Journey to Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River
The whale rises from the river without so much as a suggestive swirl of water, a few dozen shimmering tons of black skin and pearl-white flukes so close it blocks our view of the horizon. “Markie, freeze!” I whisper to my 15-year-old daughter. She stops her kayak paddle in mid-stroke, as if the slightest movement might spook a giant humpback.
For two days Markie and I have paddled a sea kayak through rain, fog, wind, and the choppy slop of the St. Lawrence River, near the small village of Tadoussac, Quebec. A quarter of the world’s freshwater resources—including all the flow from the Great Lakes—meets the tides of the Atlantic under our kayak, a massive mixing bowl that during the summer months draws whales by the hundreds. There are fins, humpbacks, blues, minkes, and more, 13 species in all, including a year-round population of endangered beluga whales. The whales feed from the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula to just a few miles up river from Tadoussac, where they heavily concentrate. Here a nearly 1,000-foot-deep submarine valley called the Laurentian Channel ends abruptly, forcing an upwelling of currents clouded with plankton, krill, and the massive mammals that feed on them.
Markie and I are seeking an intimate connection with the St. Lawrence and its denizens. We’ve sketched out a weeklong excursion of a lifetime—watch for whales by kayak and ship, and camp atop soaring riverside cliffs cantilevered over waters that drop hundreds of feet deep just a few yards from shore. We’ll boat to remote, barely visited islands that host massive colonies of nesting waterbirds, and trek through boreal woods and sandy beaches where snowshoe hares, eiders, and seabirds cling to rocky headlands and a precarious future. We’ll be mere feet from some of the most dramatic wildlife displays in North America, and revel in a region where tourism and conservation depend wholly on each other.
Now, a mile from where our tent is pitched on a soaring cliff, the sun breaks out, the wind lies down, and the water turns to hammered pewter. At 30 feet away, foggy mist spumes from the whale’s blowhole in a guttural, wheezy WHOOSH. At 10 feet, the mammal’s breath drifts in the air, fishy and wet. Markie and I can see the whale’s eye, black as onyx, patches of barnacles clinging to its skin, the down-curved jaw that gives the humpback its signature expression of perpetual grumpiness.
The whale surfaces four more times, then arches its back even higher for its final dive. As its tail emerges from the St. Lawrence, seawater cascades off the flukes, twin scythes like nature’s own rococo scrollwork, writ in flesh and bone and wet, gleaming hide. Then the animal disappears, leaving us with mouths agape and hearts full. Yet there is hardly a ripple to mark the whale’s passing.
Of course, it’s taken us a while to finally rub flukes with a humpback. At Mer et Monde’s breathtaking waterside sea kayak center, our tent is pitched on a platform bridging rocky crevices festooned with sea urchins. We venture out in two- and three-hour sorties, coursing along the whale’s known feeding lanes, hoping for a chance encounter.
All along, however, we’re well aware that our presence here, while relatively slight, still exacts a toll. Early in our stay our kayak guide, Mathieu Dupuis, made the point. He sidled up to our kayak, a big smile gleaming in his ruddy red beard, and began to speak in French-inflected English. “Markie, you are a whale. Okay?” He patted the boat’s cowling as Markie laughed, curly hair wet with mist and salt spray. “You are looking up, yes? Because you are underwater, but you want to breathe now. But what is this? A pointy red thing floating over here, a yellow thing over there, and other floating things everywhere else. What do you do, Markie? You can hold your breath only so long.”
The lesson is clear: Even a motorless floating plastic cylinder is not entirely benign, especially if there are dozens of others. To reduce the impact, the best kayak companies require boaters to raft up whenever observing whales so the animals have room to breathe and feed. They are defining an environmental ethos that seems to appeal to proponents of motor-free ecotourism. “When you feel the whale go under your boat—whoosh!—it is something else, you know?” said Dupuis. “Many people are searching for contact like that. But we must be careful.”
It’s a refrain I’ll hear all along the St. Lawrence: How can scientists, tour operators, and regulators take care to balance the needs of fragile wildlife species with human populations—and local economies—that depend on sights as thrilling as a breaching whale?
Or a rookery island crowded with seabirds?
While driving to Tadoussac earlier in the week we could make out the hazy outlines of islands rising from the river, distant archipelagos of rock and serrated conifers. Our southward route to the next destination, Ile aux Lièvres, requires two public ferries, a final private boat launch, and half a day of travel. We vaulted the Saguenay River at the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord, lined with rock faces 500 feet tall, then crossed the St. Lawrence from Saint-Simeone to Rivière-du-Loup on a double-decker ferry, belugas glinting white in every direction.
A ribbon of rock and boreal woodlands, Ile aux Lièvres is eight miles long and rarely wider than a half-mile. It’s one of eight islands owned and managed for bird conservation and ecotourism by Société Duvetnor Ltée, a nonprofit organization founded in 1979 to protect the river’s seabird colonies and wildlife habitats. These managed isles are among more than 50 small islands in the lower St. Lawrence estuary that host very large colonies of nesting common eiders, razorbills, black guillemots, common murres, kittiwakes, herons, and gulls.
In these parts biologist and Société Duvetnor founder Jean Bédard is held in near awe. Seventy-three years old, lean and wiry with a sea-foam beard, the retired wildlife biology professor seems as much a part of this marine environment as driftwood and wet shale. Standing high atop a rocky promontory, he pulls the olive fragments of an eggshell from a nook lined with moss and pungent conifer needles. At this very spot, shaded by white birch and balsam fir, a common eider duck chose a nest site with an impressive view. Five feet away the cliff falls sharply to a deep cove rimmed in kelp, blue mussels, and smooth stones, which opens to a broad channel.
“Look at this,” Bédard says, flicking the shells with the tip of his finger. “You can see the dark membrane of the inner lining? That tells us that this was a successful hatching.”
Ile aux Lièvres has 25 miles of winding foot trails that take in wild, windy, rocky shores and wet, sequestered groves of sharp-scented spruce woods. Visitors can overnight at 19 wilderness hike-in campsites, four small cottages, or the Auberge du Lièvre, a tidy six-room inn. Shore hiking is limited during the birds’ breeding season, but when we visited, the large colonies had dispersed throughout the St. Lawrence and all the trails were open.
These islands are uninhabited and nearly free of four-footed predators such as foxes and raccoons, perfect conditions for breeding seabirds, gulls, and waterfowl. There can be as many as 1,000 common eider nests per acre on some islands. At one and a half feet long, common eiders are the Northern Hemisphere’s largest duck. Birds in the St. Lawrence region are the subspecies Somateria mollissima dresseri; they breed in colonies that can number up to 10,000 nests. Adult breeding drakes are stunning animals, with formal white-and-black bodies crowned with a black cap and a greenish nape. The females may be less flamboyant, but they display fascinating maternal skills. They don’t breed until they are two to four years old, but after that they mate for two decades or longer. Dominant hens take charge of the chicks from multiple other females. These crèches can number more than 100 ducklings under the care of just two or three hens. Female eiders also produce the most highly sought luxury commodity of any waterfowl species: eiderdown. Collected in parts of the bird’s range for more than 1,000 years, eiderdown has much higher cohesion and elasticity than duck and goose down. Bedding filled with eiderdown—a fashionable and traditional wedding gift in many parts of Europe—routinely fetches prices topping $12,000.
Eiderdown can be gathered only during the breeding season, when the females line their nests with down plucked from their well-insulated breasts. During the 1970s and ’80s, eiderdown collectors were decimating colonies in the St. Lawrence. As a young associate professor at Laval University in Quebec, Bédard stumbled across scenes of mayhem. “The down pickers would set up stoves and tents and camp for a week right in the colony, making several runs through the nests every day,” he recalls. Such massive disruption allowed predatory gulls to sweep in and pick off unprotected eggs and young. The results, Bédard says, were “terrible, shocking.” Over the course of several years, Société Duvetnor obtained exclusive rights to collect the eiderdown around Ile aux Lièvres, Le Pot du Phare, and other nearby islands, and Bédard helped devise a sustainable practice whereby volunteers move quickly through colonies, minimizing disturbance while collecting down and data on the ducks’ health.
These days the organization collects and processes 100 to 150 pounds of eiderdown from the Saint Lawrence River Estuary each year. In today’s market, the material might fetch between $300 and $500 per pound, “but we have caretakers, boats, staff. That’s not a lot of money when a single outboard motor can cost $23,000,” Bédard laments. In 1989 Société Duvetnor began its ecotourism outreach to help pay for the cost of managing its preserves.
We bunk in a cedar-shaked structure clad in board-and-batten siding, all weathered woods the color of a mossy fallen log. These are simple accommodations—our unit has a pair of firm beds and a private shower off a small communal parlor outfitted with French-language National Geographic magazines and the 1,302-page Breeding Bird Atlas of Québec. Meals are included, and guests are reminded of Quebec’s French connections—one night’s menu alone includes seared scallops, flounder stew, and cheesecake.
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.”
Finding that balance means offering a variety of experiences to a wide range of tourists. On the one hand, a visit to Ile aux Lièvres couldn’t feel more different than a whale-watching trip shared with a few hundred other rubberneckers. On the other, developing a constituency for conservation—and the income to pay for it—is more difficult when you’re off the radar screen. Société Duvetnor isn’t profit driven, but the fluctuating cost of eiderdown and changes in tourism attendance can affect its bottom line. The limited access keeps tourist numbers low. In the past 10 years, in fact, only 75 Americans have visited.
Those visitors that do find their way here are likely to share my own fondness for a do-it-yourself wildlife encounter. I remember one other moment when the icons of the St. Lawrence estuary lined up for an unforgettable display. This lacked the dramatic punch of whale breath on my face, perhaps, but it was a keeper nonetheless. While hiking on the island’s rugged north shore beach, Markie and I got separated by a hundred yards or so, as she gorged on handfuls of wild currants while jumping from rock to rock to search for sea glass scattered along the black sand beach. Far out on the tidal flats I spied birds feeding in the kelp, so I anchored my binoculars on my knees and started counting.
Three female eiders led a crèche of 47 young birds, bobbing in the low surf, dipping and diving among mats of floating, golden seaweed. Seals basked in the sun nearby, and beyond them, a pair of minke whales patrolled the edge of a riffle of moving current. Farther still, belugas flashed from the open waters. Beyond them was a panoply of boreal wilds—water and island, vernal ridges and rocky massifs walling off the horizon. But the demeanor of the birds and seals and whales was perhaps the vista’s most appealing aspect: They seemed oblivious to my presence.
This story originally ran in the May-June 2012 issue as, “Keeping It Real.”
Making the Trip: Quebec
Getting There: Ile aux Lièvres is a four-hour (and five-star-gorgeous) drive from Quebec City, which is served by major U.S. carriers.
Getting Around: A Quebec variant of French is most commonly spoken here, but English delivered with a smile will get the job done. The area is chock-full of inns and lodges and standard hotel offerings; one to consider is the Hotel Tadoussac, a rambling, historic hotel perched at the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord. Don’t miss the Centre d’interprétation des Mammifères Marins in Tadoussac, a whale science and conservation center with skeletons, models, and many modern interactive exhibits.
More Info: Mer et Monde Ecotours offers paddle trips of varying lengths that are suitable for novices and experts alike. Its riverside campsites are a mix of sandy sites and tent platforms that rival any in the world. Société Duvetnor Ltée offers island packages with accommodations ranging from campsites to cottages. Rooms at the small inn include meals and boat transfers, and start at $185 per person on a double-occupancy basis. The second night is $125.