I knew that I was going to love Loyola O’Brien the minute I stepped on his boat and he gave the “little bit of a safety talk” and told us how to put on a life vest. “There’s two ways to put on a life vest” he told us, “The wrong way, and the right way, which is quickly me by’s, because she’s not a big boat, and if she goes down, she’s going fast.” Then he acknowledged that if the boat did go down, that the life vests would be of little help in the freezing North Atlantic, and suggested that if there were a little trouble, we put on the vests (the right way) and then follow him to the life boats in the back. The Captain, he advised us, would not be going down with the ship.
We sailed out of Bay Bulls, and as we did, Loyola sang “Fiddlers Green” into the waves as Greg sailed us out past the incredible rocks and caves carved by the surf, right past Witless bay, and out into the sea (big waves) to an ecological seabird reserve, all of us hoping to run into a whale on the way, and to out run the fog and the rain that are still dogging this trip. (I’m writing this on Sunday morning, and it’s raining again.)
The birds were really something. These are mostly common murres, known to Newfoundlanders by their two other names, according to Loyola. Some Newfoundlanders call them a Turr, and others use their more usual name, which is “delicious in a big pot of stew”.
There was boatloads of them. Just boatloads. They swooped and dove (more than 100 feet into the water for food) and I found out that they live for about 35 years, which seems to me to be a seriously good run for a life on the sea.
Those are puffin holes (and puffins, though they are a little wee in that picture) 60% of North America’s puffin population live on these islands off Witless bay, though only when they are breeding. The rest of the time they live all the way out on the open sea. Those burrows they make in the ground are .5 to 2.5m long (2-8ft) and the puffins use them like runways for takeoff. They dive and swoop and crash into the ocean, hunting up the capelin that they love to eat. Capelin is a little smelt fish that swarms by the millions and millions in the waters here, and are food for everything. Seabirds, squid, seals, cod….everything eats capelin, and when the capelin is running, the waters here are practically infested with every sea creature you can imagine, including whales at every turn.
This is a humpback whale, and I know the pictures aren’t very impressive, but the whale was. Huge guy. Massive. Maybe 14m long (that’s 46 ft). That’s his long pectoral fin above as he rolls in the water. He was travelling rather than eating this day, and he was fast. Loyola said that even though whales may seem to be alone, their calls carry so far in the water that this whale could have been answering a dinner call from his buddy whale two bays over, and in a whale context, they would still be “together”.
When the tail comes up like that it means that the whale is probably diving deep, just the way that your feet might come up if you’re going to the bottom of the pool. We followed this guy for a bit, and minke whales swam nearby us while we did.
That’s one of the three islands of the Witless Bay Ecological reserve. Chock full of those birds and whales and everything else, and not a single human.
That’s us. The sea looks still, but it’s not. Really not. Really not enough that even Joe took gravol, which shocked the snot out of me (and made me feel way better about being sort of green if I didn’t stay close to the water line.)
This is Greg, captain of the boat and all round good sport and fun guy. We had a blast.
Then it rained. (That’s starting to be really thematic.)