How to watch marine wildlife
A note on whale watching in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park
Research on marine mammals is being conducted in the St. Lawrence. Researchers must obtain permits from the relevant authorities, and Boat operators in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park must keep their vessel greater than 200 m from any whale (except for commercial whale-watching operations, whose limit is 100 m).
In the St. Lawrence, you might see some whales that are threatened or endangered, and given special protection under the Species at Risk Act. Learn more about Aquatic Species at Risk.
If you encounter any of these species:
- Slow down and avoid sudden changes of speed or heading.
- Go around them slowly and give them a wide berth.
- Do not approach them. Stay at least 400 metres away.
- If your boat comes closer than 400 metres to a whale, stop or keep the boat stationary, and let the animal pass.
To report a marine mammal disturbance or harassment
Please visit Report a Sighting or Incident.
Canada’s long coastlines provide many opportunities to observe whales and other marine mammals in their natural environment. Whale and marine mammal watching is an exciting boating activity enjoyed by Canadians and visitors to Canada every year.
Viewing marine mammals in their natural surroundings provides an opportunity for the public to gain a better appreciation of these majestic creatures. In our excitement, we sometimes forget that our presence has an effect on wildlife and their habitat. Just like us, marine mammals need space to find food, choose mates, raise young, socialize, and rest.
Close encounters with humans can disturb the animals’ behaviour. When we get too close, approach too fast, or make too much noise, we may be disrupting these activities and causing unnecessary stress to the marine mammal. In some cases, we may be threatening their lives.
Bring your binoculars, follow these guidelines and enjoy watching marine mammals safely and responsibly.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada is committed to the welfare of marine mammals, and as such would like to provide the public with the following whale watching tips for boaters to ensure you enjoy your wildlife encounter while reducing the risk of disturbing marine mammals.
When viewing whales from the water in any type of vessel, remember these key guidelines:
- Approach areas of known or suspected marine wildlife activity with caution.
- Slow down as you approach whales. Avoid sudden speed or heading changes.
- Do not approach whales that are unmoving and floating at the surface or near the surface – they are resting.
- Do not surround whales.
- Do not approach marine mammals using aircraft.
- Keep clear of the whales’ path. If whales approach you, move out of their way.
Approach from the side:
- Do not approach whales from the front or behind. Approach from the side and move in a direction parallel to the direction of the whales.
- Do not approach or position your vessel closer than 100 metres to any whale. If your boat accidentally comes closer than 100 metres, stop or keep the boat stationary and let the animal pass.
- Stay on the inshore side of the whales when they are travelling close to shore.
- Limit your viewing time to 30 minutes. This will minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels, and give consideration to other viewers.
Do not interact:
- Do not swim or dive with whales.
- Do not feed whales.
- Do not touch whales.
Watch for these signs that a whale is being disturbed:
When engaged in whale watching look for the following signs that indicate a mammal is being disturbed:
- Continually changing its swimming speed or direction
- Diving more often
- Discontinuing its activities of vocalizing, feeding, resting, nursing or socializing.
- Leaving the area
- Beginning or discontinuing aerial behaviors such as lob-tailing, flippering, or breaching
If you notice any of these signs, carefully move your boat away from the whale.
Whales can be observed from the shore with no negative impacts on the animals or their environment. Do not to touch, feed, or otherwise disturb any marine mammal, even if it comes up to a wharf or the shoreline.
Porpoises and dolphins
- Do not drive through groups of porpoises or dolphins.
- If dolphins or porpoises ride the bow wave of your vessel, avoid sudden course changes. Hold course and speed or reduce speed gradually.
Seals and sea lions
- Be cautious and quiet when around haul-outs, especially during breeding, and pupping seasons (generally May to September).
- Reduce speed, minimize wake, wash and noise, and then slowly pass without stopping. Avoid approaching closer than 100 metres to any marine mammals.
- Pay attention and slowly move away at the first sign of disturbance or agitation. If the animal starts to stare, fidget or flee, you’re too close.
- Do not disturb, move, feed or touch any marine wildlife, including seal pups. If you are concerned about a potentially sick or stranded animal, contact your local stranding network where available.
Seals at haul-outs
The places where seals congregate ashore are called haul-outs. These may be islands, islets or even rocks (cays) and flats. A number of such haul-outs are used for activities essential to the seals’ survival, such as calving, nursing and moulting.
When watching hauled-out seals:
- Do not land on or near haul-out sites.
- Slow down. Reduce your speed as you approach haul-outs. Avoid sudden changes of speed or heading.
- Keep a reasonable distance, whether watching from the sea or the shore, and at the slightest sign of agitation among the animals, move away. If they show signs of nervousness and start taking to the water, they are already unsettled. Use binoculars.
- Do not swim or dive with seals and do not feed them.
Seals in the St. Lawrence
In the St. Lawrence Estuary, the status of the harbour seal population is of concern. The number of haul-outs is limited and currently unprotected.
Watching harp seals on the ice floes in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a special case. Check with the Fisheries and Oceans Canada sector office on the Magdalen Islands for more details ( 418-986-2390).
Beached seal pups
If you see a young seal that seems to be alone and in distress:
- Keep your distance. Its mother is probably nearby.
- Do not try to move them. These are wild animals. They may bite, and infectious diseases can be transmitted from animal to human and vice versa. Mothers may abandon their young if they are tainted with human odour or signs of human contact.
- Do not try to put them back in the water. Seals normally spend long hours out of the water resting. They should not be disturbed.
- Keep your pets leashed and at a distance.
Report the seal pup if it appears to be hurt, sick (heavy breathing, coughing, nasal discharge) or deceased. Call the Réseau québécois d’urgences pour les mammifères marins ( 1-877-722-5346). For other regions, contact your local office.
For more information
Information and educational tools about marine mammals such as behaviour, protective measures and more:
- Eco-Whale Alliance
- Mingan Island Cetacean Study
- Ocean Research and Education Society
- Réseau d’observation de mammifères marins (French)
- Comité ZIP de la rive nord de l’estuaire (French)
- Cetus Research and Conservation Society
- Wild Whales
- The Whale Museum
- Robson Bight Ecological Reserve
- NOAA Fisheries, Northwest Region
- NOAA Fisheries, Office of Protected Resources
- Share the Shore with Seals
- Be whale wise – Vancouver Aquarium (video)
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