We had been following two magnificent humpback whales for several minutes as they swam beside our zodiac.
Our driver kept a respectful distance, but the curious whales were not shy.
They surfaced, arcing their long dark bodies, and then silently slipped back into the St. Lawrence River.
Then they were up again, close enough to see barnacles attached on their scarred skin.
Finally, they lifted their expansive tails high and disappeared into the steely depths.
“When they show their tails they are diving deep, and often won’t surface for 10 minutes or more,” we are told by our guide and naturalist Catherine Dube.
We scan the surrounding waters, cameras at the ready.
Suddenly, the pair shot out of the water in splendid synchronicity — so high and with a grace and elegance I would have thought impossible for such huge animals.
They both tilted right and came down in the sea with a great splash. Our guide squealed in delight — while silence settled on the rest of us.
Who knew that these 12-metre, 28 tonne creatures could fly?
Some of the best whale watching in the world can be found in Quebec’s Saguenay –— St. Lawrence Marine Park, created in 1998 to showcase the spectacular scenery and marine wildlife of the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay Fjord.
We set off that morning from the pretty little village of Tadoussac, eight of us onboard the Sentinelle III, a compact and comfortable zodiac.
“We are meant to observe, not disturb,” lectured Dube, as we set a slow pace out of the Saguenay fjord, carefully meandering through a pod of beluga whales.
These are not the first belugas I had observed in the park.
The previous day, having driven three hours northeast from Quebec City along the shore of the St. Lawrence, the highway was interrupted by a ferry waiting to shuttle vehicles across the fjord to Tadoussac.
Our crossing was delayed, allowing a dozen beluga whales to pass, their smooth white bodies clearly visible bobbing in the leaden grey waters like ice caps.
The endangered beluga is this park’s most famous resident.
The 1,245-square kilometre marine park is a joint creation of Quebec and Parks Canada. Our zodiac outing impresses not only with the quantity of whales that we see, but also the variety.
Besides the belugas and humpbacks, we see minke whales, fin whales and harbour seals.
Often spotted are the enormous blue whales. The cold, salt waters of the North Atlantic encounter fresh water flowing out of the St. Lawrence, stirring up an accumulation of krill and fish upon which whales feed.
The beluga and harbour seal are the only marine animals that live here year-round. Other whales, including our show-boating humpbacks, migrate between the park and their mating grounds in the Caribbean.
Boating is one way to observe these magnificent mammals, there are also many excellent viewing areas on land.
The Parks Canada Cap-De-Bon-Desir Interpretation and Observation Centre explains what lifeforms we might find on the sea floor and offers a whale-watching vantage point on its shoreline.
At first, we saw only freighters moving up the seaway outside the park boundary, a subtle reminder of why this protected area was necessary.
Then a minke whale broke through the surface metres from our viewpoint, slowly following the rocky shore.
The Marine Environment Discovery Centre at Les Escoumins educates visitors about the park’s aquatic environment and conservation efforts.
Guests can participate in an underwater dive without getting wet, in a theatre watching biologist-divers equipped with a camera and microphone go live beneath the St. Lawrence River.
Feeling brave and wanting more, I don a wet suit, mask, snorkel and fins and dive into the river’s 2 C waters.
I am shocked, not by the cold, but by the colour and variety which I see; starfish, vivid sea anemones, urchins, sea cucumber and jellyfish.
Also worth a visit is the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre in Tadoussac where they keep a daily record of whale sightings.
Inside is an impressive collection of whale skeletons; bones you can touch, whale sounds to listen to and photos to help you identify the specific whales you might see.
I recognize one of our humpbacks as Tic Tac Toe — so named because of the “X” mark on her tale.
Identifying her, I must admit to a special affinity with this magnificent creature of the deep — summering in this spectacular marine park, wintering in the Caribbean.
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