It’s the whales that have brought my husband, Mike, and me here to experience the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park by sea kayak. White beluga whales live here year-round, and their fellow humpback, rorqual, minke, and fin whales, as well as harbor seals and porpoises, come to feed in the fair weather from May to October. It’s September, the summer crowds that charter rubber Zodiacs and multi-level tour boats hoping to glimpse the great sea creatures are mostly gone, and we’re here to experience the magic under our own power. I’ve never seen a whale in person, and I am giddy with anticipation. I can hardly imagine what it would be like to encounter such a creature from the cockpit of a kayak, a water-level perspective. The thought of it gives me goose bumps.
Underwater geology is what makes the meeting of the sweet Saguenay and the salty St. Lawrence so appealing to the whales. These two deep rivers collide on a shallow underwater shelf, sharply rising from depths of 1,000 feet or more to a mere 60 feet. The turbulent junction is undetectable to paddlers crossing the Saguenay’s mouth. But where the salty and the fresh water come together at this shelf, each with its own strong current, a dramatic upwelling occurs, bringing concentrated clouds of tiny shrimplike krill to the surface. The clouds can be a mile square. Whales strain the krill from 1,000-gallon mouthfuls of water. This easy feeding attracts the whales. The whales, in turn, bring the tourists, including an increasing number of adventurous paddlers like ourselves.
I ask our guide about the safety hazards of paddling in proximity to whales, and he assures me there is no need to worry. Though whales are curious and often check out boaters, they are not mischievous or mean. Even the smallest of the whales, minivan-sized belugas, could capsize us with the flick of a flipper, but our guide promises that they won’t.
Fears laid to rest, we tuck tide charts, food, water and everything we’ll need for two nights of camping into our front and rear hatches, and we set float from the Tadoussac town beach. Tadoussac is a quaint French-Canadian community that recently celebrated its 450th birthday. It’s been a trading post, a logging town, and a farming community; now it’s a whale research station and popular stop for whale watchers and birders alike.
It’s early afternoon, the tide is shifting direction, and we’ll be traveling with it as we round the point and slip into the Saguenay. As we paddle out through the bay, I am practically jumping up and down in my boat because we can already see whales in the distance. And we’re not the only ones. A few tour boats pull out from their piers and motor toward the feeding minkes. By the time we reach the point, I’ve calmed down and both the whales and the tour boats have moved on, but there are a number of people keeping a vigilant eye from shore for more wildlife. We maneuver our kayaks between ferries and, happy to leave the boat traffic behind on this sunny autumn afternoon, we paddle upriver with the tide.