Ask most nature travelers to name the world’s top destinations to see whales in the wild and you’re likely to hear Hawaii, South Africa, Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, British Columbia and Antarctica. But ask Eleanor Edye, a Manitoba-based biologist and Expedition Leader with Natural Habitat Adventures, and she’ll quickly fill you in on what she calls “the greatest kept secret outside of Quebec”: When it comes to whale watching, Canada’s St. Lawrence River makes a serious splash.
It’s no wonder: After beginning as outflow from Lake Ontario and moving northeast from Quebec City, the mega river widens into one of the world’s largest and deepest estuaries, which spans some 150 miles, before opening into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the North Atlantic. The estuary is also home to the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, a federally protected and favored feeding ground for a variety of cetacean species, all of which means “Quebec is blessed with about six months every year when thousands of whales move into this area,” says Edye.
But as Canada’s lifeblood and second-longest river, the St. Lawrence also sustains dense human populations along its southern banks and serves as a major commercial shipping route between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes, both of which make whale conservation in Quebec a top concern—and a pressing priority. In September 2021, Good Nature Travel looked at the numerous whale species (including blue, fin, humpback, minke and beluga) travelers can observe on Nat Hab’s eight-day Whales & Nature Trails of Quebec tour, both from Zodiacs in the marine park and on hikes in Saguenay Fjord National Park. Here, we follow up with a primer on the ongoing threats these cetacean species face in the St. Lawrence River, which measures government agencies and local organizations are taking to save them, and what we can do—both in our daily lives and while traveling with Nat Hab—to be part of the solution.
Although whaling is prohibited in the St. Lawrence River, its marine mammals still face a host of human-induced threats. These include global perils such as climate change and ocean acidification, which can negatively impact whales’ habitats and food sources, along with St. Lawrence–specific threats stemming from the high numbers of humans and whales that share its waters. More than 5,000 commercial vessels transit the St. Lawrence each year, making noise pollution a major concern. What’s more, “the trend toward bigger and faster ships has been very difficult for whales to handle,” says Edye. Strikes from ships, she adds, can be especially fatal to blue whales, currently endangered, and fin whales, a species of “special concern” in Canada, because of how slowly they swim. Populations from both species also remain low due to historic overhunting and, particularly with blue whales, relatively low reproduction rates.
Persistent pollutants, lingering from high industrial outflow in the 1980s and 90s, also pose a serious threat for whales in the St. Lawrence River, Edye says. Endangered belugas—the river’s only resident whales—are especially susceptible because they don’t migrate and therefore dine on the same food sources year-round. Like blue and fin whale populations, belugas are also still rebounding after they were wrongly accused of harming Canada’s cod and salmon industries in the 1930s. Toxic algae, including during a destructive red tide in 2008 that’s believed to have killed ten belugas, can harm marine mammals’ food sources, as well. By-catch and entanglement in fishing gear also remain a significant threat to worldwide whale populations, including in the St. Lawrence.
Causes for Hope
Clearly, ongoing threats to Canada’s whales abound, but fortunately, so do persistent efforts to protect them in the St. Lawrence. Just for starters: In 2002, Quebec’s non-profit Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), co-founded the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, in part, to conduct critical research and rescue whales harmed by ship strikes. And in 2003, the Canadian government enacted its pivotal Species at Risk Act (SARA), aimed at saving the country’s wild animals from extinction. Corresponding recovery objectives developed for St. Lawrence’s whales are both general—minimizing human disturbance and deaths from by-catch, for example—and targeted to specific species: Recovery objectives for endangered North Atlantic right whales, for instance, include reducing deaths by ship strikes and for beluga whales, reducing the river’s toxic contaminants. In 2021, the Canadian government also announced updated measures, including visual and acoustic monitoring along with continued limits on vessel speeds, to prevent ship strikes on right whales, whose especially stringent protections ultimately benefit other whales “by umbrella effect,” says Edye.
Canada’s formation of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park in 1998, coupled with shipping restrictions aimed at moving ships around cetaceans in the area, has also contributed significantly to whale conservation in Quebec. It’s “an area where whales take precedence, where the whales win, any time there’s a ship coming through,” says Edye. And although she stresses that more needs to be done to promote whale conservation in the St. Lawrence River, there are positive signs that Canada’s efforts are paying off. Take the humpback whale, which has rebounded from its endangered species status in the 1980s. Through the 1990s, Edye adds, only one male summered in the St. Lawrence, but “2021 was a banner year for humpback whales, with over 100 individuals spotted, a doubling of what was seen in 2020.”
Be a Part of the Solution
While government agencies and local organizations can play critical roles in protecting Canada’s cetacean species, whale conservation comes down to us all. Among those actions we can take in our day-to-day lives, GREMM recommends rethinking our consumer habits (read: consume less to reduce the number of products transferred by ship), eating only sustainably caught seafood (apps from organizations such as SeaChoice and the Good Fish Guide put power in our hands to help prevent by-catch deaths), eliminating pesticide use (always remember what’s downstream) and avoiding single-use plastics (sadly, if we proceed on our current path, plastics could outweigh all the fish in our oceans by 2050, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation).
Sustainable travel and selecting environmentally-minded providers are also essential. Natural Habitat Adventures only works with boat operators in the Eco-Whale Alliance, founded in 2011 by GREMM, Parks Canada and others to promote responsible whale watching tours informed by strict guidelines, including exact distances boats must keep from whales. Nat Hab also partners with the World Wildlife Fund, whose work, in part, has led to the restoration of healthier water downflows in the St. Lawrence River. Bonus: Because researchers often accompany boating excursions with Eco-Whale Alliance boat operators, Nat Hab travelers can contribute to citizen science by participating in photo identification projects that build a better understanding of whales and their behavior. Of course, first-hand appreciation is often the most powerful precursor to preservation, so feel free to simply sit back and take in the cetacean shows. Either way, count on continuous inspiration and awe. “Every time we see whales is just as special as the next time we see whales,” says Edye. “They’re just something else.”