Journey to Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River
Still, the experience here is all carefully crafted to protect the birds, which happens to yield solitude for visitors. One afternoon Markie, our host, Virginie Chadenet, and I take off on De la Corniche, a trail that bisects the island and plunges dramatically off a 130-foot rock escarpment. A stout rope is anchored between two trembling aspens, and Markie tackles the descent first, leaning back with a rappeler’s stance, to drop down through balsam fir and spruce. Watching her slip hand over hand down the rope, Chadenet, a wildlife biologist who has contributed to Société Duvetnor’s ecotourism and learning travel tours, puts our adventure in perspective. “Jean Bédard really set the table for ecotourism in this region,” she says. “It would have been much easier to have had a huge campground with mountain biking and sea kayaking. But the idea was conservation first and always. So instead of a nice staircase down the cornice, we have a wet, dirty rope.”
For the next three days we clamber over the island, rarely running into another human being away from the cluster of cabins and the small auberge. We find eider nests by the score, scattered from the beach to deep inside the forest, slight depressions marked by shell fragments. We stalk close to summer-brown snowshoe hares, so numerous on the predator-free island that they have eaten away nearly every edible plant, leaving a dense shrubby layer of unpalatable cranberry-tree, red-osier dogwood, and ground hemlock. And we spend an afternoon on nearby Brandy Pot Island, where we tour an 1862 lighthouse restored by Société Duvetnor and plumb wooden walkways that wind through boggy woods and stone-armored beaches. There are more eiders there, plus razorbills and black guillemots—Quebecois call them guillemot à miroir, Chadenet tells me, “for when they fly you see the white shoulder patches flash like a mirror.”
By design, distractions are few on Ile aux Lièvres—there is no immediate access to telephone, television, or the Internet, so even during periods of light rain and gray skies, we were trekking through woods, across kelp-draped sea cliffs, and far out into tidal pools where seals bellowed from rocky headlands.
Wrapped in the silence of a solitary beach, watching seals and eiders dive among the kelp, I couldn’t help but compare this to an earlier encounter with the St. Lawrence’s wildlife. At Tadoussac, whale watchers were in other vessels besides kayaks. About 40 larger boats access the water from marinas there, ranging from 12- and 24-passenger motorized rafts to soaring excursion ships with snack bars, gift shops, and lecture rooms. In 2008, the most recent year for which comprehensive figures are known, whale watching brought in more than a half-million tourists, generating about $80 million for the local economy.
Early one morning, Markie and I boarded a triple-decker excursion boat with biologist Robert Michaud, founder and president of the Tadoussac-based Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM). Within a few minutes of launching, we were dashing from one side of the boat to the other, binoculars swinging. Minke whales were everywhere. A pod of 50 gray seals bobbed nearby. A dozen fin whale spouts painted white slashes against the gray water. Belugas winked white in the distance. Catherine Dubé, a perky naturalist with a blonde ponytail dangling beneath her microphone headset, called out the action in both French and English. “There’s a minke at nine o’clock! Another at three o’clock! See the fin whale? She is ready to dive now. Take the picture! Take the picture! Merci! Thank you, whales!”
In addition to our craft, nine motorized rafts and another large excursion boat idled nearby. On the horizon, more boats headed our way. We could hear the crowds ooh-ing and ahh-ing each time a fin whale spouted.
Such activity gives conservationists pause. “Whales have to adjust their diving and ventilation patterns in areas with a heavy concentration of boats,” explained Michaud. “There is strong evidence that this can lessen feeding efficiency, and that’s a big concern.” Regulations passed in 2002 set specific limits for whale-watching boat traffic in the 480-square-mile Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. Among them: Ecotour boats must stay at least 200 meters (about 200 yards) away from any cetacean, and must adhere to strict speed limits within 400 meters. (A special permit from Parks Canada will allow certain vessels to approach within 100 meters, as long as there are fewer than five boats within 400 meters of the approaching vessel.)
“Even if every boat behaves perfectly under those regulations,” said Michaud, “there still will be times when there are simply too many boats near whales.” Just this past June, under guidance from GREMM, Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park managers and the whale-watching operators formed the Eco-Whale Alliance to help turn the region’s whale-watching industry into a model for sustainable ecotourism. The Alliance’s “Guide for Eco-Responsible Practices for Captains/Naturalists” goes beyond federal and provincial regulations. Alliance members agree to spend some cruise time actively searching for whales instead of chasing boats that have already found them, and to limit time spent at any one observation site to 30 minutes. The new Alliance also requires adherence to a 12-point educational guide, and created the Eco-Baleine Fund to support activities related to research, training, and education on whale-watching activities.
“We are exploiting a resource here,” Michaud explained, eyes never leaving the horizon as he searched for whales. “The question is, are minimized human impacts acceptable if they are counterbalanced with a serious educational outreach? I believe so, and we are getting closer to that balance every year.”