For whale watching you don’t have to go far: Quebec’s Saguenay Fjord is a breathtaking place to see marine life

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Flanked by rounded granite peaks that plunge into brackish waters and tall, wispy evergreens, the Saguenay Fjord is unique in its rugged isolation. Carved into the Earth by the departure of glaciers and subsequent flooding, it is a rare geological gem.

I learn these facts about the fjord on a kayaking trip with Fjord en Kayak in L’Anse-St-Jean, Quebec, a town of about 1,200 people on the waterway that connects Lac Saint -Jean in Tadoussac. The fjord represents 105 kilometers of this section and, at Tadoussac, it joins the St. Lawrence River, together forming the Saguenay—St. St. Lawrence Marine Park.

Thanks to the marine park’s distinctive mix – fresh water from the lake floating on the surface and becoming brackish due to the salt water from the river below – this body of water has amazing marine life.

Here, the St. Lawrence is home to marine mammals like few other places in the world, but one species ventures into the fjord so regularly. In 1994, Parks Canada and Sépaq, Sépaq, joined forces to ensure the conservation of this threatened species: the beluga. This area is home to the southernmost population of these whales in the world.

As we paddle through the frigid waters, my guide Mathieu Boulanger-Messier, co-owner of Fjord en Kayak, tells me how 19th century fishermen wrongly accused belugas of eating their precious cod. The subsequent hunt caused populations of smiling cetaceans to drop from around 10,000 to around 900. With the federal government protecting the fjord itself and the provincial authorities in charge of the banks, strict regulations are in place for navigation in these waters.

I see the rules in action the next day aboard a Zodiac boat driven by Captain Cécile Hauchecorne, during my hour-long trek from the small town to the marina in Tadoussac. Surrounded by horror-movie fog, Hauchecorne slows the ship, and my heart sinks as she points to undulating white shapes swimming in our direction.

There is a common wave of emotion when meeting beluga whales, which resemble humans in many ways. They are social creatures with vocalizations that can sound human, and they are one of the few animals to go through menopause, so once past breeding age, grandmothers help care for the young.

Skeletons at the GREMM Marine Mammal Interpretation Center.

Hauchecorne is proud to be a member of the Eco-Whale Alliance, an initiative created in 2011 which aims to limit the impacts of whale watching on animals, created in part by the Groupement de Recherche et d’Enseignement sur les Marine Mammals (GREMM).

Tadoussac is a town of barely 800 inhabitants, but it is home to sand dunes deposited by glaciers, shops named after whales and the impressive GREMM Marine Mammal Interpretation Center, where you will find the largest collection of whale skeletons in North America. It includes the ancient bones of Félix the beluga, found near Saint-Félix-d’Otis, proving that the species has been here for at least 10,000 years.

The centre’s director, Patrice Corbeil, has me play a game that shows how local photographers identify whales from their scars, which are often the result of accidents with boats. Next summer, the space will have a new theater, where visitors can watch live footage of whales filmed by researchers using drones, helping scientists better understand the behavior of the pods .

Golden hour seen from the Tadoussac hotel.

That evening, I fall asleep at the iconic red-roofed Hôtel Tadoussac, with images of belugas diving in unison, seen from the sky. I wake up with the sun and have my coffee on the terrace facing the bay of this monument built in 1864.

The morning is bright at the Marine Environment Discovery Center, where exhibits introduce visitors to life in technicolor below: orange and yellow wavy anemone, coral-colored starfish, and tons and tons of krill. This is the most abundant known population of this small crustacean, which is why so many whales are drawn to these areas and its all-you-can-eat buffet.

As I set off on smooth rocks along the estuary, I spot scientists with buckets at the shore’s edge, one of them emerging in full scuba gear, preparing for an educational demonstration.

It doesn’t take long before a porpoise appears, fin first before its back points above the waves, followed by a minke whale – two of the 13 species of marine mammals that pass through here.

Some of the larger species prefer to go deeper into open waters, and this is my next stop on an expedition boat with Croisières AML (also a member of the Eco-Whale Alliance).

Shortly after boarding, the marine life interpreter begins speaking over the microphone to the hundreds of guests. She lightly mocks someone who asks when we’ll see our first whale: sightings are never guaranteed and often require patience.

A view of Fjord-du-Saguenay National Park.

A Brit next to me mumbles, “Come see mum,” her eyes fixed on the horizon. As the boat passes the Prince Shoal Lighthouse and we begin to backtrack, our interpreter draws our attention to our right – to water spouting through the air from an expiring whale. Everyone on board seems to be holding their breath in unison.

I have to remind myself that the boat won’t rock as passengers rush to one side to spot a humpback whale showing us its tail before diving deep. I see the British woman smiling broadly like a child.

Returning to the fjord, I head to where the female beluga whales spend the summer with their babies in Baie-Ste-Marguerite, surrounded by part of the Parc national du Fjord-du-Saguenay, where the waters calm and warmer are closed to boats for the season.

As I walk through the park, I ask my guide Andrée-Laurence Paradis-Roy if beluga populations have rebounded. No, they are collecting new data, she replies, but she suspects the numbers have slipped below 900. Climate change and pollution are the threats of modern times, supplanting the hunters of the past.

When we arrive at the pristine beach, there isn’t a boat in sight, it’s all calm waves framed by mountains. We do not see any belugas but notice three Parks Canada researchers settling in, equipped with powerful binoculars.

Like us, they will keep their eyes on the horizon for the beloved white whales, in the hope that their tides will turn despite the warming waters, that their numbers will increase, that they will continue to inhabit this protected haven.

Writer Caitlin Stall-Paquet traveled as a guest of Hello Quebec, Tourism Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and maritime Quebecwho neither reviewed nor approved this article.

If you are going to

How to get there: You can drive from Montreal to Saguenay in five hours, or fly direct from Montreal (YUL) to Saguenay-Bagotville airport.

Where to stay: Parc Aventures Cap Jaseux in Saint-Fulgence is a playground for all ages, with hiking trails, treetop adventures and kayaks galore. For accommodation, choose from treehouses, sky-view domes, suspended spheres, or metal cooler cabins, depending on your tolerance for heights.

Where to dine: In L’Anse-St-Jean, the pub-brasserie La Chasse-Pinte serves locally raised red deer burgers and tartars, as well as house beers such as a crispy lager infused with fir. If you’re looking for a gargantuan breakfast, Café Bohème in Tadoussac is ready with Nordic shrimp-stuffed rolls, sweet and savory crepes and bagel sandwiches.

what else to do: Head for the woods at the Bec-Scie Outdoor Centre, which is home to a protected river, the Rivière-à-Mars. Walk through the forest accompanied by a naturalist to learn about edible plants, geological history and wildlife.

Correction — October 5, 2022: A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Lac Saint-Jean as Lac St-Jean.

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