Côte-Nord region is the native land of the Innu (formally knowns as Naskapi-Montagnais).
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“Oh, that’s a whale!” Ben exclaimed looking out of the hotel window, I rushed to the balcony to catch a glimpse but the whale has gone under. A wave of disappointment passed through my face, “don’t worry, you will see them tomorrow,” he reassured me spotting the sadness. One sleep and two fried eggs later we were packed and ready to go on our first ever official whale watching excursion. Whales guaranteed.
Tadoussac, located in the Québec Côte-Nord region, has been a prime spot for whale-spotting since 1979. The climate creates a perfect environment for a dozen marine spaces to visit the Lower Estuary seasonally and for some to even live in the area full time. So naturally, as many as 200,000 people visit the region annually to catch a glimpse of these mystical and majestic creatures.
Clinging to my raincoat sleeves I followed the boat attendant onto the deck, exposing the wristband with that infamous acronym “VIP,” not giving a second thought to what that might entail. The interior stewardess, a pleasant French lady dressed in a navy skirt suit, gracefully gave us a tour of the room: here you get the best view on the water, she gestured on the floor to ceiling glass window wrapping the front of the boat, here are our beverage options, above is the private observation deck, and on the way back they will serve locally sourced snacks. Once the initial surprise of this cozy comfort and glamour had passed we settled on a soft leather bench looking out at the St. Lawrence River.
This excursion was booked with the assistance of the Québec Maritimes Tourism board which did not review or approve this article.
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Whale watching is an exercise of patience. Once the boat left the dock and all of our travel companions got their beverages of choice (sparkling rose for me) we were all glued to the window, scanning the water inch by inch while listening to the room, just in case someone spots one. Is that it? No that’s just a rock, everyone sits back down. A voice over the speaker directs us to turn to our 12 o’clock where a mom and a baby are gently blowing water into the cool air. People begin to move in that viewing direction with excitement, held back by that uncomfortable safety hesitation, after all, we are still in the global pandemic, masked and slightly afraid of human contact.
As we navigate further and further away from the shore we see more and more fountains and breaches in the distance. Sperm whales are matriarchal species and travel in pairs: a mature female and a younger whale. The pairs come together into a pod of up to 20 whales with male whales traveling in and out of different pods solo. From the lower deck to the top people moved in waves around the nose of the boat, chasing the whale pairs popping up on different sides of the vessel.
Suddenly, we were right in the middle of a whale training camp with pairs of adults and youngsters popping up around, breaching, diving for a prolonged period, and coming up for air a distance away. The younger whales did not break the surface fully but followed the grown-ups closely in harmony, exposing their dorsal fins and imitating their adult’s flipper movements, as if waving to their whale friends. If you watch long enough it almost seems like they are cruising on their backs, splashing around, smiling at the sun, but every movement has a purpose. Breaching helps them get rid of various small pests, blowing releases gas, and these fin waves, called “pec-slaps,” are for flirting.
Every time an adult caught air close by, shared sing of “oh’s” and “wow’s” would travel through the deck to be only followed by “Look! There is another one!” Despite the freezing wind, a small group of us were huddling on the top deck, trying to get an unobstructed photo of a perfect whale breach while porpoises were cruising along with the boat. An occasional seal would surface between waves, looking up at us with its sweet beady eyes. But time passes fast when you are having a good time so soon enough we had to turn back. The return journey was eased with a snack box sizeable enough to make me consider skipping dinner – a wealth of local sea products and baked goods, including some of the freshest smoked salmon I’ve ever had.
Arriving back to the middle estuary we were greeted by a pod of beluga whales, splashing around close to shore. These almost cartoon-like whales are the only species that live in the St. Lawrence year-round. Docking back in town atmosphere on the boat changed, there was a different kind of excitement in the air, a type of satisfaction from finally having checked something off your wish list, we saw whales, many whales! “I cannot wait to show the pictures to… well anyone who asks,” I thought to myself while finishing up a chewy browny with a Baileys and coffee. This is, by far, the best possible way to see whales in this climate.
Croisières AML Cruises have been operating in the region from the start as an eco-responsible family business running tours, charters, and Zodiac boats across the province. Book directly by visiting croisieresaml.com. VIP excursion description can be found here.
The whale watching tour was just one of our many adventures on the road trip through Québec Maritimes, see the full Destination Guide.
In the gear bag: Fujifilm X-T100 with an XF50mmF2 R WR lens*. To see Paris on Instagram see the story highlight titled #XQCMaritimes and find more images from this road trip using the #XQCMaritimes hashtag.