Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thar She Blows!

Spotting whales in the Saint Lawrence

Nonpilots often ask me why I spend a good portion of my hard-earned income on flying. From their perspective, all I do is take off, fly around for a while, land and then dump loads of money to fill the fuel tanks. Sometimes, they’re right. But this day was different. I wanted to go to Tadoussac, east of Quebec City, to see the whales at the estuary of the mighty Saint Lawrence River.

I had gone once before with my wife; that time, however, we drove and then took a scenic boat ride to the place where the whales fed. It was one of the most magical scenes I’ve ever experienced, but this was going to be whale watching from 1,000 feet up! I had no idea what to expect.

I hopped in a Cessna 172 and took off alone (my wife was working the weekend shift at the hospital) and headed for my first stop, Saint-Frédérique de Beauce, to pick up my friend Mario Simoneau. I had my newly acquired Spot satellite tracking device sitting on the glare shield (although I didn’t know it at the time, a hospital lab full of people was tracking my every move in the sky).

The August morning air was crisp and cool, so convection wasn’t a factor and the flight was as smooth as it gets. I even had time to play around with a new panel-mounted GPS. Mario and I departed Saint Fred at 10 a.m., heading east, and the summer overcast started to come down to our cruising altitude of 2,000 feet. But it wasn’t completely overcast, so I went over the top, and at 3,000 feet, there was nothing but blue sky. Only the tallest mountains poked through the clouds, which gave us the feeling of flying an airliner at FL350. I could see by the look on Mario’s face that I had thoroughly infected him with the flying bug.

When we landed at Riviere-du-Loup an hour later, all the clouds had dissipated. We walked over to the FBO for a quick bite, but the restaurant messed up our order and we were delivered a giant pizza instead. Many new friendships ensued. An hour later, we took off, again toward the east, for the estuary, cameras at the ready. I flew along the current line, where the saltwater meets the freshwater—I had been tipped off by locals that this is where the whales feed. For almost 60 miles to the east, we saw plenty of gorgeous scenery, but no whales. Forty-five minutes into the flight, I was disheartened and decided to turn back. We headed for Charlevoix, where we where to meet up with Mario’s girlfriend.

But on the way back, I spotted my first beluga! Pulling back the power, I started to descend and circle. Since my attention was on the whales, I was nervous because I didn’t want to fall prey to a spiral. I also was wary about being out of glide range from the shore—the Saint Lawrence is quite wide at the estuary (we had donned life jackets before taking off). At 800 feet AGL, I returned to straight and level and made a slow pass over the whale.

As I got closer, an entire pod of 20 whales appeared in view. Then—as if they were all coming up to breathe at the same time—hundreds of the white whales starting appearing. It was unbelievable. When you’re at sea level, you can see one or two as they breach the water, but from an airplane, you can see the entire group at once because the water is clear and they swim close to the surface.

We approached Charlevoix with the biggest smiles painted on our faces. I was so distracted by the marine life that I failed to notice that the landing strip sits atop a 1,000-foot cliff. To set up for final, I actually had to climb 500 feet. After dropping Mario off and topping the tanks, I headed west to Montreal. I took out the old MP3 player and listened to some Rush and Rolling Stones for the two-hour flight back home. It was my best flying day, ever. I was happy.

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