Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park is one of French Canada’s best-kept secrets. Home to more than 2,200 species, this National Marine Conservation Area offers some of the best whale-watching in the world. From May through October, these giant marine mammals congregate where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence Estuary. This watershed is a gateway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. The largest estuary in the world, it is an area perfectly suited for whales, one of high productivity, plentiful sunlight and rich feeding grounds.
Nat Hab travelers on Whales & Nature Trails of Quebec will explore four national parks and a marine reserve in French Canada, searching for animals amidst the spectacular fall foliage and at sea. Activity-filled days will be spent hiking through glacial valleys and gorges, photographing wildlife and enjoying private guided whale excursions by Zodiac. Our environmentally responsible boat operator is a member of the Eco-Whale Alliance, which supports whale research, education and sustainable practices in the St. Lawrence Estuary. From Marina de Bergeronnes, we’ll set out on a thrilling whale-watching expedition in the hopes of seeing some of the species below.
Blue whales are the largest animal on Earth, up to 90 feet long and weighing between 80 to 135 tons. These baleen whales eat 4 tons of krill each day to maintain their weight. Blue whales are endangered, with 5,000 to 12,000 individuals remaining globally. Historical overharvesting has kept their population numbers low, and their reproduction rate is also low: they produce a single calf every 2 to 3 years. Home to a yearly congregation, the St. Lawrence Estuary is one of the most likely places in the world to see these gentle giants.
The second-largest whale in the world ranges between 50 to 70 feet long and 40 to 50 tons in weight. Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, the North Atlantic population had approximately 40,000 individuals pre-whaling and now has about 4,000 remaining. Though hunting is now banned, both fin whales and blue whales are at risk of ship strikes. Following the pattern of other baleen whales, they spend summers at feeding grounds near the poles and winters in warmer waters near the Equator for mating and calving. They produce a calf every two to three years.
Humpbacks are known for their spectacular breaches, which Nat Hab travelers may be lucky enough to see on one of their whale-watching excursions. Humpbacks are 30 to 50 feet long in maturity and weigh 25 to 35 tons and are identifiable by their long pectoral fins. One of the hunting strategies of this baleen whale is bubble netting, where they circle around fish to create a wall of bubbles before lunging through to feed. They fast during their migration and calving time, so summer months are crucial for building fat reserves to support gestation and lactation. Humpbacks were endangered in the 1980s but are longer at risk thanks to a global moratorium on whale hunting in 1986.
The minke is the world’s second-smallest baleen whale, after the pygmy right whale. It is 18 to 30 feet in length and weighs between 6 to 10 tons in maturity. Minke whales are recognizable by their sickle-shaped dorsal fin and the white band on each flipper. Like other baleen whales, they have two blowholes and grooves that allow their throats to expand while they filter feed, helping them push water through their baleen plates while retaining krill and zooplankton. Mating and calving occur while they are in the Tropics. They are annual breeders when they have adequate reserves, producing one calf each year.
While most whales found in the marine park are migratory, endangered St. Lawrence belugas are year-round residents, with a population of 889 individuals. In the 1930s, they were the target of an extermination program, as they were thought to be affecting salmon and cod fisheries. This was eventually disproven, as belugas’ diet consists mainly of non-commercial species such as capelin, sand lance and mollusks. While their catch was outlawed in 1979, their population is still recovering. These toothed whales reach up to 16 feet in length and weigh up to 3,500 pounds. Since 2016, a single narwhal has been spotted among belugas in the St. Lawrence. Scientists theorize that this young narwhal got lost and was adopted by a pod of male belugas in the estuary.
Harbor Porpoise and Other Marine Mammals
On your maritime adventure, be on the lookout for harbor porpoises, which range 4 to 6 feet in length and weigh between 90 to 140 pounds. These small toothed whales are a species of special concern in Canada because they are sometimes caught as bycatch in bottom-set gillnets. Travelers will have a chance to see several seal species, including harbor seals, harp seals, gray seals and hooded seals. Other species living in the St. Lawrence Estuary (though seldom seen) are the North Atlantic right whale, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, white-beaked dolphin, long-finned pilot whale, orca, northern bottlenose and sperm whale.
Can’t get enough of whales? There are 69 species of toothed whales and 14 species of baleen whales around the globe! In addition to Quebec, Natural Habitat Adventures offers expeditions to see gray whales at their calving grounds in Baja, belugas in Churchill and humpbacks in British Columbia and Antarctica.