Whaling in the St. Lawrence

Updated: january 2014

The St. Lawrence’s reputation as an exceptional location for whales is nothing new. Already in the 16th century, the Basques were crossing the ocean to hunt whales in the Gulf and Estuary. Belugas were also the target of local hunting, and the Norwegians established whaling stations for large rorquals at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, these fascinating animals are observed in their natural environment!

Basques in the Americas

Between 1510 and 1730, the Basques navigated the St. Lawrence from spring to fall, drawn by the large pods of whales. They sought the bowhead whale, now confined to the Arctic, and the North Atlantic right whale, which is now rare in the St. Lawrence. The Basques had developed a dangerous but effective technique to kill and haul to shore whales whose thick layer of blubber was rendered into oil and transferred to barrels. Traces of their activities can be found in the Strait of Belle Isle, notably in Red Bay, where they reached industrial levels. In the Estuary, they were present at Île aux Basques (opposite Trois-Pistoles), Anse du Chafaud aux Basques (near Baie-Sainte-Catherine), and Anse à la Cave (near Cap de Bon-Désir). Findings have been made at these sites of Basque-made stone kilns and red roof tiles used to cover the shelters of these summer visitors.

Beluga hunting

Local populations took advantage of this abundant and gregarious species. At Pointe-Lebel, belugas were dragged into shallow water with motor boats before being killed with a rifle. At Les Escoumins, whales were harpooned and killed from sailing canoes. Beginning in the 18th century, at Île aux Coudres and Rivière-Ouelle, they were capture in weirs made of saplings laid out in a B-shaped configuration with an opening in the centre. The belugas entered at high tide and remained captured at low tide, sometimes in herds numbering up to 500. This technique was also used both at Pointe aux Alouettes and Moulin Baude in Tadoussac. In the 1930s, the beluga was the target of an extermination program (bombing, bounties, rewards) by the Quebec government, as it was believed to be harming the fisheries. The program ended when the first studies on the St. Lawrence beluga showed that the species did not feed on species of commercial interest. Commercial harvesting of belugas continued through the mid-1950s, and sport hunting, until 1979.

To view the Pierre Perreault and Michel Brault film Pour la suite du Monde (sometimes screened in English under the titles Of Whales, the Moon and Men or For the Ones to Come), which traces the history of beluga hunting, visit the National Film Board of Canada website.

Chasse au béluga  © Archives INESL

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  • Photo credit : © SLNIE archives

Norwegian station in Sept-Îles

At the turn of the 20th century, Sept-Îles was still a small village. In 1905, a whaling station under Norwegian control contributed to its development and prosperity. The facility employed some forty men from the region and about 20 Scandinavians. They hunted blue and fin whales, harvesting some 70 to 85 a year. The animals were pursued in whaling boats and captured using explosive harpoons fitted with a device that enabled air to be forced into the animals’ lungs so that they would float. They were then hauled back to the whaling station, vestiges of which can still be seen today. The station was abandoned in 1914, at the dawn of the First World War. [Special thanks to Steve Dubreuil, archeologist at the Musée régional de la Côte-Nord in Sept-Îles].