The Québec maritime Blog

Tips for Identifying Whale Species

Côte-Nord is one of the five best whale-watching areas in the world. The tides, currents and unusual seabed topography provide favourable conditions for high concentrations of plankton and fish: this open-air buffet attracts 13 species of cetaceans. It is no coincidence that the north shore of the St. Lawrence, from Tadoussac to Blanc-Sablon, is officially known as the Whale Route!

To observe these giants of the sea, you have several options: a comfortable cruise in a sightseeing boat, a guided excursion in a Zodiac or a sea kayaking expedition. In certain areas, the water is so deep that the whales can be seen from the shore. In Côte-Nord – Manicouagan, the Cap-de-Bon-Désir and Pointe-des-Monts sites are particularly good places for land-based whale watching.

If you’re travelling on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, whale-watching excursions are offered in Bas-Saint-Laurent and Gaspésie.

There are two types of whales:

  • Toothed whales (8 species in Québec / 70 species worldwide)
  • Baleen whales (5 species in Québec / 11 species worldwide)

To prepare for your next whale-watching excursion, here are some tips to help you identify the most common species found in Côte-Nord.

TOOTHED WHALES

Atlantic white-sided dolphin

This species is most likely to be observed between Pointe-des-Monts and Havre-Saint-Pierre. Atlantic white-sided dolphins swim in pods of hundreds of individuals and love to play in the wake of passing boats. They are fast, acrobatic swimmers that often leap, exposing their whole body.

Characteristics

  • Black back, fins and tail
  • White belly
  • Grey sides with a white patch under a yellowish-tan streak
  • Tall, sharply pointed and curved-back dorsal fin

Beluga

Belugas © Jean-Pierre Sylvestre

Belugas are the only whales to live year-round in the St. Lawrence Estuary. The Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park is one of the best places to observe these whales. Belugas swim slowly, usually in pods.

Characteristics

  • Adults have white skin
  • Rounded head with melon, mobile neck
  • Wide, short pectoral fins

Sperm whale

Sperm whales prefer very deep waters and can sometimes be seen in the St. Lawrence Estuary, particularly in the Tadoussac and Grandes-Bergeronnes sectors. This is a whale you will probably recognize since it was immortalized in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The sperm whale’s distinctive bushy blow is angled forward and to the left; it also slowly lifts its triangular-shaped tail very high out of the water before beginning a deep dive.
 

Characteristics

  • Dark wrinkled skin behind the head
  • Prominent square head represents one third of the body
  • Blowhole located on the left side of the head
  • Hump-shaped dorsal fin
  • Small bumps along back, between dorsal fin and tail
  • Triangular-shaped tail

BALEEN WHALES

Minke whale

The smallest of the baleen whales can be observed near Tadoussac and between Pointe-des-Monts and Mingan. Deep dives are preceded by a pronounced arching of the back, but its tail doesn’t emerge from the water.

Characteristics

  • Grey back and flanks, pinkish white belly
  • Pectoral fins with distinctive white stripe
  • Flattened pointed head
  • Ventral pleats extending from the throat to just behind the pectoral fins

Humpback whale

Humpback whale © Marc Loiselle

Commonly seen in the Mingan region and along the Lower North Shore (between La Tabatière and the Strait of Belle Isle), humpback whales show their tail with every dive, much to the delight of whale-watchers! Humpbacks have a distinctive bushy blow that is almost as wide as it is tall. When humpback whales dive, they arch their back and roll forward slowly, showing off their dorsal fin and tail.

 


 

Characteristics

  • Large black back
  • Tail has white underside
  • Big flat head, lower jaw sports a number of round protuberances
  • Very long white pectoral fin with underside covered in small bumps
  • Short dorsal fin on top of a more or less pronounced hump
  • Large and widely spaced ventral pleats extend to navel
  • Butterfly-shaped tail flukes

North Atlantic right whale

Round and chubby, the North Atlantic right whale is increasingly seen along the Lower North Shore and in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. This species is incredibly friendly, so don’t be surprised if one approaches your boat! Its V-shaped blow can reach up to 5 metres (16 feet) high. It arches its back when diving and shows its tail.

Characteristics

  • Wide smooth back, no dorsal fin
  • Black back, black belly with the occasional white mark
  • White callosities on head
  • Paddle-shaped pectoral fins

Fin whale

The Tadoussac sector is one of the best places to see fin whales, as are the waters between Pointe-des-Monts and Mingan. The second largest animal on the planet, fin whales are also one of the fastest cetaceans and can dive to depths of 100 metres (330 feet), up to five times their length. When it surfaces, its loud and highly visible blow can rise up to 4 to 6 metres (13 to 20 feet) in a column. The dorsal fin appears soon after the blow.

Characteristics

  • Long, slender and flexible body
  • Dark grey, nearly black back and flanks
  • White belly and right-side of lower jaw
  • Clearly defined grey chevron-shaped colouration pattern behind the head
  • Relatively small pointy pectoral fins
  • Ventral grooves cover throat to navel

Blue whale

Blue whale

The largest animal on the planet, the blue whale swims alone or in pairs. The St. Lawrence, particularly in the Mingan and Les Escoumins sectors, is one of the rare places in the world where this whale can be observed near the shore. The blue whale emits a loud explosive blow that can reach a height of 6 metres (20 feet). The dorsal fin breaks the surface long after the blow is sighted. With any luck, you will also see its tail before it plunges back under the surface.

 

Characteristics

  • Mottled, blue-grey colouration
  • Small dorsal fin set far back on body
  • Ventral grooves cover throat to navel

Visit our website for information about whale-watching activities in the maritime regions of Québec.

Sources

  • Découvrir les baleines et autres mammifères marins du Québec et de l’est du Canada by Pierre Richard and Jacques Prescott (Éditions Michel Quintin, 2005)
  • Whales Online by the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM)
Categories What to Do

Author Anne-Josée Pineau

Born in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Anne-Josée Pineau loves this region and is delighted to introduce others to it. Never far from the sea, she’s fascinated by lighthouses and could live on seafood alone! On this blog, she likes to write about our regions’ unusual attractions, make your mouth water by describing local delicacies, and pique your interest by revealing some of the hidden beauty found in Québec by the Sea. In other words, she wants to provide you with lots of ideas for an unforgettable vacation!

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