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Whalespotting

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My tent overlooking the St. Lawrence River at Les Bergerones, Quebec (Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

I had a dream the other night. I dreamt that I was surrounded by whales—at least a dozen of them, swimming at me from every angle. They came right up to me, from the front and from behind, then whispered in long gasps, one after the other—gasp, sigh, gasp.

Did you know that whales whisper? They do, right on the surface of the water, gasping from their blowholes—quite loudly but with such a gentle breath it sounds like a sleeping baby with a microphone.

As animals go, whales are inconceivably colossal. They are true sea monsters in that they are monstrously massive—genuinely oversized creatures that weigh more than your car. The early French sailors and explorers who traveled the coast of Québec frequently remarked upon these “monsters”—and whaling has a long history on these shores.

In keeping with tradition, I went whaling too—minus the harpoon—and not way out in the ocean, but on Québec’s river-that’s-not-a-river, the great St. Lawrence. In French, this is not a mere rivière, but rather a fleuve—a flow of water right through the heart of Québec. Indeed, the St. Lawrence is a river that behaves like the sea, with saltwater and tides and extraordinary marine life, including whales.

Most whale-watching happens from a boat—a big boat—and fairly far from shore, but not around here. In Québec, anyone can drive along the shores of the St. Lawrence and spot a whale, or you can go out in the smallest of boats—a kayak—and if the timing is right, you will see a whale.

And so I ventured out in a sea kayak with Mer et Monde, an outfitter in the village of Les Bergeronnes that specializes in getting close to whales—in many different ways. The law in Canada says that you have to keep a distance of 400 m (1,200 feet) from wild whales, but as I came to discover, the whales don’t always abide by this.

Any good photographer or animal love can tell you that the rule with wildlife is not to chase it down, but instead to let it come to you. This is true with whales as it is with chipmunks in your backyard. If you can plant yourself in an animal’s space and be really quiet, they will come to you. As they did.

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Kayaking with whales on the St. Lawrence River, Quebec (AE,NG)

After paddling against the current of le fleuve, we rafted our kayaks together and let the tidal current carry us back along the bank of the St. Lawrence. Sure enough, the whales got curious and came to us, one by one. At first they appeared as a gray hump on the horizon, then they would dive and disappear—one minute, five minutes, ten minutes. Then whoosh, they appeared again, only so much closer than before—and so much bigger.

Huge, in fact—this was a whale that I recognized from Antarctica. I’ve been studying my whales in French and I double checked with my guide—un rorqual commun? Yes, a fin whale—the second largest animal on earth. I had driven my car to this spot, hopped in a kayak and within fifteen minutes, I had spotted a fin whale. Not only that, but the whale got closer and closer—close enough to realize that this massive mammal was four times the length of my kayak.

Suddenly, I felt so small—now that I’ve seen such a gigantic creature so close up. I am almost two meters tall, but my fin whale was about 20 meters long—ten times as long as me. The others talked of blue whales, too—even bigger. They had all just seen one the day before, and how they come right up near the shore. I was incredulous—an estimated 250 blue whales are all that is left in the North Atlantic but apparently, the shelter and food of the St. Lawrence draws them in here during the summer. In fact, this is the whale capital of Canada—in just one hour, I spotted four different species from my kayak.

I didn’t see any blue whales, but I saw several more fin whales, about two dozen minke whales, as well as porpoises and then my favorite . . . belugas! Beluga whales are Québec’s specialty—gentle and perpetually smiling. They stand out so clearly here, with their glowing white backs and tiny dorsal fins arching in the silver water. About a thousand belugas live in this corner where the St. Lawrence meets the Saguenay Fjord and when I was there, some of them even had babies. Baby beluga whales are like a blissful balm against all that is wrong in the world. Once you see one in the wild, you get the feeling that maybe earth is going to turn out all right.

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Quebec’s Saguenay Fjord is home to several hundreds  beluga whales who migrate in for up to half the year.  (Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

I think there exists a deep human need to commune with animals—to see them in their natural homes and to remind ourselves that we are animals too, sharing that space.

I was glad that my own travels happened to converge with the journey of all these whales—the St. Lawrence our shared highway, later summer our shared season. We were travelers passing in the evening—but it didn’t stop there. Oh no, I stayed up with the whales all night long.

At Mer et Monde, my tent was pitched on a wooden perch upon the boulder-heavy bank of the St. Lawrence River. Silent cargo ships moved past in the night, their containers stacked like a child’s colored Lego blocks. I was instantly carried back to the Panama Canal, where I was just two weeks ago—from one major seaway to the next. In Panama, the ships share the water with crocodiles, but up here, the ships are racing with the whales.

I slept well enough but not deeply enough. The thing is—I didn’t want to sleep. Lying in my tent, I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve, listening for reindeer on the roof. I woke every half hour to such a gentle sound—first the extra ripple in the rhythm of lapping waves, followed by the broad exhale of a whale—pffffft.  Again and again, all through the night, I listened to the blow of wet salt spray into the air, heard the full power of a whale’s lungs working easily in the water.

Adding to the night music of the whales was my constant zipping and unzipping of the tent door. With whales passing by, how could I shut out the view? I kept unzipping—peering onto the moonlight water flowing past, then worming back into my sleeping bag and trying desperately to fall asleep again.

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Whale insomnia is totally worth it. (Andrew Evans, NG)

Whale insomnia is the most rewarding forms of sleeplessness. I closed my eyes but still felt alert and awake, knowing that at that moment, giant whales were passing by. It felt as if these particular whales were swimming laps outside my tent. Pffffft. Dive. Silence. Pffffft. Over and over again.

I realize that I am extra lucky to have already seen many whales around the world. Those who’ve followed my past travels know that I’ve watched whales in the Arctic and Antarctic, in the middle of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans—all the way from Greenland to New Zealand. I have seen far more whales than I ever dreamed of seeing in far more places than I ever dreamed of visiting.

Still—honestly and truly—none of it compares to what just happened here in Québec. The difference up here is the closeness of the creatures. I know nowhere else where you can drive to a shoreline and watch whales from the parking lot—or kayak twenty feet from shore and come face to face with the largest living creature on earth.

In twenty-five years of service, Mer et Monde has never had a whale tip a kayak. They are curious, playful, and cautious. They approach quite close sometimes—I even witnessed one arch its monumental back within two meters of my guide’s kayak, surprising us all.

These are magical moments—impossible to capture with photography or to relay in words. There is a spiritual quality to sighting whales in the wild. Superlatives fail me, but in a lifetime of best days ever, my two days of whalespotting in and around Tadoussac are right up there.

It was not all a dream—it was real. I was surrounded by whales on all sides, I felt their exhale on my face and best of all, I heard them whispering at me all through the night and then saw them again the next morning—at dawn, diving and arching up and down the constant St. Lawrence.


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