The St. Lawrence Beluga and Humans at a Crossroads

In the heart of the St. Lawrence, beluga whales live alongside humans day after day. Find out how Parks Canada is helping humans to better live with beluga whales.

By Parks Canada

Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park

St. Lawrence Beluga, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Chapter 1

The beluga, an Arctic whale in the heart of the St. Lawrence

A population isolated from the others

St. Lawrence belugas live in the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay River. They are isolated from other populations in northern Canada, Russia and Alaska. With approximately 900 belugas, the population is designated as endangered. 

Their habitat is now partially protected by the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park.  

Aerial view of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

The Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park

First park to exclusively protect the marine environment in Quebec. It promotes educational, recreational and scientific activities in accordance with conservation measures. The history of its creation is intimately linked to that of the beluga whale.

The history of its creation is intimately linked to that of the beluga whale.

Aerial view of Pointe-Noire with beluga whales, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Chapter 2

A dive in the centre of the Marine Park

Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

The mouth of the Saguenay Fjord: a meeting place

The mouth of the fjord is the “downtown” of the Marine Park. It is a meeting place between the waters of the Atlantic, the St. Lawrence River and the Saguenay Fjord. The convergence of currents favours the presence of prey, marine mammals and humans in the area.

St. Lawrence beluga critical habitat (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Meeting place

The groups of belugas that inhabit the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay Fjord meet there. The mouth of the River is on the unavoidable route they take many times in the summer to fulfill their needs: to feed, to meet a partner or extended family, or to go to a quiet place. 

Global portrait of navigation in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Cohabitation hotspot

Today, it is the busiest place in the Marine Park and the noisiest place in the beluga habitat. Cargo, boaters, ferry riders, kayakers, cruise passengers and scientists all travel there. Belugas and humans share the same space at the same time.

Aerial view of Pointe-Noire with beluga whales, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

A place for research

The research carried out by Parks Canada at the mouth of the Saguenay River allows us to better understand the beluga whale and to find solutions for sustainable cohabitation with humans. Let’s go back in time to discover the long history that unites the two species.

Beluga whales and humans at a crossroads, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by OrceineParks Canada

Chapter 3

A chapter in the history of the St. Lawrence beluga with humans

In the 19th century, they are known as the “white porpoise”

At this time, the St. Lawrence beluga population is estimated at 10,000 individuals. Present near the banks, they are visible by the hundreds by riverside residents and the fishers of the St. Lawrence.

An enemy to be eradicated

Between 1930 and 1938, beluga herds are bombed in certain regions of the St. Lawrence.

Beluga fishing at St. Lawrence Marine Park (1929) by Archives de la Côte-du-SudParks Canada

In the 1900s, the beluga became the enemy 

Beluga whales are suspected of causing the decline of cod stocks and are hunted down and killed in the hope of bringing fish populations back up. This continues to the point where subsidies are offered to fishers who bring hunting tools on their boats. 

In 1938, a researcher discovers the secret 

Dr. Vladim-D Vladikov, mandated by the province of Quebec, examines the contents of beluga stomachs. Observation: They eat mostly small fish and few cod. The commercial beluga hunt ends in the 1950s. Sport fishing continues on a small scale until 1979.

Food of the white porpoise or beluga, Vadim Dimitrij Vladykov, 1940, From the collection of: Parks Canada
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"Chasse et biologie du marsouin blanc" report cover, Vadim Dimitrij Vladykov, 1940, From the collection of: Parks Canada
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Beluga whales and humans at a crossroads, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by OrceineParks Canada

In the 1970s, the protection of the beluga whale begins 

Despite the cessation of hunting, the population is not recovering. Humans are increasingly present: transportation of passengers and goods, pleasure boating, commercial and sport fishing, sewage dumping, etc. 

Chapter 4

Studying belugas from Pointe-Noire 

Pointe-Noire Interpretation and Observation Centre, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2021) by Mathieu DupuisParks Canada

In 1970, beluga watching from the shore begins 

The Pointe-Noire lighthouse station, located high up on a steep cliff, offers an unobstructed view of the beluga whales that roam the Saguenay Fjord and River’s mouth. 

This is where the first land-based research on beluga whales begins, with Leone Pippard.

A beluga whale research pioneer sounds the alarm 

Leone Pippard has been studying beluga whales from the rocks of Pointe-Noire for years. Her research will highlight the precarious situation of the beluga whale and the importance of the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord. 

It will justify the creation of a marine protected area in 1998: the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park.

St. Lawrence Beluga Whale Land-based Observation Network (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

50 years later, observations continue at Pointe-Noire

Parks Canada’s Pointe-Noire Interpretation and Observation Centre is still home to researchers who study beluga whales and ship movements from its heights. Since 1998, Parks Canada scientists have been carrying out this monitoring.  

Pointe-Noire has become the focal point of a beluga whale observation network that extends beyond the boundaries of the Marine Park.

Beluga whales and humans at a crossroads, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by OrceineParks Canada

Chapter 5

After more than 50 years of observation, what have we learned about the beluga whale?

St. Lawrence Beluga, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

The meaning of beluga whale behaviours becomes clearer 

Do they swim slowly or quickly, against the current? Do they stay on the surface? Over the years, researchers have precisely recorded their observations of belugas in Pointe-Noire. This information allows to understand whether they are moving, feeding, socializing or resting.

The mouth of the Saguenay Fjord is a very important part the beluga habitat

In the heart of the beluga habitat, the mouth of the Saguenay River is a true hub that connects the sectors used for feeding, resting, socialization and caring for the young. Observations made from Pointe-Noire provide a better understanding of the movements of the St. Lawrence beluga population. 

A rare nursing scene near Pointe-Noire

Watch as the calf approaches its mother.
Born in the middle of summer, beluga calves are nursed for two years and stay with their mothers for several years to learn to communicate and hunt. Calm waters are conducive to learning. 

Beluga whales and humans at a crossroads, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by OrceineParks Canada

Chapter 6

Living in a noisy and human-occupied environment

Saguenay acoustic mission, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2016) by Nadia Ménard, Parks CanadaParks Canada

A noisy presence

From the shore, researchers follow the movements of belugas and boats at the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord. Underwater, hydrophones record the whales’ vocalizations and the noise caused by human activities. 

Aerial view of Pointe-Noire with beluga whales, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Beluga vocalizations
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A noisy presence

The mouth of the Saguenay is like an underwater cathedral; the sounds reverberate off the cliffs and create echoes. Due to its shape and the significant presence of boats, it is the noisiest place in the Marine Park. 

St. Lawrence belugas and boats, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Noise from human activities, particularly shipping, has been identified as an impediment to beluga recovery. The presence of boats hinders their communication; the variety and quantity of vocalizations drop, and their range is reduced.

Boats at the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2011) by Renaud PintiauxParks Canada

A disturbing presence

In the presence of boats, motorized or not, belugas change their natural behaviour. When they head towards or away from a boat, they modify their dive or interrupt activities such as nursing, feeding or resting.

St. Lawrence Beluga, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

A disturbing presence

Since 2010, scientists have noted a significant increase in female beluga whale and calf deaths. The disturbance caused by navigation could be one of the causes.

Beluga whales and humans at a crossroads, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by OrceineParks Canada

Chapter 7

How to find peace and quiet?

Aerial view of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Specific rules for the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord

From May to October, the Regulations limit boat speeds to 15 knots in the mouth of the Fjord to reduce disturbance from vessel traffic, reduce the risk of collision, and mitigate the effect of underwater noise.

Protection measures for marine mammals in the St. Lawrence Estuary (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Restore places of tranquility 

The scientific knowledge acquired over the years has allowed Parks Canada to establish protective measures throughout the beluga habitat so that these whales can find peaceful havens to care for their young and to rest.

Conservation area in the Upper Estuary 

44% of the Marine Park is free of commercial whale watching tours.

Voluntary speed reduction in the transport industry 

Speed reduction zone in the Lower Estuary where several whale species feed.

Mouth of the Saguenay river, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Temporary speed reduction at the mouth of the river 

Area where boat speed is limited to 15 knots (28 km/h) between May and October to reduce disturbance and the risk of collision and to reduce the effect of underwater noise.

Protection measures for marine mammals in the St. Lawrence Estuary (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Temporary exclusion area, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Temporary exclusion area          

The area marked in yellow at the entrance to Sainte-Marguerite Bay is closed to navigation during summer. This has made it possible to reduce the number of boats in the bay in order to offer greater peace and quiet to the belugas.

Protection measures for marine mammals in the St. Lawrence Estuary (2022) by Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

St. Lawrence belugas and boats, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine ParkParks Canada

Learning to share the space

Today, boaters and other users who navigate in the Marine Park must keep their distance and avoid any interaction with belugas.

Parks Canada Observer at the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2021) by Mathieu DupuisParks Canada

Discovering in the manner of the first observers 

On land, visitors to Pointe-Noire and the entire Marine Park, like the first observers who paved the way for the protection of the beluga, observe them while giving them the peace and space they need to survive.  

Parks Canada research boat at the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2021) by Mathieu DupuisParks Canada

Targeting the right actions to be taken 

Both at sea and from shore, the Parks Canada team is continuing its research efforts on the beluga and its habitat to better understand its needs.

Beluga whales and humans at a crossroads, Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park (2022) by OrceineParks Canada

For a better future

In the heart of the St. Lawrence, humans are constantly learning to live with the beluga.

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