Baleen Whales In Quebec by Bonnie and Bill Neely

There are 13 kinds of whales to be seen in the St. Lawrence Gulf. Blues have not been seen here often since 1992. Various theories abound as to why the blues do not frequent this area now. Blue whales are the largest animal, but they eat only the tiny creel of the ocean. Mid-sized fish also eat creel, but without the huge cod to eat the midsized fish, there are not enough creel to feed the blues. Learning this made us know how blessed our anticipated afternoon excursion could be because there were plentiful creel this week. The largest blue ever recorded was 130 feet long in the Atlantic Ocean near Georgia.
At Longue Pointe de Mingan, Quebec, we were fascinated to visit Mingan Island Cetacean Studies (MICS,) the non-profit center for research for the rorqual whales, so named because they have baleens instead of teeth and have folds in their lower jaw to allow it to expand. These include minke, humpback, finbacks and blues. MICS is part of the Canadian National Parks under the Ministry of Canadian Heritage. The interpretive and study center is beautifully designed with informative photos and explanations in French and English. Huge examples of whales, some lifesize, are on floor, ceiling, and walls.
MICS obtains its major funding from donations and from visitors accompanying biologists on day trips or attending weekly sessions of research. The organization was started in 1979 by Richard Sears to study the St. Lawrence, and the studies include the calving of Pacific blues in the Sea of Cortez because no one has yet been able to determine where the calving of Atlantic Blues occurs. We learned that chemical dumping into the St. Lawrence waterways after World War II still affects sealife and has cumulative, devastating effects, even though laws in recent years have prevented such abuse to waterways.
You can volulnteer to help gather information and study any of these four kinds of rorquals. You can sign up at Whale Net several months or weeks prior to your trip. The studies in Baja are in January and February, and you can also sign on for those.

The cool August day in Quebec Province dawned with blue skies. We arrived at Portnewf-sur-Mer at the CROISIÈRES in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park and donned our yellow one-piece suits, which are wind and water protection and flotation devices, very warm in the always cold wind here. These are required for all passengers. We were also given warm gloves, neck scarves, and hats by the tour company. We joined another group of 6, making 12 passengers for the two-and-a-hour trip on the big, orange Zodiac boat. We all looked like astronauts and needed sunglasses, and sunscreen only on our faces.

Our captain spoke both French and English and sped us across the 30 mile width of the St. Lawrence. We were fortunate because the tide was just going out and the wind westerly, and there were schools of creel in the area, so the water was smooth and conditions ideal for whale watching. Some whales had already been sighted by the five-hour tour group, which stayed in radio contact with our boat. We went at whale speed, about 23 miles an hour, and reached mid-river before slowing down to watch for the marine mammals.

It wasn’t long until we spotted five minke whales playfully blowing their spray and making their way up and down in the water, revealing their small hook fins in the middle of their backs. We watched excitedly until they plunged into the deep and left our region.

We waited again, drove a bit farther, and were soon thrilled to see two finback whales, the second largest of all whales. They came up and down, revealing their larger hooked fin toward the end of their enormous backs. Although these were small ones for their species, they were about 30 feet long. Their blow-sprays were quite impressive. The head would just barely break surface, then they would blow, alerting us they were rising, then they would undulate their enormous bodies in a front-to-back rolling hump emerging out of the water. So impressive! We watched them excitedly, getting a few worthwhile photos, until they dived deep and were gone from view.
In the far distance we could see the giant spray from the earth’s largest mammals, the blue whales. We dared not expect to see them up close, but our captain moved on a bit before cutting his motor again. We were almost ready to abandon the wait when suddenly, close enough to make everyone ecstatic, two enormous blues came up to greet us. Several times each snorted loudly, sounding like a horse or an elephant, made its body surface, arch, and submerge again. Then they dived deeply, leaving us holding our breaths and hoping for another encounter.

It was quite a few minutes before we returned to shore. We couldn’t have been happier since we had seen three of the four kinds of rorquals, who are actually shy beings and afraid of boats. Fortunately this Bay of St. Lawrence is a protected Park, and boats are not allowed to come within 200 meters of the animals and must cut their motors if a whale is sited. Since these baleen whales, who have a sort of filter type structure instead of teeth, eat creel, captains know to watch for flocks of white gulls who also feed on creel, and usually whales are nearby. Humpbacks are more people curious and friendly instead of afraid, but it is rare to find them in this area.