Photography: Whales

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During one of our many 2013 road trips between the National Water Centre and our home in Toronto, KT and I decided to stop in Tadoussac, Quebec. This historic town on north shore of the St. Lawrence is primarily known for the large number of tour operators providing service into the river and the nearby national marine park.

 

At this point of the river, the fresh water coming out from the great lakes is mixing with the salt water of the Gulf of St. Lawrence at just the right consistency. This creates a situation where species of both lake and ocean animals are plentiful. This in turn attracts larger marine creatures hoping to capitalize on the expanded food supply.

The most impressive of these oceanic visitors are the baleen whales: blue whales, minke whales and humpbacks to name a few that are common in these waters.

We booked a two hour tour aboard an 18-person zodiac with a company called AML. The cost was fairly reasonable; less than $70 each. There were less expensive bookings available, but these were generally on larger boats with capacities in excess of 100 people and we were interested in a smaller, quieter group for our excursion.

The afternoon of our visit it was quite rainy and visibility was minimal due to a low fog over the river. On most days you can easily see from one side of the river to the other, but the fog prevented us from even being able to see outside the little harbour. The tour company didn't seem to be concerned with this in terms of the quality of tour they would offer, and promptly offered everyone full rain equipment. Initially some of the more fashion-minded passengers on our boat declined, but after a brief description of the level of wetness one could reasonably expect ("Pretend you're going to stand in a shower. In your clothes. For 2 hours."), all accepted.

As we proceeded out into the river, we quickly lost sight of the harbour and the other boats therein. Visibility was only about 15 to 20 meters around us. It's a strange feeling being on the water in conditions like that - without the shore for a frame of reference you feel like you're sealed within your own little world and the size of the river beyond grows enormously in your imagination. 

Our guide was navigating entirely with a portable GPS unit and a radio, occasionally exchanging messages with other boats from the same tour company. Every so often, we'd come to a complete stop and sit quietly, looking for animals in the water. Before too long, a small face popped up out of the water at the edge of our little bubble in the fog. "Foque!" called our guide. A relatively large grey seal had taken notice of us, and for the next half-hour or so he followed our boat. He was careful to keep his distance, but was definitely curious enough to keep up with us when we accelerated.

After some more time cruising through the haze, several large shapes appeared on the surface of the water ahead of us. Other boats from the same tour company were congregated together, sitting at idle in the water. They were joined by a small red boat with only 2 passengers aboard. We were never close enough to read the insignia on the hull, but the maple leaf of the Canadian government was clearly visible. My guess is that this was a fisheries and oceans boat on site as an observer.

We pulled up into the formation and our guide cut the engine. We sat quietly for some time, waiting to catch a glimpse of something in the water. The weather continued to worsen around us and over the course of the next half hour or so it began to occur to us that we may not see any whales. These are wild animals in their natural habitat after all, and they aren't subject to the schedules of any of the tour boat companies. In the face of more and more rain, those of us who brought cameras slowly began sealing them away into the various waterproof containers aboard.

Suddenly, we heard something behind us. A large splash, followed by an enormous rush of air. Turning to look, we caught our first glimpse of a humpback whale!

It looked like a smooth, black tube drifting along the surface of the water. Moving slowly in a straight line it lingered for a moment and then arched downwards, giving us the briefest glimpse of the small fin on it's back before disappearing down into the river. Over the next thirty minutes or so this was repeated several times. We all stood and watched, fascinated. Nobody said a thing. 

Despite the heavy rain, I entertained the idea of risking my camera to take some photographs but decided against it. The whale was certainly amazing, but the likelihood of getting my DSLR back to shore in working order was fairly unlikely. 

Out of nowhere, someone from another boat broke the silence with an excited yell. I couldn't quite make out the words through my rain gear but KT heard it clearly: "Full breach!". A moment later, we were all left awestruck by the sight of 40 tons of humpback whale shooting up out of the water. The tip of its tail cleared the surface by several feet before it twisted over onto its back in mid-air and crashed back down into the river. Water shot up in all directions like there had been an explosion.

At this point I made a decision: If I lost my camera to rain damage it would be worth it. The flash card would survive even if the camera body didn't.

For the next hour or so, the whale continued to circle us, growing more playful with each moment. Based on the the colouring of its tail and its pectoral fins our guide informed us that this was a male and that he was well known to the tour companies. His name was Gaspard, and he was highly inquisitive and was thought of as a bit of a show-off.

He'd pop-up in front of our boat, only to make a loud, throaty noise and then splash his tail as he dove back under. He'd then appear behind us and roll about on the surface for a while, slapping a fin on the water in what almost seemed like a wave of his hand. He legitimately seemed as curious about us as we were about him, closely inspecting each boat in the area several times.

I can't stress enough how amazing this experience was, and I recommend it to anyone. There's something world changing about seeing an animal like this in the wild with your own eyes. 

Even better: In the end, my soaking wet Canon DSLR made it back to shore without any damage.