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Take a whale watching tour

Tailing the whales

At a confluence of two major rivers, sightings abound- even from land

Email|Print| Text size + By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / September 2, 2007

TADOUSSAC - Only one word of French is essential for visiting this village where the Saguenay River empties into the broad St. Lawrence about 130 miles northeast of Quebec City. Just listen for a shout of ``Baleine!" That's with an audible exclamation point - and with one hand gesturing excitedly toward the water. Forget the fabled reserve of the French. This is Quebec and the waters off Tadoussac are swimming with hungry whales. {bull} After crossing the Saguenay fiord by ferry and checking into our motel, we traipsed from the harbor over a forested, rocky bluff to Pointe de l'Islet. This finger of sun-baked stony ledges extends into the chill river where the swirling currents of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence meet. We were almost at the tip when we heard the cry. {bull} ``Baleine!" yelled a young boy, pointing offshore. Moments later a 30-foot minke whale answered with a ``whoof!" and a short misty spout, rolling its dorsal fin.

A unique combination of river and tidal currents sweeps up nutrients from a deep trench in the St. Lawrence River, creating a soupy buffet of fish and krill that attracts a dozen species of migratory whales from May through October. That's not counting the 1,200 year-round resident belugas, the only population of the toothed white whales outside the Arctic. Tadoussac was settled in 1600 as a fur trading post, and flourished in the late 19th century as a resort. Since the 1980s, virtually everything in Tadoussac has revolved around the whales.

``You can see whales at any time - from the beach, from the ferry, from observation points along the land," said Véronik de la Chenelière of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals.

At the group's Centre for Interpretation of Marine Mammals on the harborfront, display stations open up the sonic world of whale songs and eavesdrop on the real-time underwater sounds at the mouth of the Saguenay. Interactive computer screens provide details on some of the individual whales identified and named by the researchers. A vivid film combines the science of whale study with stunning footage of whales from above and below the waves.

Motivated visitors often rush outside and start scanning the waves for dorsal fins, but most end up booking a whale watch. Options include the convivial family atmosphere of large ships or the more expeditionary experience of fast 12- to 24-passenger inflatable boats, commonly called Zodiacs.

``The best tools for finding whales are your eyes," said Yves Lamarche, the naturalist aboard the 490-passenger Famille Dufour, as we steamed downriver from Tadoussac. An hour had passed with no whales and passengers were getting restless. ``Look for clusters of seabirds or ripples in the water," Lamarche encouraged us. ``Look for spouts. The bigger the spout, the bigger the whale."

Finally, a minke appeared between the ship and shore, blowing each time it surfaced. ``A whale will breathe three to eight times before it dives," Lamarche explained over the PA system, switching seamlessly between French and English. ``It will stay down five to 10 minutes, depending on the species."

Minutes later a taller plume appeared off the starboard bow. ``Elle souffle!" Lamarche shouted as he pointed toward a fin whale. (``There she blows!" sounds much less corny in French.) ``About 100 fin whales feed here every year," he said.

Our large ship cruised slowly into a cluster of small Zodiacs, where a humpback whale was feeding. We envied the Zodiac passengers their close-up view - until a blustery squall swept down the Saguenay Valley and dumped buckets of rain on the St. Lawrence. We retreated to the indoor salon to warm up with hot coffee.

But Zodiac riders are prepared for the elements. When we arrived for an early morning expedition, we were outfitted in Wetskins pants and bright orange Mustang Survival jackets. The bulky outfits made the 24 plastic chairs ringing the gunwales a tight squeeze. We rubbed elbows with a family from Paris and two young women from Germany.

``I read about Tadoussac on the Internet," Martina Hartmann told us. ``I had never seen whales before."

That changed quickly. Several minke whales surfaced just beyond the marina as we got underway. We watched until they dived, then our boat sped out into the river. Icy spray splattered from the waves and our Zodiac rocked and rolled in the wake of larger vessels. White-sided dolphins swam beside us, matching our speed as they leapt from the water. From a distance we saw the 10-foot plumes of a pair of 60-foot fin whales. We sat so low on the water that it was hard to tell whether we were seeing glimpses of white belugas - or just whitecaps.

Suddenly a woman jumped to her feet, pointed, and exclaimed, ``Ooh-la-la!"

Our captain turned to join three other inflatables following a humpback whale at the requisite 200-meter distance. Obligingly, the whale turned back toward the boats, swimming along the surface for excruciating minutes, and then arched high out of the water, presenting its flukes before diving. Our captain stepped out of his cockpit and took a small bow.

We applauded his whale-seeking prowess but spotting cetaceans is often a matter of luck. Radar and sonar are forbidden because they interfere with the whales' own navigation. Nor can the captains intentionally seek out blue or beluga whales, endangered species that regulations say should be observed only from land. (The whales, apparently, didn't get the memo, as solitary giant blues or large pods of belugas sometimes surface beside the boats.)

Kayaks aren't marketed as whale-watch vessels, but when you put any craft in the water in this stretch of the St. Lawrence, whales are nearby. ``The first time I paddled here," said guide Mathieu Dupuis as we gathered at Les Bergeronnes, about 15 miles northeast of Tadoussac, ``a blue whale surfaced beside my kayak. I almost jumped out of my skin when it blew!"

Alas, no blues were nearby as we pushed off from a small cove near the site of a 15th-century Basque whaling station, complete with stone ovens for rendering blubber into whale oil.

As we paddled near shore, we heard or even felt whales before we saw them - a vibration beneath the kayak hull, the splash of a whale breaking the surface, the sudden retort of a whooshing blow. When a whale spouted upwind, we smelled its fishy breath.

Four minkes were cruising a long strip where crosscurrents were churning up krill. We tried to paddle around them, but the 30-foot whales seemed as curious about us as we were about them.

No sooner would we paddle away than they would give chase, their streamlined bodies barely roiling the water. One whale seemed intent on shooing us off its feeding grounds, crisscrossing back and forth near the kayaks to drive us offshore. As mere visitors in the kingdom of whales, we took the hint and paddled quickly about a half mile from shore.

Dupuis was the first to spot the spouts of fin whales corralling a cloud of krill and little silvery fish called capelins.

We dug in our paddles and moved closer.

Another spouted, and another. We paddled harder to keep them in view and then, when we could see the water slide off their dorsal fins, we stopped and just watched. Seven 60-foot-long whales were whipping up the waters, getting ready for lunch.

In French and English alike, words failed us.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon, freelance writers based in Cambridge, can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

If You Go

BALEINE!

Follow the whales through the waters off Tadoussac at boston.com/travel.

How to get there

Tadoussac, Quebec, is about 530 miles or about 10 hours from Boston. Take Interstate 93 north through New Hampshire to I-91 in Vermont to the border, where it becomes Autoroute 55. Stay on 55 until it merges with Autoroute 10 and then with Autoroute 20 east. Take exit 312 to Autoroute 73 north toward Pont Pierre-Laporte/Quebec. Take exit 142-E to merge onto Autoroute 40 east. In 12 miles, merge onto Route 138 east and continue to Tadoussac. (The free ferry across the Saguenay fiord is considered part of the road.)

Where to stay

Hôtel Tadoussac
165 Rue Bord de l'Eau
800-561-0718, 418-235-4421
hoteltadoussac.com
Modernized classic resort hotel with 149 rooms on Tadoussac Harbor doubled as Hotel New Hampshire in film of same name. One-night packages $86-$185 per person.

Hôtel-Motel Béluga
191 Rue des Pionniers
418-235-4784
le-beluga.qc.ca
Property's 39 rooms offer choice between hotel building or line of compact motel rooms a short walk from village center. Doubles $80-$129.

Where to eat

Café Bohème
239 Rue des Pionniers
418-235-1180
Sandwiches and generous salads dominate the meal menu, but espresso and pastries are a big draw morning and into late evening. Three-course menu $13.95-$19.95.

La Galouïne
251 Rue des Pionniers
418-235-4380
lagalouine.com
Chef-owner with high gastronomic aspirations uses local products such as venison, rabbit, fish and shellfish, wild berries, and cheeses. Three-course menu $22-$39.

What to do

Centre for Interpretation of Marine Mammals
108 rue de la Calèche
418-235-4701
gremm.org/eng/5/FS5.html
Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily through Sept. 24, noon-5 daily through Oct. 22. Adults $8, seniors $6, children ages 6-12 $4, families $18.

Croisières Groupe Dufour Tadoussac Marina
800-463-5250, 418-692-0222
dufour.ca
Three-hour whale-watching cruises aboard Famille Dufour. Adults $57, seniors and students $52, ages 6-16 $25.

Croisières AML Tadoussac Marina
800-563-4643
croisieresaml.com
Zodiac cruises. Adults $52-$62, seniors and students $47-$57, ages 6-16 $37-$42.

Mer et Monde Écotours
866-637-6663, 418-232-6779
mer-et-monde.qc.ca
Kayak excursions from Tadoussac and Les Bergeronnes. Adults $45-$57, children $35-$42.

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