Journey to Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River

Rick Lew
Rick Lew

Journey to Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River

An unpredictable haven for cetaceans, as well as hundreds of thousands of birds, Quebec's St. Lawrence River is an eco-traveler's dream. You can kayak with humpbacks, camp on a cliff, encounter massive seabird colonies, and scamper among snowshoe hares. Just whatever you do, don't spoil the view.

By T. Edward Nickens/Photography by Rick Lew
Published: May-June 2012

The whale rises from the river without so much as a suggestive swirl of water, a few dozen shimmering tons of black skin and pearl-white flukes so close it blocks our view of the horizon. "Markie, freeze!" I whisper to my 15-year-old daughter. She stops her kayak paddle in mid-stroke, as if the slightest movement might spook a giant humpback.

For two days Markie and I have paddled a sea kayak through rain, fog, wind, and the choppy slop of the St. Lawrence River, near the small village of Tadoussac, Quebec. A quarter of the world's freshwater resources--including all the flow from the Great Lakes--meets the tides of the Atlantic under our kayak, a massive mixing bowl that during the summer months draws whales by the hundreds. There are fins, humpbacks, blues, minkes, and more, 13 species in all, including a year-round population of endangered beluga whales. The whales feed from the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula to just a few miles up river from Tadoussac, where they heavily concentrate. Here a nearly 1,000-foot-deep submarine valley called the Laurentian Channel ends abruptly, forcing an upwelling of currents clouded with plankton, krill, and the massive mammals that feed on them.

VIDEO: Kayaking with whales and hiking islands inhabited by eider ducks provide a great adventure in Canada.

Markie and I are seeking an intimate connection with the St. Lawrence and its denizens. We've sketched out a weeklong excursion of a lifetime--watch for whales by kayak and ship, and camp atop soaring riverside cliffs cantilevered over waters that drop hundreds of feet deep just a few yards from shore. We'll boat to remote, barely visited islands that host massive colonies of nesting waterbirds, and trek through boreal woods and sandy beaches where snowshoe hares, eiders, and seabirds cling to rocky headlands and a precarious future. We'll be mere feet from some of the most dramatic wildlife displays in North America, and revel in a region where tourism and conservation depend wholly on each other.

Now, a mile from where our tent is pitched on a soaring cliff, the sun breaks out, the wind lies down, and the water turns to hammered pewter. At 30 feet away, foggy mist spumes from the whale's blowhole in a guttural, wheezy WHOOSH. At 10 feet, the mammal's breath drifts in the air, fishy and wet. Markie and I can see the whale's eye, black as onyx, patches of barnacles clinging to its skin, the down-curved jaw that gives the humpback its signature expression of perpetual grumpiness.

The whale surfaces four more times, then arches its back even higher for its final dive. As its tail emerges from the St. Lawrence, seawater cascades off the flukes, twin scythes like nature's own rococo scrollwork, writ in flesh and bone and wet, gleaming hide. Then the animal disappears, leaving us with mouths agape and hearts full. Yet there is hardly a ripple to mark the whale's passing.

Of course, it's taken us a while to finally rub flukes with a humpback. At Mer et Monde's breathtaking waterside sea kayak center, our tent is pitched on a platform bridging rocky crevices festooned with sea urchins. We venture out in two- and three-hour sorties, coursing along the whale's known feeding lanes, hoping for a chance encounter.

All along, however, we're well aware that our presence here, while relatively slight, still exacts a toll. Early in our stay our kayak guide, Mathieu Dupuis, made the point. He sidled up to our kayak, a big smile gleaming in his ruddy red beard, and began to speak in French-inflected English. "Markie, you are a whale. Okay?" He patted the boat's cowling as Markie laughed, curly hair wet with mist and salt spray. "You are looking up, yes? Because you are underwater, but you want to breathe now. But what is this? A pointy red thing floating over here, a yellow thing over there, and other floating things everywhere else. What do you do, Markie? You can hold your breath only so long." 

The lesson is clear: Even a motorless floating plastic cylinder is not entirely benign, especially if there are dozens of others. To reduce the impact, the best kayak companies require boaters to raft up whenever observing whales so the animals have room to breathe and feed. They are defining an environmental ethos that seems to appeal to proponents of motor-free ecotourism. "When you feel the whale go under your boat--whoosh!--it is something else, you know?" said Dupuis. "Many people are searching for contact like that. But we must be careful."

It's a refrain I'll hear all along the St. Lawrence: How can scientists, tour operators, and regulators take care to balance the needs of fragile wildlife species with human populations--and local economies--that depend on sights as thrilling as a breaching whale?


Or a rookery island crowded with seabirds?

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Enjoyed reading your article! My wife and I are headed to Quebec shortly. I'm the guy that you met at the airport on our way to Wyoming last year.

Safe travels!

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