Whale Nation

Each of Them a Lesson, Each of Them a Wonder

I’m not sure what woke me – the cold penetrating my sleeping bag, the first impressions of dawn, the internal alarm of the wildlife photographer – but I remember very clearly that it was 5:34am, on Friday, August 27th.

Beyond my tent flap flowed the St Lawrence Estuary, as glassy and calm as a mountaintop lake, the horizon a violent orange and the sun tucked just behind the hills of the southern shore. The smooth sheets of stone between me and water were dry and ghostly grey, and all was absolutely still and very cold. There’s no other word for it – idyllic.

Then came the sobering shock of an indefinite mass of black breaking the surface of the water, gigantic, tearing open the St Lawrence with a terrible, gushing roar. Not until it vanished did I register the long, level forehead, the raised upper jaw, and the high, boisterous nostrils of the baleen whale, two of them, rising side by side with mouths agape only metres from shore, herding before them an invisible swarm of zooplankton.

They rose again a little farther on, their anatomical details still shrouded in the waning dark. Minke whales, I guessed, the smallest of the rorquals yet twice the weight of an African bull elephant, or maybe these were Humpbacks, pods of whom had swum by only the day previous. Fin whales were in these waters also, and Right, and Blue, and Sperm…

Humpback Whale Breaching – Photo by Zack Metcalfe

In few places on Earth have the forces of geology, hydrology and biology conspired more successfully to attract the whale nation. Here in the estuary, immediately north of Quebec’s Rivière-du-Loup, the tidal waters of the St Lawrence Gulf collide with the downstream tumble of the St Lawrence River, and they do so on tilted terrain. The estuary’s northeast is a sheer 300 metres deep, so sheer, in fact, that whales could comfortably swim up to my tent. The estuary’s southwest, however, rises sharply to a depth of only 25 metres.

This underwater ramp, and the constant clashing of saltwater and fresh, forces frigid, nutrient dense water to the surface where its riches are exploited by photosynthetic phytoplankton in full view of the sun. Where phytoplankton blooms, there come the zooplankton, and where the zooplankton congregate, there come the fish, and where fish form schools, there come the seals and dolphins and birds. And wherever our oceans achieve such seasonal abundance as this, there come the whales.

There is no better place to admire the workings of the estuary than Paradis Marin, a campground famous for its proximity to the water and whales of the northern shore. Every morning around sunrise, many dozens of its campers settle themselves on the rocks, with foldable chairs, blankets, cameras, binoculars, drinks and picnics, and they wait, quietly, for the next passage of the whales. Entire vacations can be spent on these rocks, reading or chatting or sunbathing, and it would not be a vacation wasted, because as sure as the sun will rise, the whales will come, and they will come close.

The day before my arrival to Paradis Marin, a parade of Minke whales, numbering in the dozens, frolicked and fed immediately offshore, and during the countless hours I spent entranced by the black abyss ahead, rising and falling with the tide, I was dazzled by Humpbacks and Fins moving past in slow stampedes, gorging themselves on unseen bounties and spouting from lungs like canons. Sometimes Humpbacks rolled on their sides to expose white underbellies and prodigious flukes, and more than once they raised their long, jagged fins to the sky and waved, a gesture so absurdly human you couldn’t help but laugh. Every appearance drew from the crowd an involuntary gasp or gleeful chant, and in the times between, silence reigned over the waiting masses.

Paradis Marin – Photo by Zack Metcalfe

The White Whale

The steady hand of conservation came to this estuary in 1998, when a long strip of the northern shore and much of the Rivière Saguenay (adjoining the estuary from the west) became the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park, placing thoughtful limitations on fisheries, shipping traffic and resource extraction throughout the region, a joint venture between the provincial and federal governments. Even whale watching vessels, which broach the estuary specifically to find its leviathans, must follow a battery of rules governing minimum safe distances, maximum speeds, appropriate bearings and whatever else, all to reduce the risk to whales.

And most of these whales are, in fact, at risk. The Basque, universally recognized as history’s first commercial whalers, established themselves on the shores of Labrador, Newfoundland, Quebec and the St Lawrence Estuary as early as 1372 (the exact date of their arrival is hotly debated), devastating Right and Grey whales until at least the early 1600s. After them came the European whaling nations of Spain, France and England, hunting these waters directly or else assaulting the very same whales elsewhere in Atlantic Canada and along the eastern seaboard. New England whalers were hard on the St Lawrence throughout the 1700s and 1800s, and no less than the whalers of Nantucket, famous for their slaughter of the Sperm whale and immortalized in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, went so far as to establish themselves in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, for a brief stint in 1786. Then, in the late 1800s and thereafter, the whalers of the St Lawrence were largely Norwegian and Canadian, launching from Labrador to Nova Scotia, and everywhere in between.

These unregulated slaughters took a tremendous toll on the whales of Atlantic Canada, evolutionarily unprepared for this calibre of hunt. Our Blue and Right whales continue to decline, numbering only a few hundred individuals each, victims now of ship collisions and fishing gear entanglements. The condition of our Fin, Minke and Sperm whales is poorly known but nevertheless worrisome, and the Grey whale was extirpated sometime before 1600. Only the Humpback appears to be recovering, the beneficiary of concerted conservation for many decades now, their siren songs and amiable personalities winning the affections of many a North American.

For these whales, the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park is a sanctuary, not free of dangers by any means, but with waters much safer than they would otherwise be. Except the park wasn’t founded for them, not really. It was instead established to protect an entirely different species of whale, utterly unique in Atlantic Canada and a year-round resident of the estuary and Rivière Saguenay. In French and English, its name is the same – Beluga.

They are the white whales, their porcelain skin entirely free of pigmentation, stark and unmistakable against the blacks and blues of the estuary. Up to five metres long and as heavy as two tonnes, those of the St Lawrence are the most southerly Belugas in the world. I’ve seen them, from Paradis Marin and the decks of ferries, breaking the surface like the coiled tentacles of medieval drolleries, or the arched backs of stupendous serpents, featureless and fleeting.

Belugas have swum here some 13,000 years, from the very instant, it seems, that glaciers retreated far enough north to produce the Champlain Sea. They are delightful creatures, forming complex social bonds eerily similar to those of human beings, and demonstrating a sophistication of speech which would be spooky if it weren’t so beautiful, a symphony of harmonic screeching greedily recorded by researchers ashore.

At one time this species almost certainly strayed farther afield. Historic accounts place them as far up the St Lawrence River as Montreal, and as far south as New England, sometimes spotted off Cape Breton Island and even in the Bay of Fundy. To this day, Belugas from the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park turn up in Halifax Harbour or New Brunswick’s Nepisiguit River. In 2017, one audacious individual was spotted in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and just last spring, the Island hosted another Beluga in Mount Stewart.

But after generations of heavy exploitation, for their skin and blubber, Belugas have been largely relegated to the St Lawrence Estuary. There were 10,000 here as recently as 1900, but in the 1920s, as stocks of Atlantic cod began their precipitous drop, local fishermen pointed an accusatory finger at the white whale, claiming it had eaten all the cod. The government of Quebec, endorsing the whale’s guilt, put a bounty on Belugas. Fishermen were paid $15 ($230 today) for every Beluga tail they delivered to shore, proof that the animal had been slain. The government went so far as to subsidize aerial bombing of Belugas throughout the St Lawrence Estuary and Rivière Saguenay.

But this crusade against the white whale had a fatal flaw, exposed decades later with some rudimentary science – Belugas don’t eat cod. Sure, they will devour the odd specimen which crosses their path, as all opportunistic marine mammals will do, but cod is not a staple of their diet. That Belugas were destroying the cod fishery was simply untrue. When their unwarranted extermination ceased in the 1950s, perhaps 1,000 Belugas were left alive.

Beginning in the 1980s, this population was found to be suffering an epidemic of intestinal cancer, caused by chemical contamination in the Rivière Saguenay, namely from aluminum smelting. While this has since been resolved with improved effluent practices, these same Belugas now face a different threat. Newly born calves, recently pregnant mothers, and female Belugas in later stages of pregnancy have begun washing ashore in startling numbers. The cause of their deaths is unknown – maybe noise pollution from passing ships, maybe fire retardants building up in their bodies, maybe warmer waters and shifting seasons – but whatever the cause, Belugas are dying in the most delicate days of reproduction.

Into the Estuary

There is no substitute for the zodiac, employed by many a business to bridge the gap between whale and watcher. The one I boarded belonged to Croisières AML, their staff explaining rules, expositing facts, and dressing us all in warm jackets and pants.

A pod of Belugas, numbering several dozen, greeted us at the mouth of the Rivière Saguenay, writhing and frenzying as might a pack of wild dogs, their finer features entirely lost on faces and backs overwhelming white. Obeying his training and the laws of the estuary, our pilot slowed his craft and maintained his heading, taking us away from these endangered creatures and their simmering sea as gently and predictably as he could. When it comes to the white whale, we may not linger.

A little ways on we found Fin whales, the second largest animal on the planet, and their smaller cousin, the Minke, closing ranks around us. So many spouts lit the horizon it was difficult to know which direction deserved our attention, and which whales were soliciting the majority of shouts. The matter was settled by a single Humpback who, still a ways in the distance, threw her head and torso into the open air, both fins held open in divine surrender. The sonic boom of her re-entry took several seconds to reach us, so our pilot edged closer and cut his engines. Other zodiacs did the same, their passengers squealing as two or three Humpbacks surfaced immediately off their bows and spouted into their airspace. Then she jumped again.

Humpback Whale Breaching
Humpback Whale breaching – Photo by Zack Metcalfe

Almost all whales breach (which is to say, jump), but none more frequently, or with more abandon, than the Humpbacks. This time she left the water entirely, 13 metres and 30 tonnes of mammal crossing the barrier between worlds, her appearance as stupefying as lightning, her landing as loud as thunder. The entire performance took only an instant, and was among the finest things I have ever seen. There is no bracing yourself for the breach. It happens and you are speechless, and only minutes later you cannot believe it happened at all, your brain actively fighting the momentum of memory.

We don’t know why whales breach – to impress mates, dislodge old skin, barnacles or parasites, or to communicate non-verbally – but I like to think they breach because they choose to, because it makes sense to them in ways it never could to us, because their ancestors always have, and so they always will.

Creatures of Habit

The day of my departure from the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park I saw Minke, Fin, Humpback, Beluga and Blue, all from the ferry between Les Escoumins and Trois-Pistoles, but my first sighting came earlier, immediately after breaking camp on Saturday, August 28th. Just as I opened my car door to depart, a rush and roar from the shores of Paradis Marin stopped me dead. Exactly as on the previous morning, two titanic mouths erupted from the water, swimming northeast to southwest, again obscured in the lingering dark. I checked the time – 5:34am.

Aboriginal societies throughout North America hunted whales for thousands of years, even in the St Lawrence, with courage and cunning and the restraint made necessary by traditional weapons. The Basque whalers of western Europe traversed entire oceans, bringing so much innovation to the hunt that it took the wealthiest nations of the world centuries to catch up. When Europe and North America initiated the golden age of whaling, the mere concept of extinction hadn’t yet been invented, and a great many learned individuals, Herman Melville included, argued convincingly that whales, with the oceans of the world at their disposal, could never be destroyed by mere men. This ignorance of ecology gave birth to industrial whaling in the 1900s, grinding the largest animals on our planet into oil, for lanterns and engines and even margarin. As recently as the 1980s, whales were killed just to cover the costs of the fleets pursuing them.

Now we kill them by accident, with fishing gear, ship strikes, contamination, plastic waste and noise. More so than ever before we can appreciate the fragility of the whale nation, endangered now by our indifference rather than our malice. After seeing them at the top of their form, in the romantic depths of the St Lawrence Estuary, I’m convinced that an ocean without whales is no ocean at all.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author based in the Maritimes.