A whale flips its tail out of the water on the St. Lawrence River in Québec

On Québec’s St. Lawrence River, You Can Go Whale Watching on a Zodiac Boat

Hanna Ashcraft

Hanna Ashcraft

June 24, 2024

4 min read

A river is not where I expected to go whale watching. But the St. Lawrence in the Canadian province of Québec is not your average river, with not-your-average-river wildlife. 

A few hours north of Québec City, at the confluence of the Saguenay Fjord and St. Lawrence River, sits the adorable, ferry-accessible town of Tadoussac. The town is cute enough for a visit in itself, and it’s also the perfect base to spot playful and curious beluga whales, which inhabit these waters year-round. You might get lucky and see one of the 13 whale species that visit the area from the shores, but head out on a whale-watching excursion for a near-guarantee of whale spotting.

Checking in and heading out

My exact experience was the Zodiac Whale Watching 2.5-hour Expedition with Croisières AML. After layering up and reducing all possessions to what could fit in my pockets, we headed for the check-in area. 

Here we confirmed our boat and donned our bright orange Helly Hansen waterproof suspenders and jackets. The oversized look is a 'fit worth a picture as you walk out to the harbor across the street. The Zodiac boats were waiting for us, along with a naturalist guide with a gentle voice repeating a near-encyclopedic knowledge of whales in both English and French. 

Beluga whales swim together on the St. Lawrence River in Québec

Luck was on our side with calm winds and glassy waters. Before we were ten minutes from the dock, we saw our first flash of grayish-white. The quick little bump in the water was a beluga whale. Regulations require that boats stay a particular distance from all beluga whales, and they cannot stop to view them. 

I was quick with my camera but not quick enough to capture the beluga whale. Within another ten minutes, we approached the eerie, impressive, hourglass-shaped Haut-fond Prince (Prince Shoal) Lighthouse. 

Whales, whales, whales

Farther out onto the river, past the lighthouse, is when we truly began seeing whales. Other vessel types from Croisières AML led the way to multiple pods of humpback whales. Our naturalist guide rapidly told us facts about the majestic creatures, only to be interrupted when the humpback would curve its back more sharply, signaling that it was about to dive deeper and give us a show of its tail. 

“Right side of the boat standing, left side sitting,” she gently directed so everyone could have a view. “Camera ready, camera ready…wooooooowwww,” she quietly exclaimed along with the guests. 

A nearby Zodiac boat full of spectators watches as a whale flips it's tail out of the water on the St. Lawrence River in Québec

It was so quiet and respectful on the boat of more than 40 people that I could hear the whales breaching in the distance. We followed as two separate humpback pods dived deep, witnessing three consecutive whale tails reach into the air. At another moment, a singular humpback whale dipped right under our boat, taking a breath close enough to touch. 

In addition to humpback and beluga whales, we saw minke, fin, and harbor porpoises. Adorable harbor and gray seals also did their best to distract us from whale watching. 

While I didn’t see a blue whale on this excursion, I spoke to someone who did on a tour in previous years. “The first time I saw a blue whale, it took my breath away,” said Suzie Loiselle, who was born and raised along the St. Lawrence River. “It is the largest animal on the planet, and it was right next to the boat, so huge and slow, it seemed like time stopped. Only a few hundred blue whales still exist on Earth, so I’ve been extremely lucky to observe a few in my life.” 

Whales jump out of the water on the St. Lawrence River in Québec

She reminisced further. “My most memorable observation of humpbacks was in 2020 when two whales made a fantastic jump a few meters from the boat. It looked like synchronized swimming. I would have given them a gold medal.”

Fjord finish

It was challenging to stop following and watching the humpback whales, but eventually, our time was up. Instead of returning to the dock in Tadoussac, we navigated into the Saguenay Fjord. We spotted a few more beluga whales on the way, which our naturalist told us was slightly less than average. They typically see more on their tours. 

The fjord was stunning, with steep walls on either side and a meandering waterway. But for a finale worth writing about, we turned a corner and cozied up to the cascading Caribou Waterfall. Those suspenders and rain jackets finally came in handy! 

We returned to the harbor shortly after to reluctantly give up our bright orange outfits and marvel at what we had just seen. Two and a half hours have never passed so quickly.

Getting there

  • The easiest way to get to Tadoussac is by flying into Québec City Jean Lesage International Airport (YQB) and making the scenic 2.5-to-3-hour drive north. Alternatively, Croisières AML offers a full-day whale-watching excursion from Québec City if you are limited on time.
  • Average Going deal for cheap flights to Québec City: $275 roundtrip 

How to do it

  • Best time to go: From May to October, up to 13 species of whales come to feed in the St. Lawrence Estuary, which is full of fish and plankton, thus providing a rich feeding ground for whales. July tends to be the peak season for the whales and tourists, so plan ahead. My excursion took place in October, when the autumn lighting is good for photos; plus, the fall colors in the background of photos is a bonus. Tours are not offered through winter.
  • Cost: $119.99 CAD per adult for the 2.5-hour Zodiac Whale Watching Expedition; $99.99 CAD for children 6–12 years old. For safety reasons, children under 6 years old are not allowed aboard Zodiacs. 
  • Safety: If you don’t have sea legs, it’s better to eat at least a light meal one hour before boarding the Zodiac to have something in your stomach. I had the most delicious mushroom and apple crepe with a maple latte from Café Bohème. Regardless of the weather, pack or wear layers on the whale-watching tour, including hats, gloves, and long sleeves. The water of St. Lawrence stays cold all year long, so when the weather is rougher, you are more likely to get splashed and remain cold with the wind chill. Also, don’t forget sunscreen.
  • Tips and considerations: For more context on the whales you’ll see, I highly recommend stopping by the Marine Mammal Interpretation Center (CIMM) before your excursion. This interactive exhibit features whale skeletons that you can touch or walk inside to better understand the gentle giants of the St. Lawrence River. Catch the well-produced video about the curious and playful beluga whales and fall in love before seeing them in the wild. 

More animal encounters around the world

Hanna Ashcraft

Hanna Ashcraft

Freelance Writer

Hanna Ashcraft is a freelance travel writer on a mission to encourage women to try adventurous travel. Specializing in interactive, outdoor, and adventure travel, you’ll most likely find her on a hiking trail, researching and trying activities unique to a destination, or tasting the best local vegetarian snacks. Then, writing her experiences, tips, and takeaways from her home in Oregon.


Published June 24, 2024

Last updated June 24, 2024

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