Updated: Apr 29, 2019
From Arctic fringe to temperate rainforest, frozen tundra to Atlantic shore, Canada is a spectacular wildlife destination. Its whale watching opportunities are unrivalled; wolves roam its great swathes of boreal forest, while bears – black, brown and polar – lollop onto the itineraries of many travellers. The dilemma is where to go. Canada is so vast – over 5,500km across – that few visitors have the time or budget to combine both the east and west regions. Focus on either, however, and you’ll find a distinct and enticing range of wildlife destinations – whether you’re nipping over to Newfoundland for a few days of nature hikes and boat trips or planning a two-week wilderness adventure in British Columbia.
The first of this two-part feature on the wildlife highlights of Canada explores the eastern provinces and Atlantic seaboard.
Cast your eye over a map of Eastern Canada and the Gulf of St Lawrence seems to lunge at the North Atlantic, its 1200km-long gullet framed in the wolf-head profile of Québec and Labrador. The world’s largest estuary (almost big enough to swallow the UK), the gulf is not only one of Canada’s most striking geographical features, but it’s also a magnet to wildlife.
At Bonaventure Island on the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula (which droops like a tongue over the dimpled chin of New Brunswick) you can walk to within a few feet of a quarter of a million nesting gannets. Just to the north, the Mingan Archipelago is a breeding sanctuary for seabirds and seals, while several islands in the gulf are important stopovers for migratory birds. Clearly there are rich pickings to be had in these waters: the gannets and puffins know it; the grey, harbour and harp seals know it – and so do some 13 species of cetacean.
When the spring thaw brings the St Lawrence River to life, stirring nutrients to the surface and triggering a bloom of phytoplankton, the gulf’s food chain goes into overdrive, and it doesn’t stop until you get beluga, minke, humpback, fin and blue whales bingeing on krill and fish. June to November is the best time to go whale watching. Boat trips depart from several ports, including Tadoussac, Gaspé and Sept Îles, and you can choose between large 500-passenger motor cruisers and more intimate Zodiacs and sea kayaks. Alternatively, the 1250km Whale Route, stretching along the Côte-Nord of the St Lawrence from Tadoussac to Blanc-Sablon, promises some of the best land-based whale watching in the world.
In fact, the more you explore the potential of Eastern Canada as a wildlife destination, the more you find whales and dolphins popping up on your itinerary. Travel all the way to Blanc-Sablon, for example, and it’s just a short ferry ride across the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland where boat trips from St Anthony frequently encounter humpback whales, orcas and Atlantic white-beaked dolphins. Visit during June and you’re just as likely to come across an iceberg cruising the Labrador Current as a whale.
If you’re serious about cetaceans, though, there’s one place in Canada’s Eastern Provinces that is something of a mecca to whale watchers. A deep-water inlet between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the Bay of Fundy experiences the world’s highest tides: up to 16m between high and low water extremes. Around 100 cubic kilometres of seawater surge in and out of the bay each day – a volume four times greater than the discharge of the world’s rivers combined – and the resultant currents spawn nutrient-rich waters that attract several species of cetacean, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Like the Gulf of St Lawrence, summer and autumn are prime times for whale spotting in the Bay of Fundy. Fin and minke whales arrive first, during late spring, followed by humpbacks and white-sided dolphins in June, and the rest of the cast by mid-July. Boat trips operate from Digby in Nova Scotia or the St Andrews area in New Brunswick. If you’re feeling adventurous, book a guided sea kayaking trip – there’s no better way to fully appreciate Fundy’s tide-scoured coast. Landlubbers, meanwhile, should train their binoculars on Mary’s Point Bird Sanctuary where, each fall, hundreds of thousands of shorebirds, dominated by vast, pulsating flocks of semipalmated sandpipers, touch down on their southerly migration to South America.
Another feathered frenzy – not sandpipers but snow geese – takes place each spring and fall at the Cap Tourmente National Wildlife Area on the St Lawrence River near Québec City.
There’s no doubt about it: Eastern Canada’s great estuarine ecosystems are a must for wildlife travellers. They’re easily accessed from gateway cities like Halifax, Montreal and Québec, and it’s a simple matter to combine wildlife watching with touring (see sidebar for some self-drive options).
Away from the coast, you may still find yourself drawn to water in Eastern Canada’s backcountry. Paddling a Canadian canoe is the best way to explore Algonquin Provincial Park, a patchwork of lakes and forests about 300km north of Toronto. Local outfitters can kit you out for canoe trails lasting anything from a few hours to a week or more. Sliding silently through this watery wilderness you have a good chance of spotting beaver, otter, white-tailed deer and moose. Black bears are also frequently glimpsed, while wolves are more often heard than seen. Local rangers lead ‘wolf howling’ expeditions every Thursday during August in Algonquin, imitating their call-of-the-wild and tempting them to answer.
North of Québec City, you can canoe along the Pikauba River in Laurentide Wildlife Reserve, scanning the forested shoreline for black bears and staying overnight in a wilderness lodge.
Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park is another suitably wild-and-woody refuge in Eastern Canada for bears. You can also find woodland caribou here – occasionally in large numbers on the coastal lowlands during winter. Don’t confuse them with barren-ground, or barrenland, caribou, a different subspecies that migrates up to 5000km a year between summer calving grounds on the Canadian tundra and winter boltholes in the boreal forest. Some of the biggest herds are found in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, but northern Québec and Labrador also host caribou migrations. Venture to Labrador’s Torngat Mountains National Park in June and you’ll be able to stake out the crossroads of two caribou migration routes – possibly with eager-eyed wolves for company.
Few places in Eastern Canada are more rugged and remote than this 10,000-sq-km chunk of arctic peaks, iceberg-scattered fjords and windswept tundra. As well as caribou and wolves, determined wildlife travellers may even spot polar bears here. If Torngat seems a bit far-flung, however, you could always try your luck in Newfoundland where the Lord of the Arctic has been known to pitch up on an iceberg carried south by ocean currents.
You can significantly improve your chances of seeing polar bears by travelling to Churchill in northern Manitoba where, each October and November, they congregate on the shores of Hudson Bay. Tundra Buggies – giant-wheeled ‘snow buses’ – provide a safe vantage from which to observe these magnificent predators and, with luck, you might also spot arctic fox, caribou and several species of birds, including gyrfalcons and snowy owls.
Strictly speaking, Churchill should feature as a West Canadian wildlife destination (Manitoba is one of the country’s Western Provinces). However, most flights from the UK to Winnipeg, and onwards to Churchill, are routed through Toronto or Montreal, making the world’s polar bear capital a good partner for a wildlife holiday in Eastern Canada. Don’t rule out a summer visit to Churchill – polar bears may be scarce, but the tundra is in flower and host to snow geese, grebes, loons and terns. And if the Gulf of St Lawrence or Bay of Fundy doesn’t satisfy your passion for cetaceans, then snorkelling with 3000 beluga whales in the Churchill River estuary surely will.
Natural highs of Newfoundland
Closer to London than to Vancouver, Newfoundland offers UK travellers a fast track to Canada’s wildlife, with flights to St John’s typically taking just 5½ hours.
Several top wildlife spots are within easy reach of the city, including the huge colonies of puffins and guillemots at Witless Bay, the gannetry at Cape St Mary’s, humpback whale watching from St Vincent’s Beach and nature walks through the boreal forest of Terra Nova National Park. Wildlands organises nature-themed itineraries. A short flight across the island to Deer Lake gets you close to Gros Morne National Park, which has forests, wetlands, fjords, and the lunar-like Tablelands – a rugged wilderness forged from the crust of an ancient ocean floor. From there, it’s a wonderful drive along the Great Northern Peninsula and a short boat trip to Quirpon Island where a restored 1922 lighthouse keeper’s cottage offers a spectacular lookout for passing icebergs and humpback whales.
Eastern Canada self drive routes
British Columbia in the west might seem the default choice for self drive holidays in Canada, but the Eastern Provinces also have an excellent choice of routes for free-spirited wildlife travellers. The 300km Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia, for example, casts a scenic loop around the northern tip of Cape Breton Island. Along the way, you can dawdle in cutesy fishing villages and peruse museums and galleries, while natural diversions include whale watching trips and hiking through the forests of Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Other options include New Brunswick’s Fundy Coastal Drive and a tour along the northern shore of Lake Superior in Ontario. Discover the world offers a range of self-drive holidays in the region.
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