In the early 1980’s, Calypso sailed up the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes. The Nature that the crew encountered was grandiose, but also damaged: humpback whales caught in fishing nets, beluga whales suffering from toxic pollutants…. but, as they played hide-and -seek with blue whales and filmed the birth of baby seals, the Cousteau team would reveal for the entire world how profoundly beautiful Canada is.
The Captain was invited to visit the Mingan Indians of Quebec, who have lost even the right to fish in their ancestral rivers. Like all the native peoples of North America, who once lived in harmony with their environment, they have been deprived of their lands and their concept of the world.
During one memorable outing in the Diving Saucer, in Saguenay River fjord, the team discovered a “lens” of perfectly pure sea water hidden under 15 meters of chocolate-covered river. Through the portholes, they watched millions of tiny medusas, like so many snowflakes, proof that the water was briny. That explained the presence of beluga whales and blue whales in a river so far away from the ocean: at the bottom of the fjord, an abundance of marine life throbbed.
Calypso’s crew did not stop there. They explored shipwrecks and Niagara Falls; some days, the ship was coated with more than 10 centimeters of ice. But nothing would stop Captain Cousteau’s odyssey; Calypso sailed on and brought back astonishing images of one of the most dangerous expeditions she ever undertook. In 1999, twenty years after Calypso, her older sister, made this trip, Alcyone found herself on the St. Lawrence River. Using her Turbosails, she traveled up this great river into the heart of the North American continent.
The Saguenay River merges with the St. Lawrence at the western end of the Laurentian Channel, a tongue of cold seawater that wells up with an enormous quantity of nutrients and planktonic crustaceans. This is where whales gather. From Alcyone’s deck, they announced themselves from far away by the nearly continuous jets of white vapor, splitting the horizon like explosions.
In an instant, the dive team was in the Zodiac heading for a pod. Eyes were riveted to the spot where the whales were last seen. Bernard Delemotte, the expedition leader, smoothly and tranquilly heads for what seems to the divers to be some imaginary spot. Then, to their surprise, a blow rose with a “whoosh” and the immense head of a whale pierced the surface close to the boat. Then, not two meters away, there was a second blow, and a third, and a fourth. These were fin whales that come to mingle with the resident belugas, or white whales, in the nutrient-rich waters. Huge backs emerged and the wash of tails made big circles of flat, smooth water in the middle of the tumultuous waves. Suddenly, one big whale glided through the water underneath the little boat while four or five immense backs encircled it. Dozens of whales surrounded the divers, more than the imagination could encompass.
Bernard was astonished. When he was here with Calypso in 1980, there were far fewer whales. Beluga herds were only remnants of a population believed to have numbered 5,000 as recently as the early twentieth century.
All whaling was banned by Canada in 1973, but the beluga herds continued to diminish to a few hundred at the time of the earlier Cousteau expedition. Canadian environmental organizations were pressing for greater protection for the belugas and other whales, encouraging the establishment of a reserve and of a whale-watching industry to generate support for conservation. Together with the Canadians, the Cousteau team rejoiced at the state of the whales today and hoped for a resurgent future.