Whale Watching Tips
An encounter with the whales of the St. Lawrence is an awe-inspiring and unforgettable experience. The estuary is an exceptional area for watching them both from shore and on the water. Jacques Yves Cousteau once rightfully said, “People protect what they love, they love what they understand and they understand what they are taught.” Though a whale watching trip can be a source of stress for cetaceans, it can raise its participants’ environmental awareness and motivate them to act consciously in favour of conservation, if done properly. It can inspire participants, particularly children and students, to study marine mammals and help with conservation efforts.
Following are some tips and answers to questions you might have:
- When is the best time to go whale watching?
- By land or by sea?
- What type of boat should you choose?
- What should you take along?
- What to expect?
- How can you spot them?
- How to recognize them?
- How to take good photos?
- What factors influence the presence of whales and our observations?
- What about winter?
When is the best time to go whale watching?
The answer lies…in a crystal ball! Marine mammal observations vary from year to year, and even from day to day. Generally, migratory whales can be found in our waters from May to October. Occasionally, they are even spotted here in the winter. St. Lawrence consists of multiple feedings grounds and the exact times the whales arrive and leave these nutrient-rich areas varies. Ultimately, it is impossible to predict when and where they appear. Here are a few tools to learn about the times when the probability of finding whales is the highest:
- Subscribe to the Whales Online newsletter or its Facebook page (only in French for now). We collect observations from a variety of sources and post them on both the media on a weekly basis.
- If you are passing through Tadoussac, come chat with our expert naturalists at the Centre d’interprétation des mammifères marins (CIMM) and enquire about the latest whale-related news. They will be able to tell you when and where the whales were recently seen.
- Various whale watching companies offer trips from May through October. During the peak season (late June to early September), trips depart multiple times a day. The most popular cruises in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park region are the ones that leave mid-day.
- On an average, the abundance of whales is the highest during September and October and they are generally quite active as they prepare for their long migrations to their breeding grounds.
- Whale sightings can never be guaranteed; they are wild animals. Patience is a virtue with wildlife watching. In addition to whales, take advantage of the landscapes, seals, seabirds and other wildlife along the coastline. The St. Lawrence is a paradise for nature lovers.
By land or by sea?
It is your choice.
The Côte-Nord region offers a number of sites that offer great whale watching spots along the shoreline. What is unique about this area is the underwater topography and depth-changes. Here, the shoreline suddenly drops down to a few hundred metres allowing whales to stay quite close, making it a prime spot for this activity. Viewing whales from the shore spares the animals stress while also allowing you to combine multiple activities, such as: hiking and whale watching, reading and whale watching, and picnicking and whale watching. Take a look at our observation map to identify the most promising lookouts. You can also take advantage of the presence of experienced naturalists at observation points, such as Pointe-Noire, Cap-de-Bon-Dèsir, or Parc Forillon. Don’t forget to protect yourselves from insect bites, especially in June and July.
On the water, whale watching becomes an activity in itself. 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.
What type of boat should you choose?
Whale watching trips are offered on various types of vessels. What type of vessel should you choose: big or small? Which company to go for? It is important to shop around to choose the option that works best for you. 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?
- The International Whaling Commission (IWC – IWC Whale Watching Handbook) proposed a new acronym, SCORE, to help choose a responsible whale watching adventure. SCORE stands for Safety, Conservation, On-board Education, Regulations, and Environment and Community.
- 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.
- Some companies operating in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park are members of the Eco-Whale Alliance. This alliance consists of organizations and companies that follow practices that go above and beyond applicable laws and regulations. Additionally, they support marine mammal research and education.
Note: Kayaks and other non-motorised vessels also impact whales, dolphins and porpoises. Studies suggest that it is not only the noise associated with motorised vessels that impacts the behaviours of cetaceans, but also their possible association with potential predators.
What to take along?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
What to expect?
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.
How can you spot them?
Scanning the water with your naked eye is your best option to scan a large area. That way, if you see something unusual, you can use your binoculars to see what it is. Most often, the first sign of a large whale is a plume of mist above the surface of the water from its exhale. We call it a blow or spout. On clear days, you can see such a plume from miles away! Once you have spotted a blow, continue looking in the same direction as you might see the back of that large whale. As mentioned before, every species is different and so are their behaviours. Depending on what type of whale you have spotted and what it is doing, you will get to see a few more blows before the animal goes for a deeper dive.
Tip: Stay alert. Every whale has to resurface to breathe oxygen again and after a dive, the whale can come back to the surface anywhere, anytime. They are capable of travelling long distances during their dives.
Don’t ignore large flocks of birds on the surface of the water. Surface-activity of such flocks often indicates the presence of a large school of fish right below…there could be even bigger predators in the area: whales!
How to recognize them?
How do I know what species I am looking at? Whales, dolphins and porpoises are all cetaceans, and you can distinguish them based on the size and shape of their blows as well as their fins. Some blows are short and dispersed while others are tall and bushy. There are even v-shaped blows and those that are slightly slanted to the left. One can, in fact, identify species solely based on the blow characteristics. They are all unique. As a rule of thumb, you are looking at a large whale if you see a prominent blow, and if you see triangular, black fins without an obvious blow, you are looking at porpoises or dolphins. If you see gleaming white spots appearing and disappearing just as quickly, you have spotted belugas! Now, if your white spots take off from the water, you are not looking at cetaceans, you are looking at gulls or other white marine birds. Note that when the water is rough, one might think there are belugas everywhere when they are simply looking at whitecaps instead. If it seems obvious when written, we tell you: it is not that easy on the water, and practice is the best way to identify species.
For more identification tips: How can I recognize them?
Photographing whales is not easy at all. Keep that in mind and know that the photos you often see in books and postcards are the result of thousands of hours at sea with the whales. Here are some tips to help you.
- Familiarize yourself with general whale behaviour. What should you expect at the surface and how long could the particular species dive for?
- Count the number of animals and get an idea of their direction of travel. Note: whales can be unpredictable and can easily change their direction of travel underwater.
- If there are multiple animals in the group, concentrate on just one individual. Keeping track of multiple animals at once can be trickier.
- As with any wildlife photography, a high shutter speed is going to be your best friend.
- Adding to that, if your camera features continuous shooting mode, take advantage of it.
- Anticipate their resurfacing time and focus your camera on the water to capture any sudden behavioural changes, which whales can be full of.
- Remember to protect your camera from ultraviolet rays and saltwater spray.
- If you are watching from shore, refrain from venturing too close to the water. Additionally, beware of exposed boulders at low tide, which can be quite slick. Your experience might prove to be a bit more moving than what you anticipated.Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get the perfect shots. You will still create wonderful memories to take home with you!
What factors influence the presence of whales and our observations?
Temperature, wind and sun have little influence on the presence and behaviour of whales. No matter the conditions, all marine mammals have to come up to the surface to breathe. However, all these factors can influence our ability to spot them. An ideal day for spotting whales would be a calm day with no wind and no fog. But ideal days hardly exist when you are on the water. One just has to adapt to the ever-changing conditions on the water; it is part of the fun. You can even spot whales in thick fog. How might you ask? You can listen to whale blows to get an idea of where they are. There is just something magical about listening to the ocean giants breathe. What about rain? It certainly does not affect the presence of marine mammals given they are always wet anyway.
Tides are the driving force of the ecosystems around here. The area around Tadoussac has semidiurnal tides, meaning the tides change roughly every six hours. With the tides changing at least four times in a day, the whole system becomes highly dynamic causing localized upwelling currents. These currents also cause the prey of whales to concentrate in various areas and because many species of whales are migratory species that are here to feed, the chances of finding them become the highest in areas with the highest concentrations of prey. Additionally, whales often use underwater currents to travel and such currents are also influenced by the tides. For example: the movement of belugas around the mouth of the Saguenay is often correlated to the movement of the tide.
Capelin is a favourite prey of several species of whales, such as minke whales, fin whales and the belugas. If you hear people say, “the capelin are rolling”, it means that thousands of them are starting to swim onto the beaches to spawn. This ecologically important phenomenon attracts an abundance of predators, including whales. This time of the year is therefore a prime time to observe whales feeding rather close to the shores.
What about winter?
Majority of species found in the St. Lawrence are migratory and leave for their breeding grounds each fall. So, the best time to take advantage of the highest abundance of whales here is roughly from May to November. However, that is not to say there aren’t opportunities to observe other marine mammals.
Belugas reside in the St. Lawrence all year long. Moreover, some larger whales, such as blue whales, frequent our waters in the wintertime. Apart from cetaceans, you can also find harp seals (December through May) as well as harbour seals here.
Last updated: October 2018