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Canada: Baby Beluga! Whale watching in Quebec lasts all summer

The tour boat had only just left the Quebec shore when naturalist Agathe Poitras shouted through her megaphone, “Minke at one o’clock.” Adults and kids raced to the right hand side of the boat to see the large black shadow rise up out of the water. “Oh wow,” Poitras exclaimed as not one, but two minke whales—a mother and her baby—leaped out of the water. “That’s a young one,” she added as passengers strained to get a good view. But before the smaller kids had settled in at the ship’s rail, Poitras yelled again excitedly, “Humpback at four o’clock.” The group hurriedly moved down the deck toward this new impressive sighting.

During our three-hour AML cruise in the St. Lawrence River near the mouth of the Saguenay, we saw 20 whales—minkes, fin whales and humpbacks—as well as grey seals and harbour porpoises. It was a bright sunny day and some kids sat happily at the rails, binoculars in hand. Others raced around the boat, sipped cider in the cafeteria, stroked a whale’s sieve-like plates as Poitras demonstrated how the creatures caught fish and enjoyed the “Oohs” and “Aahs” that erupted with each whale sighting.

One reason to celebrate Canada this weekend is that just one and a half hour’s drive east of Quebec City, near Tadoussac, (about eight and a half hours from Toronto) lies one of the world’s richest marine feeding grounds. Some ten species of whales gather here to gorge on capelin, krill and other food that’s swirls around where the cold salty water of the St. Lawrence meets the fresh warm water of the Saguenay fjord. A whale refrigerator that’s constantly stocked.

This region is also particularly suited for family whale expeditions. The waters are fairly calm, so young sailors won’t experience the kind of stomach churning excursions common in the wild ocean swells off Cape Cod. Many tour operators offer a choice of boats (one with an underwater video camera and listening devices) and excursions. Plus, with so many whales congregating here, whale sightings are pretty much guaranteed. What if the weather is grey and foggy? “Then we can usually hear them,” answered one naturalist.

If you’ve got teenagers along, they may prefer to ride out in a bouncy rubber zodiac. There are rules, however, so that the boats won’t disturb the whales—the white beluga whale immortalized by Raffi, actually has her babies here and winters in the Sauguenay fjord—and last summer Jacques Cousteau’s son was pulled from the waters for chasing the whales while filming. Should a whale come within 200 metres of a boat, the motor must be switched to neutral. The whales do come close though. On our cruise, the minkes were right alongside the rails. As one naturalist commented, “If a whale wants to kiss the boat, it’s his choice.”

This whale feeding frenzy lasts from May through October. Depending on the month, families may come across fin whales, humpbacks, porpoises and even the great blue whale, the largest mammal on earth. Exclaimed one excited Toronto mom, “I didn’t expect to see the biggest animal in the whole wild world coming down the river. He opened up his very large eye and seemed to look at us. It was a thrill.” Even in summer though, it’s wise to bring warm clothes. One parent watched in dismay last July as their boat guide wrapped her neck with scarves before they set out. It can be sunny and warm on shore, but cold and windy in the middle of the St. Lawrence.

Boats leave daily from the Baie-Sainte-Catherine wharf or from the town of Tadoussac. The two are connected by a free eight-minute ferry ride, a treat in itself for the kids. Whale tours start at about $35 for adults for a three-hour cruise, $15 for kids and free for under sixes. Zodiacs are more expensive. You’ll find numerous operators in Tadoussac or Baie-Sainte-Catherine.

Families may also want to visit the nearby interpretive centres to learn more about whales, handle starfish and sea urchins or visit a unique collection of whale skeletons. There are games and skits for kids at the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre in Tadoussac as well as hiking trails and observation towers along the coast. To get an up-to-date report of which whales have been spotted in the waters, visit www.whales-online.net, updated daily by GREMM, Group for Research and Education of Marine Mammals.

For lodging, there are many motels and hotels in the area. For a splurge, bunk in at the elegant castle-like Manoir Richelieu, the newly renovated Canadian Pacific hotel in Pointe-au-Pic, with its good kids’ programs, outdoor pool. mini golf and lots of space to run around. Kids under 18 stay free. Rooms start at $129; beds and buffet breakfasts for a family of four would cost about $220. Call 1-800-441-1414.

For information on Croisières AML, Famille Dufour Cruises, Croisières 2001 inc. and other companies, call the Charlevoix tourist office 1-800-667-2276 or 418-665-4454 or visit www.tourisme-charlevoix.com.





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