Whales So Close You Can Touch Them: A Family Adventure in Canada

The trail to our yurt was narrow, muddy and peppered with tiny ceramic and plasticgnomes, fairies and bears. My 8-year-old daughter, clutching her stuffed giraffe and gingerly avoiding the knotty roots, spotted a miniature tiger, crouched at the base of a pine tree.

She was too weary to offer it anything more than a casual nod as she trudged along behind her father and 11-year-old brother, weighted down by her pink sequined backpack and the six-and-a-half hours we’d spent on the road from Montreal to get here, to a town called Sacré-Coeur that hugs the Saguenay River in the Côte-Nord region of Quebec.

It was late June 2019 and we had come here in search of whales, traveling roughly 300 miles northeast from Montreal, crossing the Saguenay by ferry, and driving the final mile on a dirt road to meet our innkeeper, who was eager for us to finish this last leg of our journey before nightfall.

On the road to Tadoussac from Quebec City.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

We were staying about 10 miles from Tadoussac, a picturesque town where the Saguenay meets the St. Lawrence River. The waterway is part of a protected marine park where about six species of whales can be regularly seen from May to the end of October as they feed in the deep, nutrient-rich waters of the St. Lawrence estuary, making for a spectacular place to whale watch.

I had booked the trip on a whim, finding a listing on Airbnb, and constructing a family vacation around the idea of sleeping in a supercharged tent. At the time, the trip felt like the beginning of a new chapter for our family. Our children were getting older, and could tolerate long drives, loose plans and hikes weighted down by luggage. We could explore corners of the world together.

The author and her family stayed in a white canvas yurt overlooking the Saguenay River.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Now, looking back on that time, after a year and a half spent trudging through a pandemic and traveling only minimally, I no longer see that trip as a beginning. I see it instead as our last unencumbered adventure, one where our worries were limited to catching ferries, avoiding mosquitoes and spotting sea creatures.

Last month, Canada reopened its borders to fully vaccinated American travelers, making such a trip possible once again. With proof of vaccination and a negative Covid-19 test, a family could repeat this relatively Covid-safe itinerary, although some attractions may be closed or only partially open, and unvaccinated children under 12 must follow Canadian testing and safety requirements. Yet for me, this option still feels tenuous. My daughter, now 10, is not eligible for the vaccine, and with cases rising again, I am hesitant to travel such a huge distance with her. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers Canada a Level 3, high risk destination, and advises unvaccinated citizens to avoid nonessential travel there. I wonder when we’ll be able to travel so freely again. And so, the adventure we had feels like one plucked from a world I can no longer reach, not unlike watching the water, waiting for a whale to crest.

Heading out to find whales on a tour boat from the Marina de Tadoussac.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Where are the whales?

We started the trip by driving from our home in New Jersey, through New York, to Montreal, where we stayed for a few days. We then continued on to Côte-Nord, where we would spend three nights surrounded by the boreal forest and the dramatic Saguenay fjords as we looked for humpback, minke, fin, beluga and blue whales.

As we climbed a ridge that first evening, the forest tunnel view opened, revealing our white canvas yurt overlooking the Saguenay hundreds of feet below, and the majestic fjords, part of the Saguenay Fjords National Park. From the deck outside our yurt, we had an unobstructed, and private, window onto this wonder.

Our innkeeper told us to watch for a pair of belugas that had been playing in the water all morning. The nearby Sainte-Marguerite Bay is their breeding ground and nursery. Unlike the other whales that only travel through, the belugas, primarily an Arctic species, live here year round. From this distance, he told us, they might look like white caps on the water.

“I had booked the trip on a whim,” writes the author, “constructing a family vacation around the idea of sleeping in a supercharged tent.”Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The children immediately inspected their new dwelling, marveling at the propane stove, the trickle of running water from a kitchen sink and the dry toilet full of sawdust. (A surprisingly charming woodenouthouse a few feet from the yurt was for major bathroom runs.) The circular space had two bedrooms, a wall of windows facing the fjords and a glass dome ceiling to view the stars. We’d arrived too late to find a market to restock our dwindling supply of groceries, and so finished up what we had for dinner — a few slices of cheese and salami on sandwich bread. The children grumbled through the disappointing meal.

That night, my husband read to us from a book he’d brought with him, “Champlain’s Dream,” about the French explorer. For 8,000 years, the confluence of the two rivers had been a crossroads and meeting place for First Nations tribes. The passage he read chronicled an encounter Samuel de Champlain had in 1603 with several native tribes who had gathered in celebration, building a summer camp on the Saguenay, not far from the Tadoussac harbor, and close to where we slept.

We awoke the next morning to a stunning view of the fjords, blanketed in fog. There were no belugas in sight, but plenty of mosquitoes, huge, determined and ready to attack. We put on long sleeves and swatted our way back to the car, the welts already forming. I had booked a whale-watching cruise leaving from Tadoussac, and was anxious to catch the boat.

Tadoussac and the surrounding region attract a steady stream of visitors, and the town is peppered with shops, restaurants and inns to cater to them.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Tadoussac, a village of 800 founded in 1600, is today a quaint maritime tourist destination, overlooking the St. Lawrence Bay. The region attracts 1 million visitors a year, and so the streets of Tadoussac are peppered with shops, restaurants and inns. My husband was particularly curious about the replica of the Chauvin Trading Post, built in 1600, and the first fur-trading center in Canada. Overlooking the bay is the grand Hotel Tadoussac, with a red roof, white siding and green shutters. Rebuilt in 1942 after the original hotel from 1864 was demolished, it has a sprawling lawn and gardens with Adirondack chairs facing the water.

In Tadoussac, a replica of the Chauvin Trading Post, the first fur-trading center in Canada.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

We wound our way past the hotel and down to the dock, where the boat awaited us, along with busloads of tourists from Quebec City, about three and a half hours away. (The cruise company we used has trips available this season until mid-October.)It is unusual to see giant species like the blue whale swimming in a river, hundreds of miles from the open ocean. Yet they come to the estuary to feed, traveling along the St. Lawrence’s deep Laurentian Channel and mingling with other smaller species, like the beluga.

On the upper deck of the ship, passengers jockeyed for position as the captain announced sightings — fin whales had been spotted to the north. I craned my neck over the other passengers, tracking the dark water with my binoculars. On the horizon, I glimpsed the grayish plumes from their blowholes dusting the air. Their backs emerged, smooth discs best seen through binoculars. My daughter, barely able to clear the railing, could see nothing. My son, his view blocked by other passengers, leaned against a post, frustrated and bored.

The cruise ended and I worried that we’d over-promised the children — whales do not appear on command and it was possible we’d finish our vacation without ever spotting one up close. As we walked back to town, we stopped at an ice cream shop for consolation, and then had a light dinner, seated outside at a microbrewery overlooking the bay. The brewery was bustling that evening with patrons chatting in French. We shared pizza and a charcuterie platter, and took in the crisp summer breeze.

Whales aren’t hard to spot on this boat tour, which explores the waters around Tadoussac.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

‘I felt a swoosh to my left …’

The next morning, I awoke determined to see whales. We headed about 30 miles north up Route 138 to a nature center (open until mid-October) in Les Escoumins, the northern boundary of the marine park. The outpost had an educational center, a scuba-diving base and rocks where we could sit on the banks of the St. Lawrence. A guide suggested we circle back to another center, Cap-de-Bon-Désir, with a red-and-white lighthouse, also open until mid-October. Minkes had been spotted there earlier in the day and he thought we might have better luck there. Once we arrived at Cap-de-Bon-Désir, we followed a path lined with birch trees down to the rocky banks. A few other families were there, too, sitting on the rocky banks of the river.

Sitting on a rocky bank near the Cap-de-Bon-Désir lighthouse, the author spotted minke whales just a few feet away.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The children played in small pools of water on the rocks. They were full of zooplankton, the food that makes this water so nutritious. The river looked massive and peaceful, but I saw no whales.

My son and husband wandered off to find a bathroom. I leaned in close to my daughter, who was holding vigil over a bee my son had rescued from the water. As I knelt beside her, I felt a swoosh to my left. I looked up to see, rising from the water just a few feet beyond my reach, a minke whale so close I could see the barnacles on its skin, and hear its heavy breath exhale. I gasped as this giant creature of the sea surfaced, nearly breaching. And then it was gone, vanishing into the deep trench of cold, rich water.

My son and husband returned moments later to learn about what they’d missed. Give it 15 or 20 minutes, we were told by a guide who was on the rocks, and the minke would return for air. There were at least two of them, she said, maybe three. And so we waited. As we sat on the rocky land, they emerged, one at a time, their breath a deep groan, their backs slick. Because the water drops off almost immediately offshore, the minkes are known to edge close to land. And they did, lifting their heads so high that we could see their mouths. At other times, they’d surface far in the distance, offering us only a glimpse of their back and dorsal fin. In between visits, we’d scan the stillness, waiting, looking for a sign. My son would jump and point if he saw one first, and we’d all snap our heads as it emerged briefly from a world we could barely comprehend. And then they were gone, off to feed somewhere else.

La Casta Fjord restaurant on the wharf in Sacré-Coeur.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

That evening, back in Sacré-Coeur, we drove to a restaurant at the wharf called La Casta Fjord, which will be open this season through the first week in October, depending on tourism. Tiny, with wooden tables, shiplap walls and a weathered deck overlooking the fjords, the owner spoke little English, so I stumbled through the French I hadn’t spoken in years to order a salad and linguine with lobster and Nordic shrimp. The meal was good, the view even better. We looked out at the river, and all that we could not see beneath it and imagined more trips to come — maybe the Gaspé Peninsula or Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. At that moment, the world felt vast. This trip would be the first of many.

Now, as the world haltingly reopens, with travel complicated by coronavirus tests, vaccination records and ever-changing social distancing rules, we instead find ourselves concocting hopeful itineraries for the coming years, planning small adventures for the fall, or perhaps larger ones next spring. Maybe by then, we hope, the world will beckon once again.

A sunset view of the Saguenay Fjord.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

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