and seabirds? Will they tell you the history and geography of the areas you visit, and how that correlates to the presence of marine wildlife?
  • All vessels, big or small — including kayaks — must abide by the same rules around marine mammals. Canada has specific federal regulations that have to be followed around marine mammals. In addition, more regulations apply in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. To learn more about rules for the, click here.
  • Your experience can vary greatly depending on the size of the vessel. A smaller boat, such as a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB), allows you to be closer to the surface of the water whereas larger vessels tend to be more stable. Larger vessels often have covered areas for you to stay warm on colder days and they allow you to safely use your camera throughout the trip. Small RHIBs are ideal for thrill-seekers and those who like to be exposed to the elements. Don’t forget to ask about their on board marine heads or washrooms.
  • Bigger boats can take more passengers, and in that way, they reduce the numbers of boats out there.
  • Some companies operating in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park are members of the Eco-Whale Alliance. This alliance consists of companies that follow practices that go above and beyond applicable laws and regulations. The Additionally, they support marine mammal research and education.
  • Research groups such as Meriscope or the Mingan Islands Cetaceans Studies offer research internships lasting several days at sea. It is an opportunity to combine observation and learning, in addition to providing financial support for scientific research on whales.

Don’t ruin your whale watching experience by not dressing appropriately for the weather. Remember, it is always colder on the water than on land. Here is a basic list of things you should take along with you:

  • Caution: the St. Lawrence stays cold throughout the summer even if it is a hot day on the land. Because of this, the air column directly above the surface of the water also stays cold throughout the year.
  • The best way to dress for a day on the water is to dress in layers. Keep in mind that when needed, you can only add more layers if you have them.
  • Sunscreen (yes, even on a cloudy day!)
  • A hat…one that will not fall into the water.
  • Polarized sunglasses are crucial on the water. They help reduce glare and protect your eyes.
  • Binoculars
  • Camera (protected from moisture)
  • Take seasickness medication beforehand, especially if you are prone to it. The medication does not work once you are already seasick.
  • Gloves
  • Long pants
  • Close-toed shoes
  • Snacks (check to see if the company permits them onboard)
  • A water-bottle

Note: Do not litter or throw anything in the water, including food scraps.

No two whale watching experiences are the same; what you see one day might not be there the next day. Even if you spot the same species of cetaceans on two different days, they will likely behave differently. Just like us, whales have unique behaviours and personalities, making this activity even more fun and unpredictable.

What you shouldn’t expect is what is shown on television broadcasts or online about whales. Those are often results of hundreds or even thousands of hours of filming. Here on the St. Lawrence, you will most likely encounter at least one marine mammal. How many more will there be? How far will they be? It all varies. Vessels have regulations to follow; whales do not. Most often, a vessel spots the whale from a distance, slows down and stops according to the distance regulations. The whales generally take several breaths at the surface before going down on a deeper dive when they can stay underwater for long periods of time. The surface and dive behaviours vary from species to species.

Your trip will be a more enriching experience 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 yourselves with the similarities and differences between species, and to learn more about the ecosystems they live in. To learn about the 13 species of whales found in the St. Lawrence, click here

Lastly, an excursion out on the St. Lawrence is always a special experience, especially if you have a craving for adventure.

Aboard your watercraft

If you are relatively familiar with the currents and tides to operate your own boat in the challenging conditions of the Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, you may have the chance to observe marine mammals during navigation or even when docked! In Canada, there are regulations for navigating watercraft in the presence of whales. The training course “Navigating through Whale Habitat” aims to provide the knowledge and tools necessary to navigate the St. Lawrence while respecting the whales that live there and applicable regulations. Free of charge and accessible both on your mobile and on your computer, the training takes just 30 minutes to complete. To begin, the user selects the boat he or she operates most often in order to personalize the training: kayak, sailboat or motorboat. The interactive program allows the user to test his or her knowledge between each of the four modules.

The first module describes the potential impacts of pleasure boating on whales. Then follows an in-depth explanation of the rules and case scenarios in order to learn how to apply them. Since certain articles of the regulation relate to specific species, another module provides tips for identifying whale species. A fourth module serves as a bonus to improve your knowledge of these fascinating animals. A final quiz allows you to test your knowledge.

The Marine Mammal Observation Network, the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada collaborated in this training, which will be available in spring 2020. To be stay informed of the upcoming launch, subscribe to our newsletter.

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