I associate whale watching with choppy waves, ocean spray on my camera, and seasick compatriots. But on the north shore of Canada’s Saint Laurence River near Tadoussac, Quebec, there is a deep channel near land where you can see even the biggest of whales without donning a lifejacket.
“It is the best place in the world to see whales from shore,” extols Patrice Corbeil, GREMM Executive Director (Group for Research and Education for Marine Mammals), adding with a smile that there are secret places where people bring a bottle of wine to sip while watching whales swim by.
Intrigued by this this relaxed approach to adventure I decide to try whale watching from shore.
I head north to Parks Canada Cap-de-Bon-Désir Interpretation and Observation Centre. A small building holds a room-size model of the different size whales found in the area. Two beluga whales look like salt-and-pepper shakers next to a torpedo-sized blue whale. “I saw a blue whale from shore, just north of here!” exclaims Valerie Busque, Visitor Services Team Leader proving great whale experiences can be had without a boat.
The reason so many whales come close to Tadoussac - one of the first settlements on Québec's north shore - is the deep Laurentien channel near land and a steep rock wall that whales use to corral krill. Baleen whales like humpbacks, minkes, and blues love krill and will launch themselves through the krill they’ve gathered, mouths open to swallow as many as possible, and delighting people lucky enough to see lunges that break the surface.
Hoping to see whales feeding I wander the short wooded path to the St. Lawrence, the smell of fir and salty air tickling my nostrils. There's a cold breeze lifting off the water as I scramble onto rock slabs overlooking the St. Laurence. I can’t tell by looking at the inky-blue surface but this water can provide the 40 million krill a blue whale can eat in a single day!
The sun pops out, warming the rocks. I don’t see anyone sipping wine but Brant geese nibble eelgrass at the water’s edge. “There’s a whale!” yells another watcher and I swivel to see nothing but water where a whale once was.
Within moments there's a staccato burst of air as a whale breaks the surface with its blow; the glossy back of a minke twinkling in the sun before it slips back to the watery buffet. I watch as the whale reappears several times on a northward track.
Starting to get the rhythm of whale spotting from shore I head to a second spot favored by whale lovers, the Pointe de L’Islet trail near Tadoussac’s marina. I stroll through a warbler-filled forest to a viewpoint near the mouth of Saguenay Fjord where a friend told me she had seen a whole group of belugas. Today I see only geese.
Realizing I’ve skipped the wine in my terra firma whale watching adventure I head to a small restaurant - La Galouine - near the village center. Owners Paryse Deschenes and Martin Brisson offer local cuisine and white wine from Quebec’s eastern townships.
I sip my drink and realize this community has pierced my belief one must suffer to see whales. Adventure has never been so civilized.