WHALE WATCHING INDUSTRY; The Breath of Life For North Shore Communities
Photos and story by Robert J. Galbraith

In the 1920’s, the Canadian government declared war on the beluga whales of the St Lawrence Estuary and introduced a $15 bounty to anyone who would bring in the flukes of the small white whale. This was an effort by fishery officials to protect declining fish stocks by culling the whales, which were being wrongly blamed for the plummeting catches by the local commercial fishery. They went as far as to provide a First World War ace pilot with funding and dynamite to fly over and drop homemade bombs onto the pods of belugas. From a 19th century population of some 10,000 belugas, barely 1,000 whales survived.

Now, less than 30 years after the banning of the whale hunt, whale watching, and not killing, has become the multimillion dollar key to the survival of numerous communities along Quebec’s North Shore.

In June of this year, a study released by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) stated that close to 500,000 tourists went out in boats to watch whales in Quebec bringing with them $80-100 million in economic spin-offs for the province. A large portion of these tourist dollars were spent in the Manicouagan region along the North Shore, which stretches from Tadoussac to Trinity Bay, Quebec.

Ironically, members of the same families which once hunted the beluga with harpoons and rifles, are the very pioneers of this blossoming whale watching industry. One such family is the Boulianne’s of Les Bergeronnes, located 25 kilometres east of Tadoussac.

“My mother’s family had a farm near Cap-de-Bon Désir, just east of Bergeronnes, where we raised sheep, calves, and chickens and grew grain and vegetables. But we also fished for salmon and cod and hunted for seal and belugas, anything that would help with our livelihoods. We were self-sufficient, and it was a type of subsistence living where you had to take advantage of any method to help supplement the income from farming. It was the way it was for the times we lived in,” explained 64-year-old Diane Gagnon, who operates Auberge La Rosepierre with her husband Richard, in Bergeronnes.

“Two of my uncles hunted the beluga with a harpoon from a small 16-foot, wooden row boat. The season was from June to August, and they would take two to three whales a year, it helped us survive,” said Gagnon.

“Hunting belugas was part of normal family life here. Other families in Bergeronnes and Escoumins also hunted beluga. Birds and whales were hunted from the boat in the warmer seasons and seals on the winter ice that formed along the shoreline. From the seals we would sell the skins and eat the meat in a ragout or as a steak. Sometimes my mother Simone would use the seal meat in a tourtière. My father hunted bear and wolves for a bounty from the government because they were a threat to the farm animals, but he also hunted seals.”

It was a difficult life, and hunting on the ice or from the boat was a perilous undertaking, with the possibility death never too far away. “I lost two uncles who went out to hunt for seals on the winter ice. They went out for the day and were never seen again. I lost another uncle when he returned from hunting beluga, when a friend he was with dropped his rifle on the shore and it accidentally discharged, wounding him. He died the next day from the wound.”

When Diane was 15 she took a job at Camping Bon Désir, where she would watch whales from the shoreline when not working. This led to her to lobby the local authorities and anyone who would listen to her about her dream of protecting the shoreline and whales and developing the area for watching whales from the shoreline. “This is where I fell in love with whales and realized that there was a great potential for attracting tourists to view them, rather than killing them,” she explained. “I’ve watched whales by Kayak and Zodiac, but prefer watching them from shore. Yes, I guess you could say I was a pioneer, at least in promoting watching them from Bon-Désir. In fact, I received a prize for this pioneering work a few years ago from the Association touristique régionale Manicouagan. People used to think my idea was crazy, but who would say I am crazy now?”

Gagnon’s eighty-eight-year-old mother, Simone Boulianne clearly remembers those days not so long ago when making a living off the land and sea was necessary to keep the family of 13 children in food and clothing. “I would often see the Belugas on our beach. It was not a major part of our survival but just a part of it,” she explained while having a coffee on a crisp, line-covered table at her daughter and son-in-laws Auberge Rosepierre. “Sometimes the whales were trapped in a weir and driven ashore to be killed. Minke whales were also taken when the opportunity arose. My brothers would leave from Cap Désir, just below where our family home was, and bring the whales back up upon the beach to be cut up and the blubber boiled down to oil, but I never partook in any of this activity, it was a job for the men. On the beach we had the two large stone furnaces and giant cauldrons set up in them. All the local whale hunters would gather at our house after the hunt to have a party and talk about the hunt. It was of no great interest to me, it was an acceptable thing to see back then.” These same furnaces were covered over with sand 8 years ago by archaeologists, who want to preserve them for further studying.

She described how when a whale was captured and processed, the oil from the blubber would be brought to the tanneries in Malbaie to be used for treating the leather hides they processed there. “The oil and tails were brought to Malbaie where we would receive a $15 dollar bounty that the government had for any beluga that was caught. It was a lot of money back then. The whale’s skin would be saved for making shoes and boots which I and the children wore. We also used the whale oil to cook, and for frying donuts, and for coating the horses hooves to keep them in good shape from splitting and cracking. It had many uses.”

Sixty-eight-year-old Begeronnes resident, Levis Ross is another former hunter and a whale watching pioneer. A general entrepreneur and former seal hunter and fisherman, he got into leading the first whale watching tours in the region from his small wooden boat, as a sideline. “I was fishing cod and watching the whales that came up around the boat, during the nicer months. I would bring out some of my family members to see the whales, to enjoy them as I did. It was Diane who first started watching whales from land and me that started it from boats.”

Ross described the attitude towards whales at that time. “People were harassing the belugas with harpoons and shooting at them with rifles, taking pot shots at them, just for fun! It was a different attitude back then, there was no concern for harming them and it didn’t matter what species of whale were shot or harpooned. A whale was a whale.”

He explained how he first started bringing tourists (mostly campers who visited during the summer months from Montreal and Quebec City) out to see the whales. “It was from Bergeronnes in 1972 that I first started bringing out tourists. Then in 1973 I moved the business to Tadoussac. At the start I was charging $10 per person to go out in my boat to see the whales. In my first year, I took out 280 paying customers, who mainly wanted to see the blue whales. It was a nice chunk of money, but just to be clear, I was doing this more because I loved the whales and loved showing them off to the tourists. I was truly fascinated by the whales.”

By 1992 he had purchased a 65-footer that could take out 95 people at a time. Not long after, he sold the boat to a new whale watching business just starting in Escoumin, called Essipit (now one of the larger whale watch and outfitting, tourism providers) and decided to buy two Zodiac style boats. At this point he moved his business to Escoumins.

“In 2004 I retired from the whale watching business and sold the business to Croisières Charlevoix.”

Ross believes that now there are too many boats converging on the whales. “Whale watch permits must be limited. We have been lucky there have been no major accidents between boats getting too close and the whales. There are also too many privately owned boats and Kayaks in the water who don’t know the regulations concerning how close to approach the whales and how to act near them.” For this reason, in 1990, a whale-watching code of ethics was introduced. The code was brought about with the cooperation of whale watch operators, tourism associations, Aboriginal groups and the Quebec and federal governments. “As it is, there are just over 52 organized whale watch boats out in the water, not including the kayaks and other private vessels. Also, there is little surveillance to watch that the boats keep their distance here near Bergeronnes, the policing efforts are concentrated around Tadoussac.”

Véronique Poulin is marketing and communications coordinator for the Association touristique régionale Manicouagan; she agrees that better care must be taken to make sure that the whales – the goose that laid the golden egg – are protected as part of the sustainable development of the overall tourism plan and future for the Manicouagan region. “We must keep a balance and respect the principles of durable development and also respect and not impede the lifestyles of the residents of the Manicouagan-North Shore. Our tourist region is slowly developing, but we must make sure that we don’t do it so that we overdevelop while upsetting the reason the tourists are coming here in the first place.”

At the same time, she believes that the region is not getting their fair share of government tourism funding, in fact she says, they’re getting very little. “We need to develop our tourism potential but if the province doesn’t help us, we are stuck where we are and the little villages that dot this shoreline suffer because of it. We need higher salaries for tourist related employees and a longer season. This would bring in more specialized and well-paid naturalists for example. It’s a problem keeping better people here cause of the low wages and short season. These more specialized people end up in Tadoussac, where many visitors think it is the end of the road. But it isn’t, we are just a handful of kilometres down the road, with spectacular scenery, and easy access to the whales and other beautiful sites. A better and permanent infrastructure base and help with more wide-ranging advertising, aimed at the US, other parts of Canada and Europe would also help. People in the tourism sector here are forced to finance their own advertising for the region and that’s just not fair to them. It’s like an added tax,” she explained.

“The Quebec tourism ministry must step forward and introduce more durable tourism strategies such as developing land-based locations where whales can be viewed so it takes pressure off the whales from boats. A big part of our job as a tourism organization is to protect the natural beauty and develop it wisely. Right now we have the resource, but not the resources.”

The plight of the beluga, and other whales, has been a tedious relationship with humans right up to the present. With its population stalled at around 1000 individuals and no sign of any increase in the numbers, the whale that sailors once called the sea canary (because of the whistling sound they produce) face an uncertain future. They live in a body of water, the Great Lakes Drainage System, where they cannot escape the man-made poisons that drain from the most industrialized region of Canada and the US, a vast region where steel mills, automotive producers, aluminum smelters, forestry industries, chemical producing giants, and a myriad of other industrial producers continue to spew their contaminants downstream. In fact, the beluga have been classified as toxic waste, to be approached with extreme care when their lifeless carcasses drift up onto shore, as they seem to do with more frequency nowadays.

The future certainly looks bleak for the ‘little white whale on the go,’ and in fact, what the harpoon and bomb couldn’t do in the past to eradicate the species, we now appear to be doing. At a time like this, when we have come from the harpoon to the satellite, we certainly need more of the above mentioned pioneering spirit and the vision to protect those few that remain.

Please follow and like us: