The salty waters of Quebec’s St. Lawrence River estuary have long been a major gathering spot for whales—many arrive each spring to feed on a rich body of nutrients. Minke, blue, and fin whales congregate here seasonally in large numbers, while beluga whales have taken up residence here year-round. However, for a long while, only one humpback whale made a regular appearance off the coast of Tadoussac, a small village that sits at the spot where the St. Lawrence River and Quebec’s fjord-du-Saguenay (Saguenay Fjord) meet. The town’s residents called him “Siam,” a name that refers to the distinct pattern on the underside of his tail, resembling two cat eyes.
Fishermen first spotted Siam off the coast of Tadoussac’s Pointe à la Carriole in 1981, and for years he remained the only humpback to venture so far up into the estuary. Then eventually, others joined him. These days, there are dozens of humpback whales who feed, frolic and breach in the waters of Quebec’s St. Lawrence River. Last year saw a record number of humpbacks here: at least 100, more than double that of 2020.
Some scientists believe the increase in local numbers is a direct result of climate change, which is leading to rising and warming waters, as well as the shifting of food distribution throughout them. Whatever the case, the number of humpback whales in Quebec’s Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park is thriving. But how do we distinguish them from other cetaceans? It turns out that humpback whales have a bevy of incredibly unique qualities and characteristics, from the way they feed to the songs they sing.
A Humpback Whale Primer
From the 17th century until the mid-20th century, humans worldwide hunted humpback whales for their oil, food and baleen, or “whalebone,” which was used to make everything from corsets to toys. By the 1960s, they were considered highly endangered, with numbers totaling approximately 10,000. Thankfully, in the early 1980s, the International Whaling Commission issued a moratorium on hunting these majestic creatures, and it’s one that remains in effect. This, along with other global conservation efforts such as the Endangered Species Act, has brought the worldwide number of humpback whales back up to over 100,000 and counting.
Humpback whales are one of the largest animals on Earth, mammoth creatures that can reach up to 60 feet long and weigh close to 40 tons. Some humpbacks reach ages of 80 to 90 years old, and they’re globetrotters as well: traversing waters from Alaska to Hawaii and Antarctica to Mexico and migrating anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 miles one way. Their journeys are one of the longest mammal migrations on Earth.
In fact, different populations of humpback whales have their own unique migratory paths. The St. Lawrence River’s humpbacks belong to the North Atlantic population, approximately 15,000 or so whales that migrate between Caribbean waters where they breed, and six summer feeding grounds that reach as far north as northern Norway. They typically arrive in Quebec’s Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park as early as May and stay until October before beginning their long journey south. These and other humpbacks often travel solo, though they sometimes move in small groups (or pods) of two and three for brief periods at a time.
As far as their appearance, humpbacks have a recognizable color pattern and form: with black-to-gray upper sides and white undersides and an obvious hump (hence their name) on their backs. Their flukes (a.k.a. the two lobes of their tail) can grow up to 18 feet wide and feature small serrations—like that of a knife—along the upper lengths. Each humpback tail is unique, in the same vein as a human fingerprint.
Ways of Communicating
Considered the “acrobats of the ocean,” humpback whales are deep-diving creatures that are both exceedingly playful and endlessly curious. They’ll often come right up to boats for their own closer looks, so have your cameras at the ready because they also love performing. Humpbacks are famous for their breaching—a way of launching themselves out of the water using their fluke tail—and slapping the sea with their tails and fins, which many scientists believe are forms of communication. For instance, these signals help ward off predators or send messages to other whales. The bigger the splash, the longer the distance their signals carry.
Sounds and Songs
Male humpbacks are perhaps best known for their songs: haunting melodies, performed most notably during courtship, which can be heard for a distance of up to 20 miles. This intricate series of sounds, which include cries, moans and howls, is often repeated for hours. All of the males in a particular humpback population sing the same song. It’s one that’s completely unique to the population, though the song gradually changes over time. With such a unique series of calls, it’s little wonder these magnificent creatures have earned the nickname “sirens of the sea.”
Similar to minke and blue whales, humpbacks are a type of baleen, or toothless, whale, meaning they swim with their mouths open, taking in everything that’s in front of them. Their baleen then acts as a type of sieve, pushing water outward and keeping whatever krill, fish and crustaceans that remain for eating. Humpbacks eat an average of 3,000 pounds of food a day.
While many humpback whales feed below the surface of the water, gulping down small fish as they go, others will engage in lunge feeding—which is a way for them to gather up large amounts of food at once. In this case, the humpbacks propel themselves at high speeds either vertically or horizontally through dense amounts of fish or krill, taking in massive quantities of sustenance en route.
Some humpback populations practice bubble-net feeding, a cooperative method of surface feeding that’s considered a learned technique. In this case, groups of humpbacks swim together in a spiral pattern and use their blowholes to create a “net” of bubbles, disorienting the fish and trapping them closer to the surface for easy consumption.
Where to See Humpbacks in Quebec
Quebec’s Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park is known as one of the best places in the world for whale watching. It’s also an essential part of Nat Hab’s Whales & Nature Trails of Quebec expedition. Along with visits to four national parks, this eight-day tour includes a series of private zodiac outings among the exceptionally nutrient-rich waters at the confluence of the Saguenay River and the St. Lawrence Estuary. While here, be sure and keep an eye out for five commonly-sighted whale species, including beluga, blue, and plenty of humpbacks.
Who knows? If you’re lucky, you may even spot Siam.