Photographing Gaspe Pennisula
-and the Mingan Archipelago, Quebec, Canada-
Friends have been trying to get us to visit the Gaspe Pennisula in Quebec, Canada, in the summertime, for many years now. We had traveled to the Gaspe’s Chic Choc Mountains in the winter, twice, to cross country ski hut-to-hut, but I had never been there in the summer. Everyone said that it was gorgeous in summer. Finally being persuaded, we decided to take a two week summer trip north. We live on the Northern border of Vermont, yet, the whole trip ended up covering some 2100 miles. We circumnavigated the Gaspe Pennisula and then took a ferry across the St. Lawrence and headed several hundred miles further north, up the north shore, to the Mingan Archipelago.
Ile aux Bonaventure
To plan the trip, I scoured the web looking for photo opportunities. I found photographer Chris Dodd’s website and took some hints from some of his guided tours. Chris does a 4 day tour of Ile Aux Bonaventure for just under $2900.00 (2015). For me, that is out of my price range, though I am sure that Chris delivers an excellent experience. For those that are willing to plan your own adventure, you can gain access to Ile aux Bonaventure for much less money. The Ferry to Ile Aux Bonaventure cost around $30.00 (CAD) and another $8.00 (CAD) to enter the park. We only went for one long day, but it would be easy to repeat this trip an additional day. We stayed just outside the town of Perce, Quebec at a bed and breakfast called Aux Jardin de L’Anse for $110.00 (CAD). It was cheaper than motels in town and came with an excellent breakfast. CANADA by Daryl Benson (1-Apr-2008) Hardcover
On the island:
The Ferry lands on the island at 9:00 A.M., then there is a mile and a half walk to the reserve. There is a fence separating visitors from the Gannets, but they are still only an arms length away, at their closest. I carried my equipment, but perhaps, if I had been fluent in French, I would have been able to arrange a lift for my gear with the park service ATV’s. For gear, I carried two camera bodies, the Nikon D810 as my primary body, and the Nikon D7000, as a secondary body. On the Nikon D810, I had a Nikkor 600mm lens attached. On the Nikon D7000, I attached a Nikkor 28-300mm lens. I also carried two tele-extenders- Nikon TC-1411 and Nikon TC-1711, and a Gitzo tripod with a Whimberly head for the Nikon 600mm.
The day we were on the island, the temperature was sunny, 70’s (F) and windless. I had not read this anywhere, so I think it is important to mention. If you find yourself on Ile aux Bonaventure on such a lovely day, beware of all the flies surrounding the Gannets on the reserve. They were everywhere and drove us to distraction. I did have a windbreaker to keep them off my arms and head, but they were all over my legs, as I had on shorts. Maddening. Also, the smell of the guano may put many off. We were there in August and there were baby gannets, but we did see some dead babies here and there. So in short, you will see thousands of gannets at close range, but there may be some draw backs for some folks.
Photographically, it is a challenge to separate out the Gannets for pleasing backgrounds, as there are thousands all piled in and around one another. The best options are to get in close and isolate gestures or get them with the ocean as your background.
The ferry leaves at various times throughout the day, with the last one leaving around 4:00 P.M.. If you are in reasonable shape, carrying your gear is not that onerous. As with any wild life area, the more time you spend there, the better your photographic opportunities. However, if you are like most of us, on a budget, I believe you will be able to come back with some excellent photos in a one or two day self-guided trip.
Forillion National Park
As we continued to travel around the perimeter of the Gaspe Pennisula, following the ocean all the way, we arrived at Forillion National Park,, just beyond the town of Gaspe. The park is divided into several sections, which seems a little disjointed. For us however, the highlight of Forillion Park was the chance to swim with the harbor seals. We went out with an outfitter called Plongee Forillion. Once again, we had a perfect day- 75 degrees (F) and sunny. This was great, as the water temperature that we would be snorkeling in would be 10 degrees (C) or 60 degrees (F). Chilly. The outfitters put us in a 7mm full wetsuit and then added another 7mm shorty wetsuit on top of the full suit. To that, they added a 7mm full hood, 7mm gloves and booties. They assured us we would be fine and we were. The water temperature was never a concern.
We headed out on a zodiac with perhaps, 10 other travelers. Within ten minutes, we reached the seals, many up on the rocky shore, and jumped into the water. The water was shallow- perhaps 4-5 feet deep. Within minutes, we had several playful harbor seals swimming around us. I had an underwater camera and housing, but quickly found out that I was not going to be able to capture still images. The harbor seals swam right up to my lens, touching the lens with their snout. They swam right beside us, in front of us and below us. At one point, one seal climbed up on my back and lay there for several minutes. One seal even nipped at our gloves and legs. Not hard, but enough to let you know that their play could get your attention. As, we were snorkeling, we were also buffeted by the current, making it hard to maintain focus with my camera. Nevertheless, the experience was magical. I am not an experience underwater photographer, but I am including this short video so that you can see how close and friendly the seals were:
After swimming with the seals, we stayed at Motel Forillion, with a seaside view. The motel said if had a kitchenette, but it was only a microwave and small frig. This constitutes a kitchenette in Gaspe it seems. Only, in a motels in the bigger cities did rooms come with refrigerators. Your own cooler is an essential it seems. After settling in that evening, I went down to investigate the local lighthouse, Cap des Rosier. Surrounding the lighthouse was fire weed, which I thought would make a nice foreground for a night shot. The shot I captured was a series of 5 shots. One shot for the lighthouse rays, another for the lightouse, another for the stars, and the last one, for the fireweed foreground.
Heading out the next day, along highway 136, from Gaspe to Saint Anne de Monts, we traveled one a the most scenic roads to be found anywhere. The road traveled right along the ocean, with small towns scattered along the oceans edge. We saw gray seals and numerous shore birds. The four hour drive flew by.
Having circumnavigated the Gaspe Pennisula, we took a ferry at Matane and headed over to Quebec’s north shore, landing in Baie Comeau. Since we were already in Gaspe, I wanted to take the oppurtunity to head four hours further north to a series of islands and a national park called the Mingan Archipelago. Following another lead from Chris Dodd, I wanted to photograph the Atlantic Puffin. I had an opportunity to photograph Atlantic Puffin in the western province of Iceland, but these puffin were said to be even more accessible. In the Mingan Archipelago, we planned to visit three of the many islands: Ile aux Perroquet, Ile Quarry, Ile Niapiskau.
Ile aux Perroquet- Island of the Parrots
I arranged a tour with Marius Vibert out of Longue Pointe de Mingan. It was a group tour, but I payed extra to be left on the island for several more hours beyond the tour. Once again, if you look at Chris Dodd’s site for Ile Aux Perroquet, you will see that he arranges a 4 day trip to the island, with a stay at the lighthouse on the island. The cost of his trip is almost $4000.00. I am sure that it is worth the cost, if the trip is in your cost range. For me, arranging my own transportation with extra photo time was more in my budget. I did check to see about staying at the lighthouse on the island, but it was $300.00 per person per night. Yikes! The cost of my zodiac trip was $80.00 (CAD). We also ended up staying at Marius Vibert’s camp site in a large mobile home. They claimed this was better than the Motel de la Minganie.
A valuable piece of information that I gathered from the Longue Pointe de Mingan Interpretation center, was that the Puffin land on the island during high tide. Learning this information, the ranger helped me rearrange my tour plans (Speaking fluent French, she made the tour time change easily for me). So be sure and check the tide chart before heading out to the island. With high tide, the puffin will come in to land and feed and will not be out at sea.
Photographing the Puffin was not hard with a 600mm lens and teleconverter. They were numerous puffins on the ledges and we could feel them swooshing over our heads as they made forays to and from the sea. I kept looking for images that had the specular highlights in their eyes and interesting motions or locations. I would have liked to stay there a few more hours than my boat allowed, more towards dusk. Then, I might be able to catch some photos with fish in their mouths. Otherwise, it was a treat to be in these tame birds presence. Besides the Atlantic Puffins, I was able to photograph the Black Guilmottes, with their orange feet and orange mouth interiors.
Ile Quarry and Ile Niapiskau
From Longue Pointe de Mingan, we headed 30 miles further north to Havre St. Pierre. There, at the Interpretation center, we had booked a zodiac to take us to Ile Quarry for one night, then, pick us up, and take us to Ile Niapiskau for a second night.
On Ile Quarry, we had rented an Otentik for the evening. Otentik’s are Canada’s version of a yurt and cost us $120.00 (CAD) per night. Expensive, but a treat. The Otentik is well equipped, with cooking utensils, grill, inside table, outside picnic table. You must bring your own sleeping bag and ALL your water and food. Other than cooking with the salt water, there is no fresh water on the island. They have carts at the boat dock for carrying your food, water, and gear to your site.
Ile Quarry is more family friendly, with long boardwalks leading you around the island and to the far side to the monoliths. I attempted a night shot on the far side with the monoliths. It was only a 20 minute boardwalk to the far side and easily manageable at night in the dark.
Ile Niapiskau is a primitive camping island. As with Ile Quarry, you bring all you water, food and gear. On Ile Niapiskay, you must bring your tent and sleeping bag as well. The tent sites are in a protected harbor. The night we were there we had the island all to ourselves, though there were some traveling sailboats docked in the harbor.
To hike to the monoliths on the far side of the island is a 4.9K one way hike, or 10K round trip. The monoliths are very interesting and have some board walks taking you up and around the woods looking down on the monoliths. We had only one night on the island, so camping over near the monoliths was not an option for us. With a two night stay and good weather, photographing the monoliths could pose an interesting night shot. As it was, I did a Milky way night shoot near our tent site, including some foreground fire weed and the harbor.
We packed as much as we could into our two week venture, including a 17K hike on Mt. Albert in the Chic Choc mountains. Though in someways, the Gaspe Pennisula seems like it is in my back door yard, we did travel some 2100 miles on the trip, the equivalent of driving from the Vermont border to the Florida Keys. We had excellent weather. Always a plus when planning outdoor excursions.
I loved the Gaspe. I loved looking out at the Atlantic Ocean and Saint Lawrence seaway every day, for days on end. Photographically, I think your best options are to head out to the various islands, especially if you are looking to shoot wildlife. I also think it is highly feasible to visit all of these wonderful sites on a budget and still come away with some stunning shots and experiences. August seems to be a good month for travel, with the weather as stable as can be predicted.
Enjoy the ride and the islands. It is a beauty.