On The Whale Route In Search of Big Blue

On The Whale Route In Search of Big Blue

MeretMondeCampsite2012DOWN THE 138 – On The Whale Route In Search of Big Blue

Article by Catherine McKenna
Photos courtesy of Catherine McKenna and ‘Claudiane & Junior’ – fellow campers.

The 138, one of the oldest highways in the country, begins at the Montréal-New York state border and winds its way to Natashquan. This picturesque route is breathtaking and almost fairy-tale in its beauty, from the postcard scenery of Charlevoix to the stark and increasingly untamed landscapes east of Tadoussac, the beginning of the Whale Route. I love this drive, and at least once a season, it takes me to Mer et Monde, a campground  with a setting and quality unlike any other.

Mer et Monde has added some well-designed new sites this year, due to increasing demand. Most are high up, as not everyone chooses to be at the water’s edge. There are lovely treed sites, certainly appreciated in windy conditions. And for those who prefer a roof over their heads, two Huttopias have been added. A new common area observation deck is located on the eastern point.

The staff are friendly and helpful, and welcome me upon arrival. I head over to my platform, site #5. Perched on the rocks, it offers a front-row seat on the majestic St. Lawrence – here, 23 km across – with a close-up view of the whales and vast array of seabirds everyone is here to see.

MeretMondeCampsite_View_2012My fellow campers have always been quiet and respectful; particularly in September, most are true outdoors people not intimidated by the dramatically changeable weather of the North Shore, with nights that often dip to just above freezing. No rah-rah beer parties, no RVs, no hookups, no services, and no water except for the sea stage before us.

My sole neighbours within speaking distance are Claudiane and Junior, a young couple who, like myself, have been coming back to Mer et Monde for some time, and have discovered that August through early October is the best time of year to observe whales. I have not yet set up my tent when a humpback shows her tail not 50 metres away. “Snow White!” Claudiane exclaims. She swims slowly back and forth, diving, disappearing, and resurfacing. Food is plentiful here, and the water drops off to a formidable depth very close to the rocks, making us so fortunate as to be in such close company with the whales as they dine on the rich supply of plankton beneath the waves.

Huttopia_2012Putting up a tent on a platform requires a bit of foresight, given the absence of any kind of shelter from the elements. Winds can pick up in the middle of the night to the extent that the spare sprinkling of trees on the promontory bends in two. Everything (if not everyone) must be tied down within an inch of its life and secured to withstand whatever Mother Nature serves up. Those of us who have experienced the weather here keenly assess new arrivals to check that they are prepared and well set up.

Claudiane and Junior’s enviably spacious abode on the platform above mine may not be ideal, but they are resourceful, and have rigged a huge tarp over all, which also allows them to sit outside comfortably sheltered from the rain. It works perfectly. I make mental notes to add this to my list of improvements in camping gear. My compact space for one has proved excellent in all conditions, but it is admittedly a bit crowded when my food and cooking supplies line the inside walls of the tent.

Humpback_Whale_QuebecFriday, 5:30 a.m.: I unzip my door to catch a glimpse of a humpback, who has awakened me with her blow. The heavy overnight rain has left a blanket of fog in its wake, but there is no wind, so I am able to get my propane stove cooking without spewing a single vulgarity. This is my favourite time of day; I linger at my picnic table.

Breakfast is a pot of coffee, a cheese omelette, sun-dried tomato and whole grain bread toasted to perfection on the “Acme” toaster, and juice. I finish off with fresh berries picked two days before on l’Île d’Orléans. Marvellous!

Dishwashing begins in the pools of salt water nestled in the rock crevices that surround me, then a cursory rinse with bottled water. My dishcloth and towel hang to dry on the clothesline of my platform.

A parade of whales swims back and forth before 7:00 a.m.: two or three humpbacks, two or three fin whales, a minke, and a handful of harbour porpoises. Later on, Claudiane again points to Snow White, who we understand was this year identified as a male, and renamed Blizzard.

Minke_Whale_2012I do not leave the campground at all on Friday, content to share sightings with Claudiane and Junior. We climb up and down and around the rocks all day, enjoying the mostly good weather, and delighting in being in what we feel is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. I am flattered, and chuckle about their comments on my age (“My mother would NEVER do this…!” Claudiane asserts), and energy. I, in turn, am so very grateful to have such charming kindred spirits as neighbours.

It is wild here, and as Claudiane mentioned last evening, time stops in this remarkably gorgeous setting. It is nothing short of miraculous for me to be able to spend a few days guided merely by the rhythms of the rising and setting sun.

Humpback_Whale_Feeding_QuebecBy noon Friday, we are the only campers within visible distance. Claudiane and Junior remind me to come up and eat on their sheltered “mini veranda” if it rains. They’re sitting on chair cushions on the rocks below. The fog hangs on, descending and lifting, lifting and descending…

The porpoises are playing close to the rocks, and a couple of fin whales make their way down the estuary.

The “cowboys” in the zodiacs (tourists, not researchers) are noticeably absent in the fog. Thumbs up for the whales! I have never understood the idea of “comfortable entertainment” for the whale-curious on cruise ships or the noisy pursuits of zodiacs. Beluga deaths this year have soared to a total of 15, and researchers are not yet able to pinpoint the cause or causes. Observing whales on the water always involves some kind of impact on the quality of life of these sea creatures. Their breathing rates are affected, as are their dive depths and durations. There may be herd separation as a result of human activities, as well as cacophony – the cessation of communication activities. Cow/calf separation, reduction of energy reserves, and disturbances of swim speed and direction are all very real impacts to keep in mind. Given human activities always come with a price for the whales, what better way to appreciate them than here from the rocks, or gently, in a kayak?

Kayaking_StLawrence_2012Evening rolls around and we begin with our respective “4 à 6s”. Supper is pasta with a fresh veggie sauce (interested in joining me yet?!), cheese and baguette. But my neighbours and I find ourselves constantly running off over the rocks when we see a whale or whales, barrelling down for a better vantage point. The stainless steel wine goblets follow, slipping out of our grasp and clanking into the crevices, in immediate favour of the whales and our cameras.

Eventually we return to finish our repasts, and make our fires. I am almost startled by the amazing sight of the stars that fill the night sky as Claudiane signals to me to look up. My eyes are getting heavy, and just as my fire signs off for the night, so do I.

Saturday morning, after breakfast, the sea is relatively quiet, and I spot just a couple of fin whales before anyone else is up. Claudiane and Junior pack up to leave before noon. I am saddened to see them go. Their liveliness that animated platform # 6 has strangely disappeared, but I smile at the images they have left behind of them making the best of every moment there. Later, inside my tent, I find the box of matches I offered them, and again, fresh memories of their presence flood my mind and heart.

Few whales this morning, but the harbour porpoises are abundant. They are small creatures in comparison, and can be identified also by their distinctive “sniff” as they arc the surface to breathe while feeding.

The rain comes down again, so I tear myself away to visit the Archéo Topo museum in Bergeronnes. Life on the North Shore some 9,000 years ago and on is described in fascinating detail, with an exhibition of artefacts, a multimedia presentation, and taxidermy. It proves well worth a two-hour stay, but a bit short of that, I am eager to venture out onto the St. Lawrence in a sea kayak back at Mer et Monde, so to be continued on another visit!

My upper neighbours and a guide are the only ones game enough to tackle the somewhat rough waters in the threatening rain. Lysanne, our guide, explains our equipment (so even if you are a complete beginner, you will be fine, even though I would recommend waiting for better conditions), and then tells us about the two groups of whales of the St. Lawrence – the toothed and the baleen whales. The whales most commonly seen in the estuary from the first category are: the beluga (year-round residents), the harbour porpoise and occasionally, a sperm whale. From the latter category: the minke, the fin, the humpback, and more rarely to be sure, the blue whale.

We are seaworthy in no time, and Lysanne immediately makes careful decisions regarding the direction of our paddling. Within minutes, through the sea spray and rain, we spot a harbour porpoise. It’s a game of waves, observation, and adventurous effort that we all readily embark upon, not without the infectious enthusiasm of our guide. Lysanne is informative, and eager to answer any and all of our questions. We spot a seal, and then approach a second one, who, startled, pops out of the water. Lysanne tells us that the seals, unlike whales, do not know what is approaching from behind.

The hard work is over when we turn to slowly drift back towards Mer et Monde. The wind and waves rock us along as we gaze out hypnotically onto la mer. The rain lets up, and we chat as the river carries us home…

We pull the kayaks back in at the embarkation point, rinse our equipment, and thank our guide. Every outing is a different adventure, and I am already looking forward to the next time. There are many options for kayaking: one can join a group at sunrise (5:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m.), 8:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m., 12:00 p.m. – 4:00 p.m., take part in a paddle under the stars with a hydrophone, or kayak an entire day, 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Very late Saturday night, a windstorm brews up within minutes, and the suddenly ferocious roar of the St. Lawrence gives me the impression I am adrift on the open seas in a rowboat. But I am not so fearful this time as my tent expertise has improved due to a not-so-organised experience in 80 km winds, even higher up, a few years ago. Taught guy lines and rope have become a rustic art. In time, even the thundering waves can no longer keep me awake, and I drift back to sleep.

At daybreak Sunday there is only one tent casualty on the horizon, nothing serious, but its occupant does not surface till noon. It’s windy and sunny, so I set up my stove under the shelter of the open door of my tent to make my pot of coffee. The days could go on and on here, and I passionately wish I could stay longer in this place where time stops.

I look out onto la mer one last time in search of big blue. Whether apocryphal or not, Claudiane and Junior, my kayaking buddies, and myself, have all thought to have heard the distant, powerful blow of the largest creature on Earth, through the fog or in the darkness. Blue whales are a rare sighting indeed, but as many as four or five have been observed in the area so far this season. Like avid explorers, we think about and plan our next trips to Mer et Monde, to maybe someday, maybe just someday, be treated to a sighting of this magnificent and elusive leviathan.

About Author

Catherine McKenna

Catherine McKenna is a Quebecker of Irish descent who returned to her native city in 2002 to live inside the walls after many years in Toronto and the United States. Following her studies in literature and languages at York University, she rode Thoroughbred racehorses for 22 years, worked for The Pollution Probe Foundation, Canadian Parks and Wilderness, as well as in the arts, among other diverse endeavours. Her book, Jeanie Johnston Journal, was published in 2005, and she continues to write for various publications in Québec, Montréal, and Toronto. She has worked as an ESL teacher for ten years and a translator for five. The Défilé de la St-Patrick is an organisation dear to her heart; she has been a member of the Board of Directors since the revival of the parade in 2010.

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