Meet creatures of the air, sea and land in the regions of Gaspésie and Manicouagan
By Hope S. Philbrick
If, like me, you prefer feeling warm to cold and thus go to some lengths to avoid shivering, few destinations that require wearing a coat in June may seem worth the trip. But the coastal Québec Maritime region offers plenty of compelling reasons to make an exception. Despite the fact that year-round it’s advisable to dress in layers.
Spanning both shores of the St. Lawrence River and jutting into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Québec Maritime houses a dozen different ecosystems that boast diverse flora and fauna. At sea, on the shore and in the woods, the views are awe-inspiring—so much so, in fact, that the National Geographic Society ranks it as the third most beautiful destination in the world (after the Norwegian fjords and the Kootenay and Yoho national parks in British Columbia). Camera in hand, I traveled to the area to see it for myself with an itinerary focused on wildlife watching.
The exhilarating trip proved worth bundling up. Months later, what I remember is not cool temperatures but warm friendships and spectacular views.
Each spring and summer, Bonaventure Island is home to the world’s largest gannet colony. Reaching it is its own adventure: Board a boat in Percé Rock National Park for a 45-minute ride that loops around the famous rock and island, then hike about 1.5 miles on a well-groomed trail with a slight incline to reach the colony.Step onto the observation deck and you’ll see birds crowded together as far as the eye can see to the left and right and straight ahead—it’s a sight to behold with its unique soundtrack of squawking and cooing. Even for a bird watching novice, it’s thrilling to watch the interactions of an entire bird colony.
Northern gannets are large white birds (adults weigh about seven pounds) with black-tipped wings and butter-yellow heads. On Bonaventure Island they squat on land, fly overhead and float in the sea. While their transition between land and air can be awkward, they are excellent divers who can plunge from heights of 130 feet to 72 feet deep into the sea and swim even deeper in pursuit of fish.
More than 150,000 gannets were on the island in June 2010; another 30,000 hatched over the summer, 40 percent of which would typically survive their first year of life. Northern Gannets migrate seasonally and those on the island in June arrived from the Gulf of Mexico early April, before the catastrophic oil gush caused by the Deepwater Horizon explosion. But the birds migrated south in October, begging the question: How many gannets would return? “We don’t know what will happen,” says Carole Couet of Parcs Québec. “We won’t know until 2014 the full impact on the population.” My visit was thus bittersweet—and offered proof that, even while gazing at the bright blue waters of northern Canada where the brownish oil slick broadcast on the nightly news seemed impossibly far away, what happens in one place can have a profound impact on another.
Whales are huge but don’t pose for the camera. While I’d previously been on several ocean cruises and even whale-watching expeditions, until reaching Québec Maritime I’d only seen whales surface off in the distance near the horizon line. It’s difficult to snap one of those enviable tail or fin photos when they’re so far away. Even with a zoom lens, getting close is the key.
Each spring, hundreds of whales migrate from the Atlantic Ocean to the St. Lawrence waters. Québec Maritime draws 13 whale and four seal species. The region has an official “Whale Route” on the north shore that stretches from Tadoussac to Blanc-Sablon and is one of the best destinations in the world for whale watching.
While it’s possible to spot a marine mammal from shore, a whale-watching cruise ramps up the odds for success and, in some cases, can position you practically on top of the creatures. “Last season I captained 117 excursions,” said our naturalist guide. “On only one of those trips did we not see any whales.”
Before stepping into the open-air Zodiac boat, we donned insulated coats and pants, scarves and hats—excitement and anticipation will only keep you so warm when zipping across the sea. We tucked cameras into plastic bags and held on.
Since the Zodiac is light, speedy and easy to maneuver, we’re able to cover a large area during the three-hour trip. Different whale species tend to hang out in different spots, so maximizing the water surface crossed increases the odds of seeing more than one type of whale.
Spotting a column of water rising high into the air, the captain steers the boat in that direction. Eureka! It’s a fin whale, the second largest living animal on the planet (after the blue whale). We all leap up and start snapping photos. As the whale dips down into the water, we see its grey back and dorsal fin. We float nearby and watch the whale blow and dip a couple more times. When it dives deep our guide explains it may not surface again for a half hour, so we move on.
What looks like white caps turn out to be beluga whales, their white bodies a sharp contrast to the dark blue waters. Some playfully follow another boat (sadly, not ours). We follow for awhile then sail off in another direction.
Black and white minke whales frequently surface to catch prey, twisting to show off their pink undersides. We watch a dozen swim together; even the boat caption was excited to see so many at once since they most frequently hunt alone.
Before our trip ends, we slip into the Saguenay Fjord and thaw briefly under the shining sun like satisfied seals.
Faced with the prospect of heading into the woods at two o’clock in the morning in hopes of spotting a moose, I seriously considered skipping that part of the itinerary and staying in bed. I lived in Minnesota for 20 years: I’ve seen a moose. But I did get up, pulled on a sweatshirt and a coat before joining my travel companions for the safari, and am so glad I did.
From our cabins at the Matane Wildlife Reserve we rode in vans on bumpy dirt roads to a lake. There we divided into twosomes and hopped into tandem kayaks. The goal was to silently slip across the lake to an area the moose frequent at sunrise.
Steam rose from the lake surface, thick at first and then thinning as the sun crept higher into the sky. We maneuvered our kayaks through tall reeds of grass, hoping to sneak up on moose who might be dipping their heads to the lake for a morning drink.
In the distance I saw three loons alternately rising from and diving into water. The large, black and white birds are notoriously shy, so spotting them was a genuine thrill as was listening to their unique tremolo call that sounds a bit like a laugh.
Perhaps they mocked the futility of our quest.
We never saw a moose.
That’s the thing with wildlife: You don’t know if you’ll actually see what you hope to see.
But in Québec Maritime, even if the animals hide from view, beautiful adventures await.
When To Go…
Northern gannets nest on Bonaventure Island from April to October.
Most marine mammal species frequent the St. Lawrence from June to October. However, in winter it’s possible to observe baby seals on the ice floes surrounding the Îles de la Madeleine.
What To Do…
Bonaventure Island and Percé Rock National Park
Three companies offer round-trip boat fares from Percé to Bonaventure Island from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for $25 per person. Park entrance is $3.50 per person.
Whale-watching excursions from $59 per adult.
Scientific aquarium, museum and sea excursions focused on the St. Lawrence marine environment.
Jardin des Glaciers de Baie-Comeau (Gardens of the Glaciers)
Home of the unique Seashell Valley.
Marine mammal interpretation centre
Learn how to identify different whale species. Admission $9 per adult, $4.50 per child age 6-12 , free for younger children. There’s no way to avoid children completely while here, but this museum is interesting enough to warrant a visit.
Matane Wildlife Reserve
Gorgeous 495-square miles of wilderness and, allegedly, a large moose herd.
Designated a National Historic Site of Canada, this internationally renowned example of horticultural art is home to about 3,000 species of plants.
Where To Stay…
418-235-4421 or 1-800-561-0718
Classy accommodations in Tadoussac, Canada’s oldest village and North America’s first official member of the Most Beautiful Bays in the World Club.
Le Mirage in Percé
Enjoy spectacular views of Percé Rock and Bonaventure Island from this cozy 67-room hotel with a retro vibe. Rates from $109/night.
– Photo Credits: Map courtesy Le Québec maritime; both northern gannets images © Le Québec maritime by Michel Laverdière; humpback whale by Marc Loiselle; kayaking inside Matane Wildlife Reserve by Hope S. Philbrick.
This post is featured in a nature travel round-up on Green Global Travel.
A version of this story was first published by Sunday Paper.
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