Monday, July 25, 2005

Dancing with whales

DANCING WITH WHALES

By Jerry Lanson


TADOUSSAC, Canada -- Genevieve Lecours, our tanned and well-muscled guide, looked like she'd be more comfortable mushing sled dogs through the Northwest Territory than she was herding a dozen tourists in kayaks through the ripples where the St. Lawrence and Saguenay rivers meet, her eyes scanning the horizon for whales.

"While we're waiting, look around," she told us as we bobbed in the harbor's mouth, pausing for stragglers to catch up and, in my case, struggling to keep my kayak steady. "You might see a beluga go under you, and I'm not kidding."

My feet, rammed beneath the kayak's canvas in a contorted position, had gone to sleep. My mind imagined Moby Dick rising beneath me and dragging me to the depths. All too aware of Lecours’ three safety rules (“Rule 1: don’t panic, Rule 2, don’t panic. You can guess Rule 3”), I kept my kayak inches behind hers.

And then the whales burst through the water, not beneath us but clear as could be, well within range of the naked eye. A white beluga mother and her darker children frolicked across the horizon, arching above the waves and diving rhythmically a half dozen times before vanishing. There was nothing menacing about them. Suddenly, from the silence of the Saguenay, a 15,000-pound minke whale punctured the surface just 30 feet away and hung suspended, almost posing for pictures before diving deep in search of dinner. What a rush. But was it real?

Such are the adventures of whale-watching in these waters about 150 miles northeast of Quebec city, in fertile feeding grounds where beluga outnumber the French-speaking, year-round residents of the rocky shoreline village by a ratio of 4 to 3. It’s a form of entertainment that often is measured in moments of heart-thumping mania after long minutes of eye strain. But who can pass up the chance to almost hug nature’s biggest beast?

And so, each summer, they come by the boatload. Some of the tens of thousands who flock here choose to watch for any of 13 St. Lawrence species from the decks of 600-person, 60-ton boats -- boats whose weight approaches that of the blues and fins that venture up the river from the sea. On board, tourists crane their necks and train telephoto lenses and binoculars every which way as guides shout "6 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 12 o'clock" and captains spin their boats for a better look. One thing is sure: They'd better look quickly.


"Dad, forget it, your camera isn't that fast," one teen daughter said, mocking her father as he tried to capture a fin whale's back with the 2005 equivalent of the old Brownie camera. Even the fastest photographers can barely frame the spray from a blowhole, a hint of fin, the curve of a whale's back, before the St. Lawrence swallows the mammoth ghosts as they dive into the deep troughs of this glacially carved region, invisible once again.


Other tourists paddle. In the calm mouth of the harbor, on the cusp of one beautiful July evening's sunset, belugas, seals and even the minke whale floated past our silent kayaks like neighbors sharing a summer swim.


In all, 49 whale-watching boats are licensed in the village of Tadoussac, from rubber rafts that hold 10 or fewer to the ocean-worthy vessel we also rode. My guess is none measure up to the self-paddling adventure of the kayak, which costs less, too; $35 Canadian (roughly $29 American) for two hours versus $50 Canadian or more to let someone do the driving for you.

Either way, whales you'll see, an adventurous compliment to a vacation framed perhaps by a few days in the cosmopolitan city of Montreal and a few more enjoying the Old World elegance and haute cuisine of Quebec City. According to Patrice Corbeil, director of the Tadoussac research center that studies the great creatures and works with the tourist industry to protect them, some 1,200 beluga whales alone live along the St. Lawrence coastline within a 10-minute dive or two of the village, feeding, along with a smattering of massive blue and fin and smaller humpbacks and minke, on a rich menu of plankton, krill and fish that swirl in the tidal eddies where the two rivers join.

It was the Canadian folksinger Raffi who brought the story of "baby beluga" to generations of kids. But it’s clear their magic works on parents, too. For though the coastline offers its share of kayaking, beach combing and hiking in the rounded mounds that protect it (the name Tadoussac comes from a Native American tribe's word for breast), it is whales who sustain this village that once was Canada’s first fur-trading outpost.

Back then, in 1600, staying alive was the primary activity; only 5 of 16 original "settlers" survived the winter and it would be more than two centuries before anyone tried to stay year round again. Even today, there's not all that much to the village, a few dozen homes and tourist shops, a maritime museum, an Anglican church dating back to the mid-19th century, an educational/interpretive center dedicated to the whales, and the commanding, 500-foot long, red-roofed Hotel Tadoussac, which dominates the sandy beach along the horseshoe-shaped tidal harbor and offers nearly a third of the area's 520 tourist beds.

First built in 1868 and rebuilt in 1942 after the ravages of fire, the hotel -- and beach it looks out on -- seems frozen in the '50s, when elegant, ocean-going ships transported tourists from Montreal and Quebec to the village well before whale watching grew popular. It was on one of those ships, at age 7, that I first arrived, a trip captured on a dog-eared, fading photograph of my father, standing on a diving board with the hotel's expansive lawns spread out behind him.

Now as then, below the bluff on which the hotel sits, kids splash gleefully in tidal pools. Above, visitors of their grandparents' generation sit beside beach umbrellas on white, Cape Cod chairs, sunning in the breezy, soft, 70ish weather that bakes natives to a leathery tan. A shuffleboard and tennis court complete the ‘50s ambiance.

Inside the 70-by-70-foot lobby, the wooden chairs, stone fireplaces and chandeliers are the same as those captured in framed black-and-white photos taken shortly after the hotel reopened, though couches and a thick blue carpet have softened the room.

I can’t help but wonder if the half-finished jigsaw puzzle spread on a lobby table has been there since my last visit. And if the songs Jean Gagnon plays on the bar’s piano are really Piaf and Sinatra, or just the sounds of childhood memories. At dinner, I imagine my father eating the bountiful buffet back then, pacing himself through plates heaped with shrimp and herring, salmon and rare roast beef, brie and chevret, as he taught us boys to do whenever the family destination was an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.

Hotel Tadoussac’s contemporary buffet is spectacular, especially at the rather modest price of $30 a person ($25 U.S.), from salad to sorbet. It also comes packaged with room and an equally plentiful breakfast buffet for $220 a couple (about $180 U.S.).

What has changed in Tadoussac is the explosion in whale-watching. When Patrice Corbeil first came in the mid-1980s to start his marine mammal research center named GREMM, he could count all the whale-watching boats on a few fingers. With a friend, he began, on weekends, to study the whales of the region. (“I had been studying birds,” he says wryly, “but I was tired of all the mosquitoes in the woods.”)

Today 45 people work for Corbeil and his busy nonprofit research center. Among their tasks is tagging the whales, tracking their migratory patterns, measuring the impact of tourist boats on them, and helping to write regulations to minimize the tourist industry’s impact. The scientists have even named the most frequent visitors to the Saguenay’s mouth.

In 1991, GREMM opened an interpretive center for the public that today draws more than 38,000 visitors a year, most in July and August. And an impassioned collection of tourists they are. On board the big boats, ooo’s, ahh’s and the occasional scream come with the territory. “There are whales out there with names and no parents,” one woman blurted out.

As mystical as the momentary encounters with these leviathans can be, I’m not sure I qualify as a whale groupie. But even the most circumspect can find plenty that’s fun and interesting in GREMM’s interpretive center. For an entrance fee of $6.25, you can track the daily movements of the St. Lawrence whales (it’s also online at www.whales-net.org); view a remarkable 18-minute film on the river’s whales called "Encounters with Whales of the St. Lawrence," and find the answer to such need-to-know questions as "how big is the penis of a fin whale." (You'll find out by tugging on a black pulley and stepping backwards -- about 9 feet.)


You can also learn about the strictly wholesale habits of these gargantuan creatures. The fin whale, for example, eats nearly 3 tons of food a day. It doesn't have teeth but instead relies on up to 800 baleen, or “dental,” plates, each of which is anywhere from several inches to a several feet long. These filter the day's nutrients from the salt water. And when the fin dives, it can stay underwater for up to 25 minutes. Even more remarkable is that the fin whale, which we saw, isn't the biggest whale sighted in the St. Lawrence. That honor goes to the blue whale, which, appropriately, eats another ton or two of food each day.


If all this piques your curiosity, perhaps it is the time to steal a page, or twist a title, from Kevin Costner and go dancing with whales. In Tadoussac, everyone says, it's not a question of if you'll see them but where and how many. And besides, thanks to Patrice Corbeil and GREMM, they even have names.

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