Côte-Nord, a.k.a The Whale Route

Did you know that Quebec’s Côte-Nord (North Shore) region is one of the premier places in the world for watching whales? On the shores of the St. Lawrence, a number of sites are renowned for the quality of marine mammal observations, so much so that Route 138 has been nicknamed the “Whale Route”. This 850-kilometre stretch of road offers some of the best places to discover the St. Lawrence ecosystem.

From Tadoussac to Kegaska on the Gulf, at the end of the highway, take in the sheer enormity of it all, where fauna, rivers, forests and even the hearts of the locals are larger than life.

The Whale Route is aptly named with its 13 different species – including the blue whale, the humpback whale and the beluga – frequenting the waters of the Estuary and the Gulf, occasionally just a stone’s throw away from shore! Its currents, bathymetry, upwellings and the abundance of krill and small fish make the Estuary and the Gulf an ideal environment to support one of the greatest diversities of marine mammals on the planet!

By taking the time to observe them carefully, you will certainly see the backs, tails, and spouts of whales, not to mention the comparatively little seal heads poking above the water and staring back at you. Let yourself be lulled by its tides, breathe in the pure air, take the time to get off its beaten paths and discover the intensity of the Northcountry.

Travelling the Whale Route means taking the time to get to know the Côte-Nord region and the St. Lawrence, a universe larger than life, larger than ourselves.

Enjoy the road!

Logo route des baleines

Texts: Anne-Marie Asselin, translated by David Soares

Videos and pictures: Anne-Marie Asselin, Richard Mardens, Jean-Sébastien Létourneau

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Tadoussac, votre point de départ

At the confluence of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay, with fresh and salt water coming together at the mouth of the Fjord, Tadoussac was once a hub for gatherings and a crossroads of exchange between First Nations who have been present here for 8,000 years. After Jacques Cartier’s visit in 1535, Tadoussac became a fur trading post for the Europeans. It was in 1864 that the village built its first hotel to accommodate summer vacationers in Quebec’s favourite resort, the iconic Hôtel Tadoussac.

To this day, the spectacular Tadoussac Bay and its marine environment are a favourite destination for travellers from around the world. This place is teeming with marine life!

The village boasts a multitude of spots from which whales can be observed. “The oceanographic conditions that occur at the confluence of the Saguenay encourage the emergence of life and the concentration of species at the bottom of the food chain. The uneven underwater topography, the estuarine circulation and the regular upwelling of cold water make it a very distinctive region. It is a choice destination for migratory marine species and a suitable habitat for resident species such as the St. Laurence population of the beluga whale,” according to Parks Canada. Tadoussac is located adjacent to the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, a marine protected area that stretches from Cap-à-l’Aigle in Charlevoix to Les Escoumins in Quebec’s Haute-Côte-Nord (Upper North Shore) region, in addition to extending up the Saguenay as far as Sainte-Rose-du-Nord.

The Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park protects a marine region of exceptional animal and plant diversity: from microscopic algae to the gigantic blue whale, more than 1,800 wild species have been observed here. Feeding grounds par excellence, the Marine Park attracts at least six species of whales, not to mention seals and seabirds that travel thousands of kilometres every year to forage here. The whale-watching industry is well established here, and with good reason. Here are a few places to observe them in Tadoussac.

Pointe l’Islet 

The small footpath wrapping around this little peninsula allows you to appreciate the confluence of the Saguenay Fjord and the St. Lawrence River, a favourite hangout of belugas, minke whales and seals. Whale watching from here is complementary to a trip out to sea. Such an experience is unique in that it provides the stillness needed not only to see but also to hear the animals.

“All the senses are stimulated, like on a foggy day, you sit down at Pointe de l’Islet and you can actually hear the whales blowing. It’s a rather unique experience to actually be able to hear the mammals moving. Furthermore, sometimes one can get even closer looks at them than by boat. They often emerge near the shore, just off the rocks,” explains Parks Canada officer Laurence Pagé.

“Watching wildlife from shore also allows for a certain degree of freedom. You can show up with your blanket and lunch and spend the day with family or friends,” adds Laurence.

 

Marine Mammal Interpretation Center (CIMM)

CIMM welcomes over 35,000 visitors every summer, making it the most popular museum on the North Shore! Meet a 13-metre sperm whale, explore the whales’ universe, ask questions to professional naturalists, compare your hearing to that of St. Lawrence cetaceans and watch exclusive films. Make sure you don’t miss out on the whale song class. And, if you keep your eyes peeled, you may even have the chance to spot a beluga or a minke whale from CIMM’s doorstep!

 

Pointe Rouge

Accessible via Tadoussac’s beach at low tide or by a path that starts near the village golf course, Pointe Rouge allows you to get a closer look at seals and minke whales. The red granite rocks bring out the colour of the roof of Hôtel Tadoussac. A superb view of Baie-Sainte-Catherine, Prince Shoal Lighthouse and marine life.

 

Discover Tadoussac through the portrait of Laurence Pagé here.

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L’Anse-de-Roche: gateway to the Fjord

L’Anse-de-Roche opens out onto the Fjord, providing unique access to the Saguenay, 5 km from Route 172 in Sacré-Coeur. There you will find a beach, a large quay and a picturesque place to unwind tucked deep in the hollow between the valleys. The sunset is breathtaking as the sun dips behind the mountains. At this small port, visitors can discover not only the Saguenay in all its splendour, but also its inhabitants that cruise up and down the Fjord on a daily basis: belugas!

Not only is this a great place for kayaking, but it is also quite common to see herds of belugas here. It is forbidden to approach them, however, and if they approach your craft, don’t stop, but slowly move away! Caution is the watchword, given the precarious status of the population in the Estuary.

For all boats operating in the Marine Park, a distance of 400 metres must be maintained from endangered species (blue whales and belugas) and 200 metres for other cetaceans, according to the Marine Activities in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations Further, within a radius of 0.5 nautical miles, one must not stop if belugas are present, but rather continue one’s course without stopping and avoiding any interaction with the animals.

To observe belugas without disturbing them, the quay in L’Anse-de-Roche is perfect, as is Baie Sainte-Marguerite, the next stop on the Whale Route!

If you go out with your own watercraft, be on the constant lookout for unpredictable weather conditions in the area. “The Saguenay is a genuine funnel in which the interplay between fog, wind, waves and currents is extraordinary. Navigators using the Fjord should exercise caution,” reads an interpretation panel on the quay.

Local infrastructures offer superb views and panoramas, picnic tables, nautical activities, observation and interpretation, but above all an “extraordinary sunset”, in the words of the municipality.

“It’s such a peaceful place, nestled in the heart of the Fjord! This place creates the impression of being so far removed from everything, and the sunsets are simply epic!”, exclaims Richard, a big fan of the region.

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Baie Sainte-Marguerite: beluga playground

Carved into the mountains and opening onto the Fjord is the Baie Sainte-Marguerite sector of the Saguenay Fjord National Park, the land extension of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. Past Tadoussac on Route 138 is the intersection with Route 172; heading toward the Saguenay, the park lies 22 km beyond this crossroads.

Baie Sainte-Marguerite is used by belugas, especially as a place for socializing. It’s not uncommon to observe adults and their young here. The depth of the sandy-bottom bay is around 50 metres, compared to 135 metres in the middle of the Saguenay.

The main attraction of Baie Sainte-Marguerite in summer is undoubtedly the St. Lawrence beluga, which can be observed from a platform overlooking the bay, 3 kilometres from the Discovery Centre. Years of compiled daily observations have shown that belugas were present 60% of the time studied (article in French with bilingual abstract). Your odds of encountering them are pretty good then!

To reach the lookout, follow the path that begins near the visitors’ centre. From there, it’s an easy hike to the observatory parallel to the gently flowing Sainte-Marguerite River. A few vestiges of times gone by punctuate the banks of the watercourse. Historically, nomadic indigenous peoples set up camp here in the spring and fall. Baie Sainte-Marguerite was also colonized around 1910 with the construction of a village.

Offering belugas a place to rest, socialize, give birth and nurse, Baie Sainte-Marguerite forms a natural sanctuary for the species, whose precarious status requires that the area be preserved, which is why it is off limits to both recreational and commercial watercraft. “From June 21 to September 21, nobody navigates in the bay. This is called ‘beluga summer’ here, and aims to offer them peace and quiet to calmly go about their business and give them a chance to rest,” explains Laurence Pagé, partnering, engagement and communications officer for Parks Canada.

Baie Sainte-Marguerite is therefore rich in both history and nature. But above all, it offers precious habitat for the beluga and its protection! Not to mention a mandatory stop of exquisite beauty to embark on the Whale Route and better understand the St. Lawrence ecosystem and its denizens.

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Les Bergeronnes: the essential

Cap-de-Bon-Désir

This Parks Canada site checks off all the boxes of even the most demanding observers. With an underwater canyon nearly 300 metres deep at the foot of the rocks, the Laurentian Channel is the perfect place to observe cetaceans from land.

“It’s the steep drop-off in the seabed that enables food sources to be transported toward the surface, which allows fin whales to come and feed close by,” explains partnering, engagement and communications officer for Parks Canada.

You will be able to observe a wide variety of marine mammals and, above all, at very close range. For a day chock full of amazing experiences, Cap de Bon-Désir is the place to be! In summer, naturalists are present on site to describe marine mammals and their environment, which is a big help for learning how to spot whales and better understand what you are looking at.

Sunset is an exceptional time of day to observe whales, porpoises and belugas. The sun does not set directly on the horizon, but if there are no clouds, the sky is painted with pastel and pinkish hues! Park yourself on a blanket on the rocks and admire the nightfall to the sound of breathing whales!

Paradis Marin and Mer et Monde Écotours campgrounds

To prolong or optimize your whale-watching experience, exceptional campsites are located in Les Bergeronnes. Located on the boulders along the Estuary, these sites double as excellent observation sites. They offer unrivalled proximity to hear and observe these majestic marine mammals at any hour of the day or night.

“You take a seat on your favourite boulder at sunrise, and then a whale surfaces to take a breath practically right next to you. It reminds me that I need to breath, too! This is how I meditate and clear my head. Giving yourself that chance to disconnect is magical!” says Huguette Thibeault, a hardcore camper at Le Paradis marin.

 

Discover Les Bergeronnes through the eyes of Huguette Thibeault here.

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Les Escoumins: window on the river

Visited in 1603 by Samuel de Champlain, the place known as “Lesquemin” already served as a refuge for sailors and a whaling station. “This is where the Basques come to hunt whales,” he writes in his log. Founded in 1845, today Les Escoumins marks the eastern boundary of the Marine Park. Connected to the south shore by a ferry to Trois-Pistoles, Les Escoumins is a highly recommended stop along the Whale Route. The town’s slogan reflects its identity quite well: “Marine life awakens the senses”. From the microscopic to the gargantuan, it is abundant, diverse and highly colourful!

 

FQAS diving base

A world-famous diving site, Les Escoumins attracts cold water divers from around the globe who come to admire the abundance of colourful mollusks, crustaceans and anemones! Every year, the diving base is used by hundreds of passionate individuals and serves as a gateway to the marine environment. Some even say they can hear whales singing under water!

Marine Environment Discovery Centre

At the Marine Environment Discovery Centre, you will find a marine flora and fauna interpretation centre, not to mention close-up views of whales. Whether from the back balcony or from the nearby boulders, you can admire cetaceans passing by! Binoculars and guides/interpreters will help you better locate and understand the great spectacle taking place offshore. Through the month of September and without even having to get wet, you can also enjoy live-streams of dives in the St. Lawrence where divers broadcast images of the marine environment through their masks!

 

Essipit

Essipit is the southern-most Innu community in Quebec. Its name translates as “shellfish river”. Here, too, you can discover the open sea, whether from shore or on a cruise. The main economic activity of the Essipit community is recreational tourism!

At Les Escoumins, your senses will surely be amazed!

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Longue-Rive: where the wind blows

Longue-Rive is known for its immense salt marsh, its waterfall and the wind! Yes, the wind is such a phenomenon here that it warrants its own festival! The village sports its prettiest decorations during the festivities, while the façades of Longue-Rive’s houses are adorned with kites and weather vanes flapping and spinning in the wind! It is a paradise for sailing and kite-surfing enthusiasts, who sometimes share the river with foraging marine mammals! Thanks to the marsh’s rich nutrients, whales often come to surface feed at the mouth of the Sault-au-Mouton River.

 

Sault-au-Mouton trail

The Longue-Rive tourist office is conveniently located along the St. Lawrence River, at the Sault-au-Mouton trailhead.

Here you might be lucky enough to see – especially if you’re carrying binoculars or a spotting scope – minke, blue or fin whales surface feeding at the edge of Batture aux Mille Vaches (tidal flats).

In summer, you can dip your toes into the river or even go for a swim. A small beach can be found by following the path below the falls. Crossing in front of the 24-metre waterfall, the pretty suspension bridge offers an excellent view of the river. From there, you can observe marine mammals offshore at high tide. At low tide, you will often see harbour seals basking on the rocks at the mouth of the river. A peaceful place to relax before getting back on the road and heading north!

“It was a nice little surprise… after parking in front of the tourist office, we saw the waterfall, then the path leading down to the sea. It was awesome. Backs to the waterfall, facing the sea, a couple of seals on the rocks… what more could you ask for?!” exclaim a few tourists passing through Longue-Rive.

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Portneuf-sur-Mer and the sandbars

Portneuf-sur-Mer is located at the mouth of the Portneuf River, which spills into the St. Lawrence. If you look out to sea from the quay, the view is obstructed by a patch of land. Is it a peninsula? A barachois (tidal pond)? A dune ridge? Forming a 4.5 km long spit sculpted by the action of the waves, the Portneuf sandbar is a source of pride for the village. It is also a prime location for observing seals and whales from the sandbar! Lounging on the sand, binoculars in hand, you’ll surely be able to spot the blows of large rorquals, which seem to be particularly fond of this spot.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has recognized the Portneuf sandbar, which is now on the list of Quebec parks and other natural environments of high ecological value.

In addition to the sandbar, Portneuf-sur-Mer features a small picturesque marina on the river. Opposite are a boat ramp and a small pavilion.

 

Path behind the tourist office

Behind the tourist office is a small path through the salt marsh which leads to the beach and the sandbar. You will then be facing the sandbar, opposite the channel separating the marsh from the Estuary. The Portneuf sandbar is home to a number of mammals such as the muskrat (in the marshes), harbour seal, grey seal and minke whale (in the aquatic zone). Birds can also be seen criss-crossing the sky at this location.

“At sunset, the sky turned pastel pink and purple as the light became more and more subdued. And then, about twenty harbour seals appeared, in the channel, just a few metres away. They seemed to be feeding and were curious about our presence. I went back two evenings in a row to watch them, as the moment was so magical. They were there each time!” exclaims one tourist passing through the village.

 

Riverside campsite and elevated viewing platform

After the bridge crossing the river, turn right toward the campsite. At the far end, you will find two excellent points of access to the Whale Route’s observation network. One of them is the access to Pointe des Fortin, which runs parallel to the Estuary and the Portneuf River.

The other is the lookout perched atop the cliff. “The river is quite beautiful! I simply never get tired of watching it! Any of the viewpoints is good, but personally, I love the lookout on the cliff. The stairs (there are 200 of them) are really worth the climb, even if they are rather high and steep!” affirms Camille, owner of the B&B La Nichée. Look out to sea, you might get lucky and spot a whale blowing!

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Forestville: more than just forest

Formerly known as Sault-au-Cochon, Forestville changed its name in 1937 to better showcase its logging and woodworking industries. The city contains a number of archaeological remains and reminders of its economic past. But Forestville also boasts magnificent beaches and a view of the river. What’s more, the sign at the entrance to town will remind you of the one at the top of that now famous hillside in Hollywood. Here it’s the marine life that steals the show, however. Make sure to bring your binoculars!

During the summer, the city is linked by ferry to Rimouski on the St. Lawrence’s south shore. The wharf is always a suitable place to observe seals and whales, which take advantage of the deep waters around the port to come and feed! From golf to diving, fishing to riverside cycling, whale watching to sea kayaking… all of these activities can bring you closer to large mammals and their environment.

Baie Verte

Baie Verte, located directly in the village of Forestville, boasts ten kilometres of golden beaches and a splendid campsite literally right on the sand. Several hiking trails are found here.

You can also go for a stroll along the beach to the quay to take in the coastline and observe marine life. Whales can sometimes be seen blowing on the horizon.

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Ragueneau Archipelago

At the western edge of the municipality, you will find access to a quay and an unmatched viewpoint of the Ragueneau Archipelago. At the end of the road, a quay and a small path provide fabulous views of the surroundings. In Ragueneau, the horizon is punctuated by islands, geological markers that are testimony to the movement of glaciers thousands of years earlier.

The detour to the quay is well worth it! The nature is rich and the sunsets, unparallelled! Designed in 1994 by Rénald Girard, two life-size dinosaurs might seem out of place at first glance. The dinosaurs symbolize the strength and heart of the region’s pioneers as well as the sheer force of the natural elements early in the municipality’s history.

An obelisk was erected in 1995, also by Rénald Girard. Over 30 metres high, including the base on which it was erected, this structure is said to symbolize volunteering and has 9 levels, which represent Manicouagan RCM and the eight municipalities found within its boundaries. Behind the obelisk is a tiny path that will take you directly to the tip of the spit. From there, you can admire the numerous small islands that dot the northern horizon.

Sentier de la Fascine (Fishing Weir Trail)

At low tide, you can admire seals basking in the sun on the tidal flats. The trail offers fantastic views of both the Outardes River and the St. Lawrence. There are 10 interpretive displays on the archipelago’s natural environment and its history. Just over a kilometre long, this trail also offers a lookout over the St. Lawrence and the Ragueneau Archipelago.

“When I’m driving, I always make a brief stop at the quay in Ragueneau. It’s a bit like my dessert when I get off the ferry in Forestville to go visit my daughter in Baie-Comeau! There’s always a seal or two to greet me. The place is simply beautiful and it allows me to stretch my legs and get away from it all before sitting back behind the wheel, says Huguette Thibeault, who adores this region.

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Pointe-aux-Outardes: tidal flats as far as the eye can see

Together, Pointe-Lebel and Pointe-aux-Outardes form a larger peninsula – the Manicouagan Peninsula – that extends over 30 kilometres into the St. Lawrence. This point is known for its long beach and its 4-kilometre wide tidal flats. Low tide as far as the eye can see makes it rather difficult to observe cetaceans.

At high tide, water sports enthusiasts can take advantage of the wind to go kite surfing, kayaking or paddle boarding. The crystal clear sea is completely free of rocks here. The water temperature can rise to 27°C in summer due to its shallow depth. So take the opportunity to take a little dip!

The area also features an exceptional campsite that makes a choice location for star-gazing, considering that it is practically in the middle of the open sea, 30 kilometres from the main coast and far from any light pollution!

The territory bares traces of human history, too, as a number of Aboriginal and later European families settled there on account of the fertile soil. Today, Pointe-aux-Outardes Nature Park is hemmed in by the Outardes River, the salt marsh, the dunes and the sandy tidal flats. The biodiversity-rich park contains eight ecosystems that are each very different from one another. You will pass through a red pine forest before ending up on the beach, better known as the sandy flats.

 

Understanding the role of the Nature Park’s multiple ecosystems

The salt marsh at the tip plays a critical role in the large ecosystem of the St. Lawrence Estuary. This wetland measures over 500 hectares, making it the fourth largest in the province! “The marsh produces 34,000 kilograms of nutrients per hectare! That equates to 16 million kilograms of nutrients per year, be it plankton, invertebrates, or fish! This area is also frequented by fifteen or so special-status species, so it serves as a sanctuary for avifauna, not to mention the countless ecosystem services it provides: breeding grounds, migratory stopover, filtration, etc. “Truly exceptional services! This is why we are so proud to protect it and strive to preserve it,” explains Denis Cardinal, director of Pointe-aux-Outardes Nature Park.

This area is like a food factory for large mammals, which helps cetaceans proliferate in the Estuary. The Estuary – particularly in the vicinity of the Outardes, Pessamit and Manicouagan rivers – is believed to be one of the most productive areas in terms of phytoplankton. The latter forms the basis of the food chain and serves as a meal for zooplankton, which in turn provides food for mollusks, fish, and even large marine mammals.

 

Observing marine mammals from a distance

At Pointe-aux-Outardes, whale watching is an activity best enjoyed remotely. But with a pair of binoculars, you can admire spouts from a distance at high tide. At low tide, you will be able to access the largest shellfish bed in Quebec. You will also see an eelgrass meadow that stretches over 9 km and perhaps the fifty or so harbour seals that have adopted the mouth of the Outardes River and the sandbar.

Development along the St. Lawrence largely hinges on its conservation. Denis Cardinal explains it well: “Conservation of our large cetaceans also requires that we protect the resources that allow them to survive here.”

“People feel far away from everything when they come to the park. It’s like a breath of fresh air! A delicate balance between nature and visitors to keep all of our ecosystems in harmony,” he says.

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Baie-Comeau: the ice age

Beyond the city and its industrial edge hide an extraordinary backcountry and topography that are well worth discovering. Baie-Comeau is built on the riverside. And this river, as we know, is synonymous with whales! The city’s commercial port is important for the region as well as for a number of industries.

Spectacular Comeau Bay was sculpted by glaciers many moons ago! The most recent glacial period, more precisely the Wisconsin glaciation, is responsible for the topographic and hydrographic formation of the Estuary and Gulf region. Roughly 20,000 years ago, the landscape was reshaped and exceptional geological relics were left behind.

The entire territory was covered by a massive glacier over 4 kilometres thick! The Laurentide Ice Sheet, as this great glacier is known, was the largest at the time, covering all of Canada and much of North America, according to the Glacier Exploration Station at the Garden of Glaciers.

When that ice melted or retreated, large volumes of water remained inland to form lakes and rivers and, closer to the Atlantic, the St. Lawrence River and its Gulf.

“The spectacular marks left by the Laurentide Ice Sheet on the territory make this coastline one of the richest in the world in terms of diversity,” according to the Station.

 

Paths at the Garden of Glaciers

In the heart of the Manicouagan-Uapishka World Biosphere Reserve, this walking trail stretches over 35 kilometres. These trails are maintained, marked off and enhanced with interpretive displays that show the traces left by the most recent glaciation. You will also find several viewpoints and lookouts that lend themselves well to whale watching, if you have binoculars!

 

Baie-Comeau wharf

The wharf is an important place for port activities where fishing boats, commercial ships and cruise liners come to dock from all over the world. The pier stretches into the bay for almost a kilometre! According to those who work here, this is a great place to watch minke whales and seals. Seaport workers encounter them regularly, especially in spring.

“I’ve been working at the docks in Baie-Comeau for several years and in spring, when the capelin are running, minke whales come into the bay and are so dynamic when they’re catching fish! They are literally at our feet!” says one port worker.

 

Discover Baie-Comeau through the portrait of Marie Karine Maltais here.

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Franquelin: in memory of those who lived there

Named in honour of Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin, hydrographer for King Louis XIV, Franquelin was originally a logging village built on the shores of the St. Lawrence. The proximity of whales colours the history of the village with an array of stories and memories of those who lived here.

One story stands out in particular, that of the late owner of the Franquelin Inn. This salmon fisherman once made the catch of a lifetime. One sunny morning, a minke whale got itself entangled in his salmon net at the mouth of the Franquelin River. Once the meticulous fisherman released it by carefully cutting the ropes, the animal returned to the ocean. But that’s just the beginning of the story! The whale is said to have returned to visit its rescuer every day for many years. A very special friendship between a fisherman and a 6-tonne minke whale! People in the village still talk about it to this day!

GREMM also had the good fortune to obtain weekly data from a passionate observer based in Franquelin. “For nearly twenty years, Céline Ricard noted every single whale and seal sighting she made from her home. No matter what time of year it was, she always had an encounter with a whale or seal to share,” confirms Marie-Ève ​​Muller, editor-in-chief for Whales Online. Unfortunately, this whale enthusiast passed away in 2018, leaving a gap in the map of weekly observations, but her memory remains very much alive for the research group.

Pointe à la Croix

Where is the best place to watch sea life in Franquelin? Pointe à la Croix, incidentally one of the best kept secrets of the North Shore! This charming site lies opposite a canyon nearly 200 metres deep. Consequently, just off the rocks, you will see marine mammals coming to take advantage of the nearshore conditions. To reach this hotspot, you need to go down a marked trail on foot, by bike or on snowshoes for about 5 km through the woods, beyond the bridge spanning the Franquelin River. Along the way, you will pass by a spectacular lake.

“For those who are familiar with Cap de Bon-Désir near Les Bergeronnes, it’s the same thing, only in Franquelin, there are far fewer people! The whales come super close to shore; it’s amazing. The couple of kilometres you have to walk are well worth the effort, believe me!”, says one hiker we met on the trail.

 

Vieux-Quai trail

The Vieux-Quai trail (also called the “whale trail”) is ideal for hikers. You will walk alongside a bay opening into the St. Lawrence for 3 or 4 kilometres and you might be surprised to spot a blue, fin, humpback or minke whale, sometimes just 10 metres or so from shore.

In Franquelin, you will discover a peaceful and picturesque place frozen in time, the ideal setting to imagine the stories of those who lived here and who are still very much alive in people’s memories.

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Godbout: bay of the whales

Whether in the river or out at sea, fishing is a prominent activity in Godbout. The 112 km long Godbout River slices through the boreal forest before spilling into the St. Lawrence in the village of the same name, on the eastern side of the cove. This river has one of the highest salmon capture rates in Quebec. Is this abundance of salmon the reason why there are so many whales in this area?

Fresh water carried by the river meets the salt water of the St. Lawrence. This phenomenon creates prime feeding grounds for whales, which can sometimes be observed very close to the beaches during the capelin spawning season.

Nestled in a deep bay, this coastal village is sheltered from the unpredictable waters of the St. Lawrence. A ferry runs between Godbout and Matane in the Gaspé Peninsula, providing a link between the north and south shores. The crew frequently encounters whales during these crossings.

Pavilions are set up along the river to allow passers-by to enjoy the view. There are even binoculars available to better observe cetaceans from shore! The beach is also the perfect place to sunbathe while waiting for the whales to make an appearance!

 

Discover Godbout through the eyes of Sylvie Savard here.

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Pointe-des-Monts: the endless sea

“Pointe-des-Monts is the endless sea,” describes Jean-Louis Frenette, innkeeper at the Pointe-des-Monts lighthouse B&B for over 40 years. A favourite stop along the Whale Route, Pointe-de-Monts juts out into Trinité Bay and faces the Chic-Choc Mountains on the opposite shore. Just 14 kilometres from Route 138, a rich history and nature coexist.

 

Lighthouse

The large red and white lighthouse at Pointe-des-Monts guided sailors in an era when navigation in the Gulf of St. Lawrence was perilous. Multiple shipwrecks have occurred in the vicinity. After Île Verte (1806), the Pointe-des-Monts lighthouse was the second one to be erected in the St. Lawrence (1829-1830). Since 1830, the lighthouse has been tended by seven different lightkeepers, according to local sources. Several families stayed there to watch over the sailors, 12 months a year!

Historically, geographers – including Samuel de Champlain himself – classified Pointe des Monts as the point of demarcation between the Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Indeed, the Pointe-des-Monts lighthouse is located at the geographical boundary of the Estuary and the Gulf. For mariners, this is an important landmark in an area known for its reefs and shoals as well as unpredictably variable currents.

Anse des Noyés and Petite Anse Saint-Augustin

Whales can be seen regularly from the tip. The upwellings just opposite the lighthouse contribute to the sector’s vitality, which is reflected in the presence of several species of whales and seals. “Most of our vacationers are happy to note the presence of whales “within earshot” of their B&B. This spectacle is attributable to considerable depth of the nearshore waters. The aquarium is deep!” chuckles Jean-Louis Frenette.

“Every day I see whales near the lighthouse. Just yesterday, a large spout caught me by surprise; the whale was huge! It put on an entire display for an hour and a half, right in front of the lighthouse! In August and September, we are spoiled with spectacular observations,” explains lighthouse general director France Caron.

Welcome to the Gulf!

 

Discover the portrait of Jean-Louis Frenette here.

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Port-Cartier, Gallix, Sept-Iles

As you continue your journey north, past Baie-Comeau, you will slowly lose sight of the Gaspé Peninsula on the opposite shore, which seems to fade away into the open sea. This is the Gulf opening toward the Atlantic, while the region’s boreal character becomes more apparent. Along this stretch of the road, long golden beaches outline the coast. Make a stop in Port-Cartier, at the Patterson Island rest area or in Gallix to walk the sandy beach as the sun dips below the horizon. You may be able to observe seals, porpoises and/or whales!

 

Bay of Sept-Îles

Jacques Cartier landed here in 1535. The region is rich in both indigenous and European history and cultures. The Bay of Sept-Îles is named after the archipelago that overlooks the bay, essentially consisting of Île du Corossol, Petite and Grande Basque, and Petite and Grosse Boule. The largest city on the North Shore, Sept-Îles is also a prime location for whale-watching. Get out and explore the open sea and the islands; it’s worth it!

Moisie Bay

Make a stop at Moisie Bay, at the mouth of the river of the same name. The two banks are outlined by red dunes and feature a multitude of vantage points. If you gaze out over the Gulf, you’ll most likely catch sight of a few spouts.

 

Longtime observer and Port-Cartier resident Jacques Gélineau shares his relationship with whales here.

16

Rivière-au-Tonnerre: gate to Minganie

Recognized as one of the prettiest villages in Quebec, Rivière-au-Tonnerre owes its name to the acoustic phenomenon caused by the roaring waterfalls along its course, some of them measuring up to 50 metres high. Halfway between Sept-Îles and Havre-Saint-Pierre, a stop at Rivière-au-Tonnerre represents an opportunity to visit the sky-blue wooden church dating from the early 20th century. Built in the Norman style, the church was erected at a time when the town had no rail or road connection to any other community. An architectural and heritage gem of the North Shore!

Numerous coves, beaches, waterfalls, whale-watching at the old wharf and the ferry crossing to Anticosti are just a few of the reasons to pay a visit to this quiet sanctuary, according to the municipality.

Halte du Vieux Quai

At this not-to-be-missed stop, we stock up on jam at the Maison de la Chicoutai (pronounced “she-koo-tay”, the French word for cloudberry). The scientific name for this plant is Rubus chamaemorus, which comes from the Greek chamai, meaning “ground”, and morus, the classic Latin name for blackberries. This small golden raspberry-like fruit grows in boreal regions, namely in peat bogs. Relished by locals in Quebec’s Côte-Nord region, this tangy subarctic berry is definitely worth sampling!

Pick up some bread at the grocery store and enjoy it with cloudberry butter at the old wharf. Cloudberries and whale-watching at the same time! Not bad!

17

Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan: marine mammal research

Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan lives up to its name. Its tip stretches out into the Gulf and its long white sandy beach is just gorgeous! Several campsites dot the shores, overlooking the calm and clear water.

Whales are plentiful. This is why the Mingan Island Cetacean Study (MICS) was established here in 1979. This non-profit organization dedicated to the study of marine mammals was founded by Richard Sears. The station was the first to conduct long-term research on cetaceans in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, especially the endangered blue whale. Its main areas of study lie along the North Shore, especially in the Mingan and Anticosti Island region, as well as along the Gaspé Peninsula.

 

Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan Welcome and Interpretation Centre

Shared by MICS and Parks Canada, the Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan Welcome and Interpretation Centre helps provide a better understanding of cetaceans and their habitat. Documentation, interactive installations and a host of skeletons and marine specimens are waiting to be discovered!

MICS employs photo-ID techniques to differentiate individual baleen whales, which has allowed them to establish a catalogue of known individuals and track their life histories.

Every year, new, recently photographed individuals are added to the catalogue. In fact, MICS has the most comprehensive catalogue of North Atlantic blue whales in the world! Researchers, navigators and marine mammal enthusiasts from all over the North Atlantic (including GREMM) send MICS photos of this mysterious and endangered species, thereby helping to better understand their migrations, seasonal movements and habitat use. The team also manages a catalogue of St. Lawrence humpbacks and another one for fin whales in the Gulf.

 

Meet MICS researcher Christian Ramp here.

18

Mingan Archipelago: born from the sea

Route 138 has now been crossing the Moisie River for over 30 years. For the first motorists venturing into this part of Quebec’s coast, the road link between Sept-Îles and coastal villages such as Magpie, Sheldrake, Rivière-au-Tonnerre, Mingan and finally Havre-Saint-Pierre, 200 km downriver from Sept-Îles, opened up new horizons. With the extension of the highway, the Mingan Archipelago began to attract the attention of these new visitors.

 

Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve

The Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve is one of the most spectacular parks in the country! Stretching over 85 kilometres from end to end, the archipelago comprises some thirty islands and numerous smaller islets.

Iconic, erosion-sculpted limestone formations called monoliths punctuate the horizon, standing in the water at high tide and on the tidal flats at low tide. Variable light conditions throughout the day translate into different landscapes over a relatively brief period. Nature is abundant, well preserved and diverse, both on the islands and in the deep crystal-clear waters.

Fossils are regularly found in the rocks, a reminder that this archipelago, even if it now lies in waters ranging from -1°C to 14°C depending on the depth, was once located in a genuinely warm aquatic environment. Today’s landscapes are a reflection of multiple geological occurrences over time.

The clear waters carried by the currents create an oasis of biodiversity around the islands. According to the park, all fauna and flora commonly found in Gulf of St. Lawrence waters are unusually abundant here. The archipelago is home to harbour porpoises, white-sided dolphins, minke whales and fin whales, just to name a few.

The Basse-Côte-Nord (Lower North Shore) and the Mingan Islands are steeped in history. Its numerous lighthouses and shipwrecks are testimony to the region’s past. The boreal forest is the subject of legends. The narrow wooden paths lead you to the heart of the forest and all around the islands. Whales roam the offshore marine environment.

Every island is unique, so it’s up to you to explore them!

 

Discover the islands’ beauty through the portrait of Guy Côté.

19

Havre-Saint-Pierre and the sea

Havre-Saint-Pierre is the gateway to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve. Tourism is an important economic activity, given the proximity of the islands. The town is also known for its snow crab, mussel, scallop and lobster fisheries.

Located opposite Anticosti Island, Havre-Saint-Pierre also makes for an excellent jump-off point for those visiting the Mingan Archipelago and its many islands! In 1857, a group of Acadian families from the Magdalen Islands settled here. This charming accent can still be heard amongst some of the town’s residents. The municipality was originally named Pointe-aux-Esquimaux, but was renamed Havre-Saint-Pierre in 1927 in honour of St. Peter, apostle and patron saint of fishermen.

In Havre-Saint-Pierre, a colourful community and a faded seascape await you.

Havre-Saint-Pierre marina and Portail Pélagie-Cormier terminal

The marina overlooks the canal, where whales are frequently spotted crossing, providing observers with a unique opportunity to enjoy close-up views of the animals. There’s even a whale crossing sign posted in front of the river!

Out over the horizon, we can make out the first islands of the Mingan Archipelago. Also at the marina, more specifically at the Portail Pélagie-Cormier terminal, you can catch a boat to the various islands of the Mingan Archipelago.

In Havre-Saint-Pierre, you can discover the sea from just about anywhere on its shore. We live it, we breathe it, the air is pure and saline and the water is calm and clear.

 

Discover Havre-Saint-Pierre through the portrait of Jane-Anne Cormier here.

20

Natashquan: untamed no longer

Once the end of Route 138, Natashquan is slowly opening itself up to tourism, growing and shedding its rugged edge as it welcomes curious passers-by to discover the mythical village. This is the place of tranquility and beauty found in the works of poet-songwriter and village native Gilles Vigneault.

When we arrived, a beautiful passage written on a little blue house greeted us: “Let’s raise the mainsail, it’s time to come back to see family and friends…”

We are struck by a curious feeling of homecoming, even if we’ve never set foot here before. Featuring strongly in music and literature, Natashquan’s history has left its mark on Quebec’s cultural heritage. Its colourful little houses are full of friendly folks!

 

Le Galet

Follow the boardwalk behind the tourist welcome centre. This will lead you directly to the small iconic wooden house-like structures at the edge of a rocky outcrop known as Le Galet, which makes for an ideal place to observe marine mammals.

 

These small shacks (les magasins du Galet) are perched just 3 metres above sea level in Natashquan Bay.

Veritable emblems of the village, these are former fishermen huts, some of which are over 150 years old. This is where goods were bought and sold in the past. These buildings were also used to store fishing gear, various other fishing-related items, and seal oil.

Recognized as an element of Quebec’s cultural heritage, today this landmark is testimony to the history of Natashquan and the importance that the cod fishery once had for this community and for Quebec as a whole, before stocks plummeted. They also evoke the meeting between the
Acadians who came to settle here with the already well-established Innu of Nutashquan.

Take a moment to go back in time, understand where we come from, imagine yourself living there at the dawn of the century. Just as the tides ebb and flow, Natashquan is developing, slowly but surely, thanks to a road that now connects its history and rich heritage.

“Here, we have the time to take our time. Even if I’m always on the go, I’ve taken the time to take my time. It’s good to take your time from time to time,” reads a small clock outside a home in Natashquan.

 

Discover Natashquan hospitality through the portrait of Paulette Landry.

21

Kegaska, END.

Kegaska, from the Innu-aimun word “quegasca”, translates as “a shortcut and easy passage at high tide between the mainland and the islands”. Crab fishing is currently the main economic activity in this community. Lying 845 kilometres from Tadoussac, the village is a far cry from the shortcut its name alludes to. In fact, Kegaska is approximately the same distance from Tadoussac as Boston! More precisely, it’s a 10-hour drive along awe-inspiring highway. But Kegaska is best known for this sign: “FIN”. The end.

Three simple letters. And yet…

This sign marks the end of Route 138. Only in 2013 did Kegaska become accessible by car. What awaits you there is raw. If you want to continue your journey east to Romaine or Blanc-Sablon, you’ll have to fly or catch a ferry! Kegaska lies near the farthest reaches of Quebec: on the Gulf, not far from Labrador, beyond the eastern tip of Anticosti. It’s rawness and immensity is overwhelming. This is where we end up after our trek across the North Shore.

En route, the taiga, or boreal forest, becomes increasingly dense, with more and more conifers and lichens, but especially fewer and fewer hardwoods. Forged by a subarctic climate, this habitat consists of forest-type vegetation interspersed with a vast network of lakes created by fluvio-glacial erosion. Then, little by little, large conifers become scarcer, gradually giving way to large wetlands called peat bogs. The landscape is increasingly flat, as if the harsh weather, salty air and strong winds made sure that life stayed low to the ground.

By the time we reach Kegaska, we’ve entered the tundra, which reminds us that we’re now at the end of the road, facing the Gulf, contemplating the vastness of our territory opening toward the Atlantic. You made it! You’re now at the end of Quebec… the end of the world!

 

Le Brion trail

If you’re hoping to observe whales, your best bet is to do so while admiring a wrecked cargo ship at the end of a small path. Go past the chapel to the right, where you’ll see a small sign pointing toward the forest that indicates the way to Le Brion. Follow the path and you’ll see the wrecked ship perched atop the rocks at the end of a pretty wooden walkway. Well preserved, Le Brion glistens against the splendour of the Gulf. The view is one of a kind: the rusty shipwreck, the red rocks, the sea as far as the eye can see.

Talk about epic! Some people become emotional when they reach the end of their journey. Indeed, it’s hard to remain indifferent when surrounded by so much grandeur, so much nature, so much of ourselves.

To visit Kegaska is to discover oneself. To go to the edge of Quebec, to push one’s own limits.

All that’s left is to get back on the road and head home. The end is now the beginning. “FIN”.