Guidelines for Best Practices for Watching Marine Mammals in Quebec

Whales

  • General guidelines for whale watching
  • Endangered species
  • Porpoises and dolphins

Seals

  • Watching seals at haul-outs
  • Advice for dealing with beached seal pups

Note: Research on marine mammals is being conducted in the St. Lawrence. Researchers must obtain permits from the relevant authorities. Certain approaches adopted for these activities may vary from the best practices outlined here in order to accomplish research objectives.

Whales

The following measures apply to whale watching at sea. Remember that whales can also be observed very well from the shore and that this will have no negative impacts on the animals.

General guidelines for whale watching

  • Find out what regulations and codes of ethics apply in the areas to be visited; they may be even more restrictive.
  • Avoid approaching any whale closer than 100 m or getting in its path.
  • If your boat accidentally comes closer than 100 m to a whale, stop or keep the boat stationary and let the animal pass.
  • Slow down. Reduce speed as you approach whales. Avoid sudden speed or heading changes.
  • Do not approach resting whales (unmoving and floating at the surface or near the surface).
  • Do not approach whales head-on (approach from the side or from behind), always maintain an appropriate distance. 
  • Do not approach whales when there are already more than four boats present.
  • Do not surround whales when several boats are present. 
  • Limit your viewing time to a maximum of 30-minutes. This will minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels and give consideration to other viewers. 
  • Do not swim or dive with whales and do not feed them.
  • Do not approach marine mammals using aircraft.

The Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations stipulate that boat operators shall keep their vessel greater than 200 m from any whale (except for commercial whale-watching operations, whose limit is 100 m).

Map

Schéma - Directives d'approche selon la distance

Endangered species

Those whales listed under the Species at Risk Act, in particular those that are threatened or endangered, are accorded special protection. They should not be sought out for watching. These include the beluga, blue whale and right whale that are either regularly or occasionally spotted in the St. Lawrence.

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. Keep at least 400 m away.
  • Should your boat come closer than 400 m to a whale, stop or keep the boat stationary and let the animal pass.

Aquatic Species at Risk in Quebec

Porpoises and dolphins

  • Observe good whale-watching practices.
  • Do not drive through pods of porpoises or dolphins.
  • If dolphins or porpoises ride your bow wave, slow down gradually and avoid sudden heading changes.

Seals

Watching seals at haul-outs

Photo of hauled-out seals
J.F. Gosselin

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.

Proceed as follows 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.

In the St. Lawrence Estuary, the status of the harbour seal population is of concern. The number of haul-outs is limited and they are 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 at 418-986-2390.

Advice for dealing with beached seal pups

Should you come across a young seal that seems to be alone and in distress, Fisheries and Oceans Canada recommends the following course of action:

  • 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 at a distance.
  • Do not ignore the situation. If a seal pup is hurt or appears to be sick (heavy breathing, coughing, nasal discharge), or if you find a dead seal, do not touch it; report it to the Réseau québécois d’urgences pour les mammifères marins (1-877-722-5346).

These measures are taken from the leaflet on the harbour seal produced by the Réseau d’observation de mammifères marins. They should also apply to harp seals encountered on the shores of the St. Lawrence in winter.