September 27: Whales, Whales and More Whales

Out Where the River Gets Wild 

After Quebec City, the St. Lawrence becomes part river, part estuary – a large, slow-moving brackish body of water that heads northeastward and eventually opens into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. About half-way through this journey, the Saguenay River enters the picture, creating the unique marine habitat encompassed by the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, which is home to, among many other organisms, the southernmost population of beluga whales on earth. We stopped at the Pointe Noire Observation and Interpretation Centre to get an introduction to the park, spotted some belugas (!), and met the Parks Canada officials responsible for balancing the conservation of several species of whales with the thriving tourism industry that brings thousands of hopeful whale watchers each year.

Right Whale, Wrong Place

For years, the conservation of the beluga whale moderated human endeavor in this part of the world as boats were asked to slow down and whale watchers keep their distance to keep this endangered species safe. Then, in the summer of 2017, a new behemoth lumbered on the scene. As warming ocean waters pushed their preferred planktonic food source to higher latitudes, North Atlantic right whales followed their prey – right into the St. Lawrence. That summer, 12 right whales died in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. With a population of fewer than 500 whales left, this new development sent the shipping and fishing industries scrambling to come up with ways to mitigate the danger to whales – while the entities that oversee those industries began temporarily shutting down fisheries when whales were spotted and lowering the speed limit for ships bound for the Great Lakes. We learned more from GREMM (Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals) about how federal and provincial officials work with the maritime industry, commercial fishing interests and whale-watching operators to ensure that whales and humans both get what they need out of the St. Lawrence. 

Scientific Research, Marine Conservation and Massively Charismatic Megafauna

It wouldn’t be reporting if we didn’t go see what the fuss was all about! We headed out to see if we could spot some of the whales that keep Tadoussac’s tourism industry humming throughout the summer and fall - and we weren’t disappointed, spotting beluga, fin, minke and humpbacks. Along the way, we heard about the Eco-Whale Alliance, a program involving five marine tour business owners, Parcs Québec, Parks Canada and the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals that promotes responsible practices for whale watching activities in the Marine Park. We also talked with Parks Canada scientists about their current research projects in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.