The Whale Makes Us Human

“The whale makes us human,” proclaim the Iñupiat (a group of Alaska Natives whose traditional territory spans to the northernmost part of the Canada-United States border). The Iñupiat identity is formed and transformed through intimate encounters with whales.

Whales are bewildering beings whose nature is so vast, not even the human imagination can entirely grasp its depth. These wild giants have shared their existence with humankind for thousands of years and the spirit of this relationship has manifested in myriad ways. Whale essence has been fossilized in the songs and stories of ancient cultures, preserved in oil by commercial whalers, studied by scientists and served as sources of subsistence to Indigenous kin. In the contemporary environmental imagination, whales are charismatic megafauna that inspire awe and encourage compassionate and sustainable futures in a time of prolific climate-induced human-wildlife conflict.

Whales are ecosystem engineers, cycling nutrients from one place to another. In life, each great whale captures carbon from the atmosphere, sequestering an estimated 33 tons of CO2 on average. After death, their carcasses bloom into miniature ecosystems, supporting up to 200 species of aquatic life.

Among the nearly ninety kinds of cetaceans (a group made up of whales, dolphins and porpoises), six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable—despite decades of protection. A minimum of 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed each year as a result of fisheries bycatch, while others succumb to threats including habitat loss, shipping collisions and noise pollution and fuel pollution.

Ethical Excursions

Here at Natural Habitat Adventures and World Wildlife Fund, we are renowned for world-class, environmentally responsible whale-watching excursions. Nat Hab and WWF offer expeditions to see blue whales in Quebec, belugas in Churchill, humpbacks in British Columbia and Antarctica and gray whales at their calving grounds in Baja.

As a part of our initiative to consistently raise the bar on conservation, we support philanthropy efforts around the world. In 2018, we donated funds to the Mexican Big Whale Disentanglement Network (RABEN). This project frees whales from deadly fishing lines in areas where we operate whale-watching tours and is led by two of Nat Hab’s Mexico Expedition Leaders—Astrid Frisch and Karel Beets. When asked about the ethics of touching whales that approach tour boats, WWF Senior Policy Officer in Species Conservation, Leigh Henry, expressed the following sentiment:

“In Laguna San Ignacio, the whales—mostly mothers and calves—are incredibly friendly and tourists are afforded the opportunity to interact with them. I certainly wouldn’t advise allowing this close interaction everywhere, but in the lagoon, the whale watching operations are very well regulated—boats are only allowed in a small part of the lagoon, so the whales have sanctuary should they seek it, and boats aren’t allowed to approach the whales; they wait for the whales to approach. The gray whales in San Ignacio have been the subject of years of study and no ill effects have ever been detected from these interactions. Were they to be, then of course I would recommend ceasing the encounters, but at the moment, both whales and humans seem to enjoy it!”

View of the Malbaie river surrounded by beautiful mountains, in Charlevoix, Quebec.

Canada’s Cetaceans

Eco-conscious human-wildlife interactions are at the heart of our excursions. Explore four national parks and a marine reserve in wild French Canada as a traveler on our Whales & Nature Trails of Quebec trip!

The Charlevoix Biosphere Reserve, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompasses Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park—the base of our aquatic adventures. From May through October, these giant marine mammals congregate at the confluence of the fresh Saguenay Fjord and the salty St. Lawrence River. This watershed is a gateway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean and is the largest estuary on Earth—sustaining creatures from microscopic zooplankton to the Earth’s largest animal, the blue whale. Aboard private Zodiacs operated by Eco-Whale Alliance (supports whale research, education and sustainable practices), and guided by two of our expert naturalist guides, we’ll search for the following species: sperm, minke, fin, humpback, gray, Northern Atlantic right, northern bottlenose and rare bowhead whales. Among the cetaceans we hope to encounter is the endangered St. Lawrence beluga, or the “canary of the sea,” the only marine mammal—along with the harbor seal—to live in the estuary year-round. If you walk along the shores of Saguenay Fjord National Park, you may just hear the songs (chirps, trills, clicks, squeals and whistles) of a breaching beluga pod, which can be heard from 100 yards off the coast.

Learn about whale-watching, cetacean conservation efforts and seasonal splendors by watching Nat Hab’s Daily Dose of Nature webinar: A Summer Adventure with Quebec’s Whales. Then, take a deeper dive into how whales and people in the St. Lawrence Estuary coexist in: Sharing Space with Quebec’s Whales.

Ecotourism presents terrestrial beings—like humans—with an alternative means of communicating with our marine kin. Leigh Henry reminds us that:

“Over the last two centuries, the main threat to the survival of whales was commercial whaling. The world acknowledged that threat and has, for the most part, addressed it. However, many populations have yet to recover from this over-exploitation and continue to face other threats…If we strive to stay one step ahead of the threats, and not wait until the situation reaches a critical juncture, then I am absolutely optimistic that my daughters, and generations to follow, will grow up in a world where the great whales still swim our oceans. Anything less is unthinkable.”

Just as the marine environment is shaped by the whales, the world is shaped by emotional interactions between whales and humans. The whale, the whaler and the whale-watcher are entangled in a reciprocal engagement that determines the fate of cetaceans and their biodiverse habitats globally.

Whale watching in Quebec

© Eric Staub