Camera in hand, you wait. Nothing has prepared you for the moment to come: not the anticipation built up on the cruise past the lighthouse, not the interpretive talk of the marine biologist on board, not even the ethereal songs from the hydrophone.
And then it happens.
Shedding half the sea and spraying the other half out its blowhole, the whale surfaces. A long, lazy slide brings the curious, intelligent eye level with your own. The dorsal fin and the majestic tail appear, and then slip beneath the surface. As long as a school bus, as heavy as five hundred people, the whale moves beneath you with the delicacy of a butterfly.
You release the breath you didn’t know you were holding. You pick up the jaw you didn’t know you’d dropped. The camera rests in your hand, forgotten.
There is no wildlife encounter anywhere on the planet that compares with greeting a whale. And there is no better place on Earth than Atlantic Canada to see them. Some 87 countries offer whale watching. Time and again, Atlantic Canada places in the top ten. For example, MSNBC and World Reviewer both place Eastern Canada alongside locations like New Zealand, Cape Cod, Patagonia and South Africa.
Forbes Traveler consulted experts from the World Wildlife Fund, the American Cetacean Society, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and whale watching captains around the world before it placed Atlantic Canada on its top ten list. Kerry Zobor, vice president of consumer media for the World Wildlife Fund, advises heading to Cape Breton and the Bay of Fundy to see some of the 17 species of whale there. With 22 species off Newfoundland, it’s no wonder many of the 57 private tour operators in the region offer money-back guarantees on whale sightings.
At $45 to $60 per person – with significant discounts for children and families – whale watching is one of the most affordable adventures around. Most tours last from two to five hours and are jam-packed. Whale watching in Newfoundland’s Iceberg Alley offers close encounters with floating mountains that send the goose bumps running along your arms.
Newfoundland’s waters boast the world’s largest population of feeding humpback whales. From April to October, humpbacks eat two tons of fish a day, leap from the sea and dive with their tails high in the air. The song of a male humpback can last 20 minutes. For the best chance to see humpbacks and their many cousins, tours are concentrated on the Avalon Pennisula in the east, the Notre Dame and Bonsvista Bay areas along the north coast and near Gros Morne National Park and off Labrador on the west coast. Tours range from a couple of pleasant hours to week-long study trips where participants become assistant scientists, conducting whale research. One operator offers special evening presentations on whale entrapment, whale biology and dolphin intelligence.
The endangered right whale is a common sight from May to October in the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The right whale got its name because it was the “right” species for whalers to harpoon and boil down for oil. St. Andrews and Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick and the Digby Neck peninsula in Nova Scotia are home port to tours via converted fishing boat, zodiac and sailboat. Trips out of Halifax, Nova Scotia and from ports along the coast south of this capital city can be combined with a visit to the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic in the UNESCO World Heritage fishing town of Lunenburg.
Off Cape Breton Island, pods of up to 100 of charming and curious pilot whales frolic close to tour boats. Here, whales are abundant, but it’s the scenery and culture of the island itself that completes a whale watching excursion to this world-class destination. At the Whale Interpretive Centre in Pleasant Bay on the Cabot Trail, see life-size models, exhibits and interactive media. Great, raucous colonies of sea birds swarm the cliffs of islands within sight of the coast. Charming villages and spectacular scenery make the drive to whale watching tours half the fun.
Atlantic Canada’s whale watching tours are cutting edge. Some offer food and drinks on board. Others are family oriented. Still others are highly sophisticated, research-oriented experiences with trained marine biologists as guides. All offer finely tuned services and adhere to stringent environmental and ethical codes of conduct when it comes to getting close to whales. That’s why so many whale watching tour operators in Atlantic Canada have received sustainable tourism awards.
Whatever the length and variety of tour, when you come eye to eye with that humpback, minke, grey, fin or right whale, the encounter will astound and humble you. Camera or no camera, it will live in your memory forever.
All photos courtesy of Tourism New Brunswick
Whales-n-Sails, Grand Manan, New Brunswick by Allan MacDonald 2
Quoddy Link, St. Andrews New Brunswick