Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Whales in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia is duly famous for its lobsters and lighthouses, and they're plentiful, all right. But the highlight of our July 2010 vacation to the island was a whale watch in the Bay of Fundy.

The humpback whale's life cycle brings pods of females with their calves in tow to the north Atlantic as they swim to summer feeding grounds off Newfoundland. Nova Scotia seems to be something of a stopover on the way further north. So whale activity there is somnolent; it's as if they were catching their breath before the last push to Newfoundland.

Pacific Life Insurance’s use of the whale as its logo, and their superimposition of breaching and tail slapping to try to convince viewers to use their products trivializes the attraction of whale watching. First of all, nothing is guaranteed. Certain areas of the coast, certain times of the day make sightings more likely, but much depends on luck. Many outfitters guarantee that they will take you out until you see whales, but that is a hollow promise given most vacation schedules. And second, the dramatic breaching occurs so unexpectedly that it is almost impossible to observe and even more difficult to capture on film or digits. Talking to the crew after our own successful cruise, we learned that the day before, they had seen nothing. But I get ahead of myself.

Whale watching boats come in two flavors. The “traditional” rigging is a flat decked, diesel powered craft carrying a couple of dozen people and a crew of four. These are often refitted from other uses for the tourist season—ours is a lobster boat eight months of the year. The second type is the Zodiac, a large, inflatable craft with an outboard motor and a crew of two. The appeal of the Zodiac is that it takes its six passengers right up to the whale. But because they are so close to the water, Zodiacs require a wetsuit-like garment to shield whale watchers from chop and spray. We chose the traditional rigging.

Most outfitters run two daily cruises, morning and evening. In making reservations in the spring, I had quizzed the owners on which was more likely to see whales, but never succeeded in getting a straight answer. For some reason, I chose the 9AM departure. This seemed reasonable until we got driving times from our B&B at Annapolis Royal to the dock at East Ferry, an hour and a half. What was I thinking on a vacation? As it turned out we arrived with ten minutes to spare only to learn that the cruise had been cancelled. Turns out we were the only takers; “people just don’t want to get up early,” the owner observed as my wife gave me a withering stare. Rather than get back in the car, we reserved seats on the 2PM boat and took in some Nova Scotian lobster and lighthouses as we whiled away five hours.

The afternoon boat was filled, but not beyond capacity. I believe that we were the only people from the States aboard. Most of our companions were Canadian, but from all across the country, one couple hailed from Vancouver. There was one Englishman (more on him later) and an Australian couple. After its crew provided a brief overview of the trip and safety instructions, the Passage Provider, chugged off from the pier and out into Digby Neck before turning north into the Bay of Fundy. The first half hour passed uneventfully. We excitedly sighted a pair of dolphins rolling off our starboard and laughed as a seal (of some sort) poked its head above the water and watched us pass. To this point we had dutifully seated ourselves along the boat railing and on both sides of bench positioned in center of the deck. This would soon change.

Perhaps a half hour out of port, one of the crew who was sitting on the roof of the cockpit spotted a whale breaching. He didn’t say “thar' she blows,” but that anachronism would have been appropriate as spray propelled from the breathing hole is the surest sign of a whale when viewed from a distance. As we approached our quarry, the passengers moved, tentatively at first and then in a rush to the side of the boat that would have the best view. Our Englishman, brandishing a video camera, was particularly aggressive in his movements. After a while, we learned to give him a wide berth. But everyone managed to get a good look.

For an hour and a half, moving between four pods, we saw whales breach with loud hisses as they expelled carbon dioxide and water vapor above their blowholes. Sometimes they just logged as we went by. They rolled and dove—the pattern was three rolls and dive. We even got several signature tail raises on the dive. Everyone was thrilled, especially the crew.

Since we had done so well, they felt free to admit that things are not always so good. The day before, the single whale that was sighted became the quarry of five boats. But not today. Today was wonderful.