Cruise to Nova Scotia, Part 4
A Whale of a Time in the Bay of Fundy
June 11-15, 2004 (Updated Dec. 19, 2004)
By Lewis Nolan
June 13, 2004 – Sunday
After calling a half-dozen whale watch boats listed in the promotional material we picked up at the Nova Scotia Visitor Center yesterday,
|Lewis and Betty at Petite Passage ferry|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
It is one of dozens of vessels that offer whale watch and related activities, which range from sailing ships to high-speed Zodiac boats. Much information on a great number of tours and adventure opportunities in and around the Bay of Fundy is available at www.adventurenovascotia.com.
I had hoped to see the 33-foot-high tidal bore that races up a river at the throat of the Bay of Fundy. The opposing tidal waters and river flow creates an enormous, haystack wave that attracts adventuresome surfers, kayak paddlers and white-water rafters from throughout the world. But we had learned the prime viewing spot it is a 4-to-4 ˝ hour drive from Yarmouth and the peak tide would be just after 7 a.m. this day. That meant we would have to leave Yarmouth about 2 a.m. in time to see the monstrous tidal bore charge up the Shubenacadie River at 50 kilometers an hour.
There was no way we were going to get up in the middle of the night and drive narrow roads in hopes of making it in time. So the either-or decision of tidal bore-versus-whale watch was really made for us by the tide table. As a saying on a sailorman’s clock given to me by Betty many years ago goes, “time and tide wait for no man.”
It’s too bad we passed on the famous high tide because we probably will not pass this way again. My advice is that those who really want to see the Bay of Fundy’s tidal bore consider checking the tide tables well in advance of bookings and plan lodging and transportation accordingly.
Notwithstanding my disappointment of missing one of nature’s spectacles, the prospect of seeing humpback and other species of whales was not a bad second choice. Besides, we did see the beauty of the exposed rocks, seaweed and scallop shells of the Brier Island estuary during the location’s tidal low point, which dropped the waterline 17 feet.
The Avis car rental manager delivered the car to the hotel at 9 a.m. as promised. We dropped him at the Terminal and drove north on Route 1 towards Digby Neck, so named because it is at the narrow point of a thin peninsula that juts into the Bay of Fundy. We then drove south on 217 to Petite Passage. Our whale watch boat is based just offshore from the end of the peninsula, on Brier Island. We had to take two car ferries to get there, the first serving Long Island and the second Brier Island. We had been warned not to tarry for picture taking since the ferries are synchronized to minimize wait times.
Traffic was quite light and it was a pleasant, uneventful drive. The main road from Yarmouth to Digby – famous for scallops – was wide and in excellent condition. The speed limit was 100 kilometers per hour, about 65 mph. The road down the length of Long Island was narrow and of uneven quality; the speed limit dropped to 50 kph through the fishing villages.
The countryside reminded me of Northern Minnesota – with salt water. There were miles and miles of smallish pine trees. Among them was
|Betty on Brier Island Dock at low tide|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
Like in the North Woods, this part of coastal Nova Scotia consists of occasional, gently rolling hills breaking up the forested flatland. In between several of the low hills are blue lakes that glisten in the sunshine. But unlike most of Northern Minnesota, piles of junk more often break up the flattish land here. We were surprised to see so many trash heaps – even adjacent to the “front porch” ramps of the car ferries. At times it made us think of certain backward areas of Mississippi, where living in the midst of weeds and rusted eyesores is not uncommon.
(Oddly, we had expected a lot of junky landscapes when we visited Cajun country some years back but were pleased to see the homes and yards of Southwestern Louisiana neat and well maintained. Maybe there is something of an indifference to orderly appearances in the hardscrabble heritage of the Scotch-Irish that transcends the Atlantic Ocean into parts of Appalachia and the Deep South as well as Nova Scotia. We’ve traveled throughout France and never encountered the junkiness we’ve seen in the slummy areas of Britain and some of its former colonies.)
Southwestern Nova Scotia largely consists of untilled land dotted by one-story, wooden houses about the size of small cottages. It seemed that every house we saw on the drive to Brier Island had a pile or two of stove wood and fireplace logs, probably a necessity for winter heat when Atlantic gales drop the power lines. Stacked lobster traps made of wire gave testimony to the importance of fishing to the economy. Every vista of the protected salt water has a small, bobbing fleet of anchored, lobster and net fishing boats.
The Canadian government closely regulates lobster fishing. The season for this part of Nova Scotia closed two weeks ago. But it opened just to the north, ensuring a steady supply of lobsters for the tourist and export market and work for those willing to brave the Atlantic.
We missed the first ferry from the mainland peninsula to Long Island by a few minutes, which meant we were delayed 45 minutes. We had a beautiful view of the island across the whitecap-tossed Petite Passage, an expanse of salt water perhaps a half-mile wide. The car waiting behind us contained two middle-aged women engaged in an animated conversation in French. We bought sandwiches and soft drinks at a café a few steps from the dock.
A modern, steel ferry shuttles between the mainland point of East Ferry and the island point of Tiverton, a tiny fishing village. It runs every hour on the half-hour (7:30, 8:30 etc.) and holds about 15 autos. The round-trip fare of $4 (Canadian) was collected by a polite young man who kindly took our picture with one of Betty’s two cameras.
Once across, we were part of a small convoy that drove without delay the length of Long Island to the village of Freeport in about 20 minutes. We only had to wait a few minutes before boarding a second ferry, which runs every hour on the hour (7:00, 8:00 etc.). The round-trip fare (collected only on the outbound passage) was also $4. The expanse of water between Long Island and Brier Island is perhaps a mile wide. Our convoy of autos from the first ferry filled the second boat; one late arrival had to wait an hour to be first in line for the next trip.
Brier Island is the western-most land belonging to Nova Scotia. It is shaped something like a broken golf ball coming off the club head of Long Island and the club shaft of the Digby Neck Peninsula. The island’s village of Westport is a leading fishing station on the western coast. Westport’s roots date to 1769 with the arrival of the island’s first settlers. The first school was built in 1789 and stood until a terrible storm of 1976 washed it away. Electric lights reached Brier Island in 1929 and the first paved roads were built in 1960.
The rocky island has been the Fundy Graveyard for scores of ships over the generations. But as it’s truly a foul wind that doesn’t blow somebody some good, the shipwrecks brought salvage opportunities for the
|Betty by docked Cetacean Quest|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
Westport was the first port of call for famed mariner Joshua Slocum and his sailing sloop, “Spray.” The two made sailing history in1898 when they completed the first solo voyage to circle the globe. Many years ago when I was fixated on sailing, I read Slocum’s account of the three-year trip that started in Boston in 1895 in his book, “Sailing Alone Around The World.” His mother was born in Westport and Joshua lived there as a boy before running off to sea after she died in 1860. He returned to his boyhood home many times. A monument on the island honors the intrepid sailor. One of the two Westport ferries is named “The Joshua Slocum;” the sister vessel is named “The Spray.”
Fishing boats based at Westport seine and drag for scallops, hake, flounder, mackerel, haddock, cod and Pollock during the summer. They also trawl for herring and trap lobster. A gigantic fish pen that covers perhaps 3 acres of water in the middle of the harbor is an aquaculture enterprise that farm-raises salmon.
Brier Island is a wild and beautiful island. Its rocky coastline is washed by tides that vary the waterline by 17 feet. (Other parts of the Bay of Fundy have the highest tides in the world, with vertical variations up to 54 feet. These tides completely empty some harbors farther up the throat of the bay).
The small island (about three miles long and a half-mile wide) has lots of hiking trails, interesting geologic formations and an array of coastal wildlife including shore birds and seals. The island blooms with wild flowers during the summer, when it also is the seasonal home of warblers and a stopover point for hawks and other migrating birds. The island offers several lodging facilities, including a resort inn and a hostel, as well as a small number of restaurants, stores and churches. More information is available at www.brierisland.org.
But the island’s big draw is its proximity to one of the prime whale feeding areas in the world, the teeming Bay of Fundy. Strong tides scour the rocky, sea bottom shelves beneath the salt water around the Brier Island, forming a critical habitat for zooplankton. The seasonal plankton attracts large schools of herring and mackerel, which in turn serve as food for whales, dolphins and seabirds.
According to the Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises brochure (www.tartannet.ns.ca/brierisl.html), researchers began investigating reports of frequent sightings of whales around the island in 1984. Two years later, a cottage industry was born when the public was allowed to pay a fee to join the research cruises. There are several whale watch boats based at Brier Island; dozens more are at Freeport and Tiverton on Long Island and also at East Ferry and other locations on Digby Neck and elsewhere on the western coast.
Most species of whale and porpoise are absent from the Bay of Fundy during the harsh winter. But come springtime, Finback Whales, Minke Whales and Harbor Porpoises begin to arrive. Humpback Whales start arriving in June after their long swim up the Atlantic Seaboard from their winter breeding grounds in the Caribbean Sea. Sightings of Humpbacks are more frequent late in June, when Whiteside Dolphins are fairly common. In late summer and fall, there are occasional sightings of the North Atlantic Right Whales, an endangered species. Less frequent cetacean visitors that have been sighted include Sperm Whales, Pilot Whales, Beluga Whales, Sei Whales and White Beaked Dolphins.
Like other whale watch boats we’ve been on in California, the Brier Island boats generally guarantee sightings of whales. (We once used a free pass issued by a boat in San Diego for a return trip three years later).
The Brier Island company has two boats, the 52-foot M/V Cetacean Quest (the vessel we were on), and the 45-foot M/V Cetacean Venture. Both are fitted with open viewing decks, seats, rails, restroom and enclosed cabin. For safety reasons, the boat’s pilot/captain has the uppermost deck to himself. The vessels are certified by the Canadian Coast Guard for travel up to 20 miles off shore and are piloted by experienced, licensed captains. Our boat also had a crew/guide staff of three, all twenty-somethings with sharp eyes who seemed to know their marine biology and related stuff.
The company’s office is in a one-story, wooden building that includes a well-equipped souvenir shop. The shop offers every imaginative
|Finback surfaces in Bay of Fundy|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
No food or cold beverages are served on the boat (maybe it is a seasickness issue) but passengers are encouraged to bring their own. A crew made light of possible seasickness during the orientation briefing, casually mentioning “it happens to everybody at some time.” She advised that passengers with unsettled stomachs should stand in the center of the boat and look at the distant horizon; if that doesn’t work, “go to the downwind rail and ‘toss the cookies.’”
There is a pot of hot coffee available in the boat’s large cabin. Also available in the cabin are wool blankets to ward off the chill. With our senior discount, the fare for the three-to-four hour cruise was $36 (Canadian) each.
The Bay of Fundy is noted for changeable weather and for fog. But the weather gods stayed with us as our day at sea turned out to be sunny, with mild winds and only a moderate amount of wave chop. The temperature was near 50 degrees but it seemed colder because of the wind blowing over the chilly ocean. We wore wool sweaters over cotton shirts, topped by Gore-tex rain slickers.
I brought along my well-traveled, 7x35 binoculars. I think I was the first of the about 25 passengers on the boat to spot a whale. One of the guides identified it as a Finback, which was swimming by itself about 300 yards to starboard. Far better sightings were to come a little later. There were two other, full-size whale watch boats in the vicinity, plus an orange Zodiac-style boat populated by a half-dozen hardy passengers clad in thermal jackets and pants. I didn’t envy those in the open, rubber boat even though the quickness of the craft gave it an advantage in terms of speed over comfort.
Maybe the biggest thrill for us came when we sighted a solitary Humpback Whale off the bow. The captain maneuvered the boat to within 40 yards of the magnificent creature. We were told it was a young adult, perhaps 30-to-35 feet long. Its distinctive “fluke print” of black and white markings on the underside of its tail gave away its identity. This whale had been registered and named “Platform” by a scientific research group that keeps up with the humpback population and their migrations.
Platform was ponderously feeding (probably on herring) in the 330-feet-deep water about two miles west of Long Island. The boat captain followed the whale for about 30 minutes, being careful not to approach too close or too fast. The guides told us the blunt, rounded shape of the Humpback’s head and body is why the species arches its back and raises its flukes out of the water when diving. That graceful action gives the mammal extra diving power, just as humans dive into the water so much easier after vertically jackknifing their bodies.
The whale would “flip us” his flukes then disappear underwater for 5-to-10 minutes before resurfacing for a few minutes to breathe. A “spout” of expelled breath blown out of the hole on top of his head formed a column of mist when the warm air from the whale’s lungs met the chilled air above the water. We were surprised to learn that a humpback’s throat is no wider than a large grapefruit, limiting the size and species of fish it can swallow.
The crew also told us that the whale watch boats have agreed to cooperate so that no more than two boats would be “on a whale” at the same time, minimizing the stress on the creatures.
The policy is even more restrictive in San Diego, we learned several years ago. The whale watch boats there are forbidden to change course to approach passing Grey Whales; the boat must maintain a parallel course to the whale’s usual, north-south course. That way, the whale is free to change direction and swim away without interference if it so chooses. Fortunately for viewers like us, some of the Grey Whales that annually migrate from the Arctic Ocean to the breeding waters in Mexico seem to be as curious about humans as we are about them. In fact, one transiting mother and her calf swam from side to side of our boat near San Diego, eyeing us and swimming so close we could almost touch them.
Three Finback Whales allowed the M/V Cetacean Quest to get within 10 yards from them. These young giants of the deep were 50-to-60 feet long. The “fins,” as they are called, can grow to be 80 feet long and are the second largest species of whale. Their bodies are more streamlined than those of their humpback cousins so they usually do not need the extra leverage gained by raising flukes above the water for a deep dive. We were told that, unlike other large whales species, the fins are plentiful in the oceans of the world and have never been an endangered species. That is because they are fast swimmers and could outrun the sailing whalers of the 18th and 19th Centuries. We followed the three fins for about a half hour and had many close sightings in between their deep dives to feed.
We also had excellent views of a playful Minke Whale, one of the smaller species with a length of about 20 feet. Normally shy, this particular Minke was quite a showman. He swam around and around the boat and occasionally beneath it. We could see him eyeing the camera-snapping humans crowding the rails of the boat. Somebody later told me about seeing something
|Betty at rail of Cetacean Quest|
|Click Colored Type to Enlarge Photo
Our boat’s captain spotted a distant group of Whiteside Dolphins although we never got a look at them. Unlike their warm-water cousins we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean, this species are not generally playful and have no interest in riding the wakes of passing boats.
But we did see many dozens of pelagic birds, chiefly the locally common Northeastern Gannets that spend most of their lives on the open ocean. Bigger than the familiar Herring Gull that hangs out all over American shorelines, the Northeastern Gannets dive bomb the water when feeding. I also saw several low-flying seabirds the crew identified as Shearwaters and a single Loon swimming at least a mile from shore.
Despite a serious amount of No. 8 sunscreen on my face, I was as red as a beet when we returned to port at mid-afternoon. Part of the sunburn/windburn was probably due to a side effect from the antibiotics I’ve been taking for more than a week to fight off a nasty sinus infection.
We were glad the boat came in after three hours because we were chilled and tired. Besides, we had been greatly rewarded with excellent sightings of three species of whales. It was a highly productive and enjoyable day and second only to the overall highpoint of our trip that came when we saw our son receive his MBA last week.
We thanked the crew and hurried off the boat. By gunning the Grand Prix, we barely made it to the 4:30 p.m. ferry, with less than a minute to spare. We were the last car allowed on the boat, a rare occurrence of perfect timing during our vacations. While nearly all the other whale watch passengers had an hour to kill waiting for the next ferry, we drove across Long Island in another small convoy. By hitting the ferries at the exactly right time, we made it back to Yarmouth and our hotel in 2 hours and 15 minutes.
We paid a little more than $4 (U.S.) a gallon at a Shell station to refill the rental car’s tank. Gas is sold by the liter here (4.54 to the gallon). Today’s price is 94-to-98 Canadian cents per liter. That is roughly double the price back in Memphis, which was an outrageous $2 a gallon when we left home last week.
We finished a great day with an excellent meal at the Grand Rodd Hotel. I had the Digby Scallops and Betty had fried clams.