As our chapter of Newfoundland living draws slowly to a close (our five years are almost up!), the Pie and I are trying to take any opportunity to experience the good things and the amazing things that this province, and the St. John’s area, have to offer. And this summer, owing to the generosity of my law firm and some fortuitous Groupons, I ended up taking not one, not two, but THREE boat tours of the area, with three different companies. So I thought, now that the boating tour season is almost over, I’d give you my opinion on the whole enterprise, so that if you’re in the area next spring and summer, you can decide if you’d like to try this experience as well.
But first an Ali-cized version of Newfoundland history. As you may know, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has been the location of various fishing colonies from Portugal, France, and England (and a few others) for the past five hundred years. Legend has it that the first Vikings to visit North America stopped here first, and that they could walk from their ships to the rocky shores on the backs of the plentiful cod in the water. All that cod meant a lot of fighting over fishing rights, and after a few switches back and forth, England eventually won out (although France and Portugal still have their own interests). Newfoundland became part of the Dominion of Canada after World War II, and here we are.
In 1992, the cod fishery was so severely depleted that the government declared a moratorium on cod fishing — there simply weren’t enough fish in the sea anymore. This resulted in thousands of fishermen losing their traditional livelihood. If a Newfoundlander can’t fish cod, is he really a Newfoundlander?
Some enterprising fishermen came up with some new ideas about how to put food on their tables. They converted their fishing boats into tour boats, adding seats and life jackets and taking out the nets and hauling equipment. Tourism in Newfoundland began to thrive. And from May to September every year, you can take a tour with one of these companies and see all the sites that Newfoundland has to offer — from the sea. In May and June, if you’re lucky, you can sail up close to a massive ice berg as it makes its way south to melt. In July and August you can sail alongside all manner of local whales as they, too, migrate to other waters.
It was a calm and sunny afternoon as we pulled out of the harbour, but once we hit the currents of the North Atlantic, the swells got a bit higher and the spray off the bow was enough to thoroughly soak most of us in minutes.
There were a few members of the party who had to make use of the barf bags on board. I’m sure the open bar didn’t help. I kept getting salt water in my rum and Coke (which actually didn’t end up tasting that bad). But those of us who had our sea legs had a great time.
My favourite moment of this particular tour was when we rounded Cape Spear, which is the most easterly point of land in North America. And at that particular moment, I was more east than Cape Spear.
We did catch a glimpse of a humpback whale off our bow, but it was gone before any of us got any good pictures of it. This is the dorsal of a minke who was too camera shy and gone before long.
There were birds all around us, though, and they were interesting too.
We pulled into Petty Harbour nicely sauced and just in time for dinner.
Chafe’s Landing is a restaurant just a few steps from the harbour and is rumoured to have the best fish and chips on the Avalon Peninsula. And I’m here to tell you that those rumours are TRUE. It was incredible.
We took a bus back to St. John’s as the sun set, all happy, salty, and full of good food.
While the staff were friendly they weren’t all that talkative with us. Perhaps because this was a private charter they weren’t required to give us the rundown on the things we were seeing as we sailed around the Cape.
A particular benefit of Iceberg Quest is that they are the one tour company that sails directly out of St. John’s Harbour, so if you’re in town and you don’t have transportation, it’s the way to go. I think that because it is directly out of St. John’s that the tour cost is probably quite a bit more expensive than those which operate outside of town. Because the firm paid for it, I have no idea how much it actually cost. But the boat was flashy and shiny and big.
My second tour was with O’Brien’s in early August, and the Pie and I got a Groupon for a four-person pass at half price, which cost us about $120. We took Cait and Jul and drove to Bay Bulls one morning for a 9:00 AM sailing. As we left St. John’s and headed south, it got foggier and foggier, and by the time we hit Bay Bulls we could barely see ten feet in front of us. Not to worry. We were experiencing what is known as “capelin weather,” which meant we were in luck. Capelin are tiny fish, about four or five inches long, that provide the main source of food for not only the cod, but many other species of wildlife in the area. Capelin migrate through here in the summer, and are usually the most plentiful (like, you can scoop them off the beach with a shovel) after several hot days in a row followed by a cold, muggy, foggy spell.
Despite the weather being the pits most of the time, Newfoundland is definitely beautiful, rain or shine, and we were quite taken with the shoreline emerging suddenly from the mist, and disappearing just as suddenly.
Then we hit the mouth of Bay Bulls and saw a giant patch of birds, all feeding from the same place in the water. This meant capelin, and so, if we were lucky, it also meant we might see some whales. Then, not a hundred metres from where we were, we heard a humpback take a deep breath. Then, a few seconds later, we smelled it. Whale breath is not a pleasant thing.
Over the next hour or so, we were joined by two more humpbacks, who were very curious about us and the other tour boat next to us. Instead of gorillas in the mist, we got humpbacks in the fog.
Justin, our highly experienced (and musically gifted!) guide, said this was the best year for whales he’d seen, and he’s been doing this for twelve years. He was very good about explaining to us exactly what the whales were doing when we couldn’t see them. You see this round patch of water? That’s the whale’s footprint, essentially. You get that sort of upswell when the whale makes a deep dive. It sticks around for a surprisingly long time.
Whenever we thought the whales would get bored with us and take off, they would surface again and just sort of hang out between our two boats. It was truly incredible.
At long last we had to bid the whales adieu and keep to our schedule. We headed a bit further out of the bay to Gull Island, which we smelled before we saw. This area is an ecological reserve for seafowl and has the largest population of puffins in the entire world. But it’s also home to a huge number of other birds, and we got to see them all.
As we headed back to the Bay, we piled into the cabin for warmth. When you sail through fog it tends to stick to you, so we were all coated with a light, salty mist, and our hands were so cold it made holding our cameras tricky. But it was definitely worth it for such an amazing experience!
My third tour was actually just yesterday (because I’m writing this on the 24th of August), and I wrangled another Groupon package deal for four with Mullowney’s Boat Tours for $110, which was half-price. Trav was staying with us at the time and so the three of us went. I ended up giving the fourth ticket to one of the other passengers. The highway to Bay Bulls is only one lane on both sides with little room for passing and we got stuck behind the slowest person alive on the way there, meaning that we arrived at Mullowney’s five minutes after 12:00 PM, the time the boat was supposed to sail! We thought we had missed it entirely but fortunately, because I had made a reservation, the boat was waiting for us. They had heard from other passengers that the traffic was bad and they stuck around until we got there, which was really nice.
Today when we left Bay Bulls it was sunny and calm and absolutely glorious. We had layered up in anticipation that we would get cold and we actually found ourselves to be quite comfortable, even a little warm, in our jackets. Now, this is the North Atlantic, so for it to be this calm and quiet was extremely unusual. If you do a tour, make sure to dress warmly.
It had been three days since any of the local tour companies had seen any whales, so we didn’t get our hopes up this time. It is the end of the whales’ migratory season anyhow. Because I wasn’t looking for whales, I got to focus a bit more on the sea birds around, and we had a great time laughing at the antics of the puffins, who are the most ungainly flyers I have ever seen. The other birds regarded them with disdain, and chased them down for their fish.
Despite not seeing any whales, we all agreed that we’d had a great time. Mullowney’s takes a bit of a different route from O’Brien’s, so the Pie and I got to see different sides of Gull island than we’d seen before, and it was nice to observe their habitat when it wasn’t shrouded in fog. The pleasantness of the day alone made puttering around on the sea a true delight, and the companionship of our friendly young guide Alastair made for an entertaining trip.
I can’t say that I had anything other than a very pleasant experience with all three of the touring companies I used this summer. The staff were all very friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable about both sailing and the areas we visited, and I know from speaking to several of the employees that the companies are not in competition with each other. That makes for a much friendlier environment, and they help each other out when it comes to spotting whales and bergs and the like.
When you take a boat tour there’s no guarantee that you will see whales or ice bergs or any of the more spectacular things out there. There’s not even a guarantee that the water will be calm or the sun will be shining. But even if you don’t get the jaw-dropping experience of seeing giant whales or colossal ice bergs, you can still appreciate nature writ large as you sail past Newfoundland’s ragged coast line and you hear the cries of hundreds of sea birds all around you. Any day you go, whatever you see, you are guaranteed to have an experience you won’t forget any time soon.
More on the boat tour companies in this post:
Iceberg Quest: http://icebergquest.com