Like a dog peeking its head out of a car window on a summer’s day, I’m enjoying feeling my cheeks and ears being buffeted by air as we motor away from the town of St Andrews in New Brunswick, Canada. We’re heading across the calm water of Passamaquoddy Bay in a Zodiac Hurricane on a whale watching tour.
I’m leaning back in my seat over the starboard side of a 25-foot long RHIB — a rigid-hulled inflatable boat powered by twin engines. Before boarding, our captain, Pat, explained that these boats are the small vessel of choice of security forces and coast guards around the world, due to their stability and reliability, even in bed weather.
Despite it being a balmy summer’s day, we’re dressed in red survival suits that match the colour of the boat. In the unlikely case that anybody does fall overboard, into the Bay of Fundy, we’ve been instructed to seal the Velcro straps on the arms and legs. The suits are designed to fill with water, like wetsuits. Their buoyancy and insulation will help ensure we can be picked up and safely returned to shore.
The Bay of Fundy
Hopefully, though, it will be whales we see, rather than fellow guests tumbling overboard, out in the Bay of Fundy.
The water out there is a full three degrees cooler than inside of Passamaquoddy Bay. There’s barely a ripple to be seen. I’ve seen swimming pools that are choppier the placid water of the inlet. It’s reflecting the blue sky and densely forested coastline, prompting me to raise my camera and click a series of photographs.
As we accelerate to a speed of 34 knots I’m glad of the insulation provided by the suit. As spray begins to hiss over the boat I tuck my camera and 24-105mm lens inside, and pull the zip towards my neck.
Pat suggested that a mid-length lens would be adequate for the trip as whales sometimes come right up to the boat, negating the need for long tele-zooms. Long lenses can even mean photographers miss out on opportunities to photograph the full bodies of whales that are close to the boat.
Harbour seals on the Fundy Isles
As we head past an islet, part of the Fundy Isles, where harbour seals are basking in the sun, he cuts the engine and we idle for a few moments. Once everyone aboard is done snapping photos we accelerate into the Bay of Fundy, the location of the world’s highest tides.
If we kept heading in a straight line we’d end up on the north shore of Nova Scotia, but today we’ll only be heading 20 nautical miles south-east of St Andrews. The speed of the Zodiac means we can maximise time out at the feeding grounds where humpback, minke and fin whales are regularly sighted at this time of year.
From his position behind the wheel Pat explains that he can see on his plotter what looks like an extinct volcano that rises to a depth of 65 feet. Its base is three miles across. Whales gather above it because of the shoals of fish that feed in the region’s waters. Each flow of the tide brings a new supply of food for the fish.
When he’s not captaining whale watching trips Pat is fish health biologist in New Brunswick’s Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries. When I ask him what we might see today he talks enthusiastically about whales, seals and seabirds.
Then, with a grave look, he mentions unwanted sightings of pollution, telling me that he normally stops the boat at least once every trip to remove marine debris. He explains how he regularly picks up pop bottles, cans, plastic bags and balloons from the sea — items that can be swallowed by marine animals causing them harm. Rubbish carelessly discarded in distant city streets can find its way into the sea hundreds of miles away and eventually into the food chain.
Birdlife in the bay
But it’s the splendour of the region that’s impressing me on this fine day. Shearwaters fly close to the surface of the sea. In the distance, resting birds bob gently on the water.
After talking on the radio Pat swings the boat onto a new course, explaining that three humpbacks and a couple of fin whales have been sighted from a nearby boat.
As he cuts the engine we see a fin whale exhale, throwing a cloud into the air that reminds me of a steam from the spout of a kettle. Being close enough to hear the whooshing sound of the exhalation makes my heart pump faster.
Fin whales, sometimes known as finbacks, are the second largest species in the world, after blue whales. They’re often around 80 feet (25 metres) long and can weigh 80 tons (73 tonnes). Unlike humpbacks they do not breach before diving, due to their buoyancy.
Sighting a breaching humpback
“Over there,” shouts a fellow passenger, pointing at two whales in close proximity to each other. Pat looks over and explains mother with her calf. The mother flips up her tail as she dives, eliciting shrieks of joy from one guest.
I lean over the inflated side of the boat, photographing a shearwater taking a rest just out of touching distance from the boat. A cry of excitement causes me to spin around and I catch a glimpse of a humpback whale in mid-air, twisting amid spray before splashing back down into the sea. I know I’ve missed a golden photo opportunity but feel blessed for having seen such a magnificent sight.
Despite willing on a repeat sighting, and another opportunity to photograph, no more whales breach in such a dramatic manner.
On the way back to St Andrews we spot porpoises arching through the water, a boat’s length away from our vessel. It’s been an outstanding whale watching trip, with numerous sightings, but like a gnarled sailor heading into port on a fishing vessel I can’t help thinking of the one that got away.
Fundy Tide Runners (16 King Street, St. Andrews; tel. +1-506-529-4481) is one of several companies running whale watching and nature tours in the Bay of Fundy.
St Andrews by-the-Sea is an attractive seaside town laid out on a grid plan. Founded in the late-18th century, St Andrews Block House is as a national historic site built for defence during the War of 1812. Thankfully the tensions between the USA and British North America are now sufficiently far enough into the past for the town to have been named the 2017 readers’ choice best destination in Canada by USA Today.
Before heading out to sea on a whale watching trip, find out about the marine species that inhabit the Bay of Fundy within the New Brunswick Museum at Saint John. Located in uptown Saint John, at Market Square, the museum holds a number of whale skeletons and models. Interpreters lead tours, which include opportunities to hold a whale tooth and touch baleen, the hairy filters that hang from the upper jaws of non-toothed whales.
Find out more about the region, and things to do and see, via the Bay of Fundy and Tourism New Brunswick websites. Explore Canada also has useful information about New Brunswick and the rest of Canada.
Photos illustrating this post are by Stuart Forster.
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