Whale-watching excursions and cruises along the magnificent Saguenay Fjord depart from the small town of Tadoussac, as well as from Chicoutimi, farther up the fjord. The drive here from La Malbaie, along Route 138, leads past lovely villages and views along the St. Lawrence. Jacques Cartier made a stop at this point in 1535, and from 1600 to the mid-19th century it was an important meeting site for fur traders. As the Saguenay River flows from Lac St-Jean south toward the St. Lawrence, it has a dual character: between Alma and Chicoutimi, the once rapidly flowing river has been harnessed for hydroelectric power; in its lower section, it becomes wider and deeper and flows by steep mountains and cliffs en route to the St. Lawrence.
Beluga whales, highly recognizable because of their all-white color, small size, and high-pitch call, live here year-round, and breed in the lower portion of the Saguenay in summer. The many marine species that live in the confluence of the fjord and the seaway attract other whales, too, such as pilots, finbacks, and humpbacks.
Sadly, the beluga is endangered; the whales, with 35 other species of mammals and birds and 21 species of fish, are threatened by pollution in the St. Lawrence River. This has spurred a C$100-million project (funded by the federal and provincial governments) aimed at removing or capping sediment in the most polluted areas, stopping industrial and residential emissions into the river, and restoring natural habitat. Although there's still much work to be done, most experts agree that the St. Lawrence River's ecosystem has become healthier in many respects.