On our 20th wedding anniversary, we kayaked in fog on the Saint Lawrence Seaway. The river was greasy smooth, gentle swells wrinkling its surface. 20 years before, when we were the laid off newlyweds, we paddled here, too. We paddled here for the whales then as we do now. 5 years before that, Mo Brown told us about Paradis Marins, a marine paradise northeast of the Saguenay, the fiord that is home to a beluga nursery. Mo is a right whale researcher at the marine mammal laboratory at College of the Atlantic. No. Mo is the right whale researcher at COA, or maybe anywhere else.
“Drive up route 138 about an hour beyond the ferry. You’ll see a hand-painted sign of whales and a picnic table. Turn there. You can’t miss it.” She said. We didn’t.
That first time, we were the only English-speakers; we were among the very few kayakers. Most of the campers were divers. Les plongeurs. Apparently, there are some rare and exotic sea creatures clinging to the freezing cold, steep banks of le fleuve. The water temps are 4 Celsius at the peak of summer. There is something so magical about the combination of cold, brackish water, the substantial tides, and the rocks that is paradise to these tiny, sought after sea creatures that les plongeurs barely seemed to notice the whales. I wonder if they could even see them in the dark down there. I wonder what the whales thought of them.
On the surface, we kayakers, dressed for success (full immersion in 4-degree water), saw them. We heard and smelled them, too. Le Bleu. Le Cachalot. Le Petit Rorqual. Les Marsouins. Les Phoques (the Quebecois are also amused by this French word for seal). The whales passed beneath us as we floated. They regarded us as they surfaced. We made eye contact before they exhaled the plumes of mist that fell all around us, their wakes rocked our boats. We acknowledged them with awe and deep reverence. I wondered what the whales thought of us. Had they been eavesdropping on our hushed conversations? Do they know that on that Sundays we think of them as church?
We returned to Paradis time and again over the years. One summer we took the 12-hour round-trip, life-changing drive eight or nine different times just to revel in the majesty. But this time, on our 20th anniversary, it had been ten or fifteen years since our last pilgrimage.
There are no divers now. Just kayakers. Still we are the only Americans. More Quebecers speak English now, but I persist in my imperfect French, mimicking the accent of my college French teacher, René Biber from Géneve dans La Suisse. My accent is good and fools them into thinking I am fluent. Mais non, je parle seulement des baleines.
We paddle on our 20th anniversary in the fog. It is magical. We float on the smooth water and marvel that we have been together for this long. And then we hear it. A breath, a plume. And then another. Hearts racing, we wait, and try not to tip over in our excitement. In the distance we hear trumpeting. It is the babies, singing as they come up to breathe. The sounds get closer, their closeness amplified in the fog. Yet we see nothing. Until we see it all. We are surrounded. We paddle backwards to get away from the group. Il est interdit. Our proximity is forbidden. These whales are protected. But mothers and babies surface and circle us. There are dozens of them.
The babies squeal and sing. We can see them breach and spin as they play among the pod. We slowly breathe and float in disbelief, eavesdropping on the conversations among the grey babies and their white moms. So close. And another world.
Photo by Mendar Bouchali on Unsplash