Too Close – paddling with whales in Newfoundland.
By: Jonathon Reynolds
“Just a little bit closer”, I whisper to myself. The puffin almost fills the entire view finder of the camera. Finally after almost a whole morning drifting up on this area in which lots of puffins were congregated I am going to get a good photo. Just as I press the shutter release button I find myself looking down my kayak. I am definitely pointing downhill right now! I whip the camera away from my eye and look around. Right below me is a huge black shape. In fact the back of the kayak is out of the water resting on this huge black shape. A Minke whale has surfaced right underneath me lifting the stern of my kayak clean out of the water.
“Go down, Go down gently”, my lips are moving but I am not saying anything out loud. Fear and an incredible adrenalin rush are battling it out in my system. The whale gently slides under the surface, twisting around as he dives. This is just too close to a whale. I stash the camera in its dry bag and madly paddle away from the cove where the millions of caplin have attracted both seabirds and whales. Both the caplin and myself thought this cove was too shallow for whales. We were both wrong!
Caplin are tiny little silver fish drive the food chain here. It seems everything lives off these tiny fish. In one spot I paddle over an immense school of caplin. There are so many I cannot see through them – it is as if the sea bottom is an undulating seething mass of silver. The immense numbers awe me but Stan Cook tells me they are few now compared to what there used to be. I makes me pause and think just how rich in sea life this area must have been because now it is almost overwhelming. Whales everywhere, seabirds by the thousands, colourful sea urchins and other molluscs and fish, everywhere there seem to be caplin and other fish.
For the past few days I have been paddling with Stan Cook and Stan Cook Junior (Stanley) mostly in the area around Cape Broyle. Today Stan and I are headed up to paddle in Conception Bay. We have heard that there are some big icebergs close to shore there. Driving north from St. John’s towards Conception Bay I notice how all the small towns and villages are centred on the sea. The road is an afterthought snaking into the towns from the back.
We pull into a small gravel lot beside a fish packing plant and soon have our kayaks in the water. Out on the blue-grey waters of the bay three large white shapes are floating. These icebergs look big from shore but grow ever larger as we get closer to them. As we approach the closest one, a large slightly tilted flat white shape we hear a strange crashing and crunching noise. Paddling around the corner of the iceberg we see a large barge with a big yellow machine using huge steel jaws to rip chunks off the iceberg. Spinning around the machine drops the ice into the hold of the barge. Down the side of the barge and on the machine are the words – Iceberg Harvester. Stan tells me they use the water from the ice to make “Iceberg Vodka”. Leaving the big machine chewing up the even bigger iceberg we paddle out towards the two icebergs floating farther from shore. As we get closer we pass bergy bits floating in the water in little rafts. These bits of ice recently broken off from the icebergs sizzle and fizz sounding like a huge soda. After pushing down on a couple with our paddles to see just how thin the bergy bits were we paddle closer to the enormous white and blue mountain rising out of the water in front of us. Sculpted smooth by the action of waves over much of the surface we can see a clear line where this iceberg had recently rolled over a bit exposing a long arching line marking the previous waterline. Small waterfalls were pouring off the top of the iceberg adding a light tinkling sound to the underscored beat of waves slapping against the ice. Looking down through the clear water we can see the immense white shape stretching down far beneath us. White slowly turns to blue and then to black as the light is cut off by the mass of ice above. Looking up again I remember that 90% of an iceberg is underwater which means this iceberg stretches over a hundred feet down.
We stay fairly far out from the iceberg since it is warm weather and icebergs are prone to roll the quicker they melt. A hundred foot wall of ice could create quite a tidal wave. As we are paddling alongside the iceberg I ask Stan to stop so I can get a picture. At that precise moment a loud boom echoes across the water and the water shivers a little as the iceberg moves fractionally. We paddle frantically away although nothing happens with the iceberg other than the loud noise. Keeping even further away from the icebergs than we did earlier we paddle back towards the beach. One of the icebergs is grounded and we paddle closer in to get an up close and personal look at the ice and a large blue vein of clear ice streaking through the white expanse of the rest of the ice.
We load up our kayaks and head back to St. John’s to take in the George Street festival. George Street is a short street in St John’s home to dozen’s of pubs and bars. For one week a year the street is closed to traffic and the entire street becomes one huge kitchen party. Live music and hundreds of party goers ensure that this is a great spectator event. I listen to the bands and then head home once the final show is over. The party will continue on for many hours yet but I have a date with some humpback whales tomorrow.
The day dawns clear and bright and we are on the water by mid-morning paddling out of Cape Broyle north towards Great Island. This island is home to thousands of puffins, Murres, gulls, terns and other seabirds. The birds nest here because there is a plentiful supply of caplin here and where there are caplin there are whales. There is an eastern breeze today whipping up the waves and a fog bank is lying about a kilometre offshore. Hopefully the sun will burn the fog off and the wind will calm down. Overhead thousands of birds wheel and cry, so loud at times that talking is difficult. After paddling around the island we head south towards the mouth of Cape Broyle in sunny weather with almost no wind. It is amazing how quickly the weather can change here!
Suddenly the shout “There’s a whale, just to the left!” rings out. “And another one…. and there! Wow, there are at least five of them!” Stan is as excited as if it was the first time he has ever seen a whale. He has actually been paddling alongside whales here for years but never seems to lose his enthusiasm. It is infectious and the whales are quite close now. There is a group of three off to our left and two further away breaching. I hardly know where to look next. Then the three turn towards us and dive right under our kayaks. I stare at a huge tail fluke almost as wide as my 17 foot kayak is long just a few feet from the right side of my kayak. The fluke rises higher then slips beneath the waves leaving hardly a ripple. I am left in a state of awe. Shock almost – these are huge creatures and they definitely know we are there but seem to tolerate us perhaps even seek us out since a few minutes later there is another pod of whales heading towards us. We paddle along, whales surfacing all around us. I notice that the whales have a pattern to the way they travel. Three blows at the surface and then they dive (sound) for a longer period. They also seem to travel together in groups often three males or a mother and calf. Of course, there are exceptions to these patterns like the one whale just lolling around on the surface of the water never going under just rocking from side to side. After about five minutes this whale finally gave a huge sigh and slid under the water. I also notice that these whales have very bad fishy breath. Another good reason not to get too close!
We paddle into a cove to break for lunch. Called Freshwater Cove, this rocky crescent of beach has a waterfall dropping a lacy veil of water over the entrance to a cave on the beach. Three further caves are visible in the cliff face along the water’s edge being for further exploration by kayak after lunch. As we eat a bank of clouds rolls over the top of the cliff cutting off the bright sunlight and turning our world misty, damp, gray and monochromatic. The fog drops down even further and all sound disappears except for the slap of waves on the beach and the splatter of water on the rocks from the waterfall. The fog lifts a bit as we paddle off the beach and towards the sea caves along the coastline. One of these is so large the local paddlers call it the Basilica.
We paddle along the coast, the sound of whales blowing unseen in the fog off our right side. Slowly the fog lifts higher and then burns off altogether. Once again we are paddling under brilliant blue sky and as we head across the bay towards the dock a Minke whale surfaces in front of us and disappears. It is almost like the whale is saying, ‘See you later.” That whale is right, I’ll definitely be back to paddle here.
For more information:
Stan Cook Sea Kayak Adventures
67 Circular Road
St. John’s, NL
Toll-free: 1-888-747-NFLD (6353)