Canada’s Bay of Fundy is the best place in the world to glimpse the endangered North Atlantic right whale. We set sail, hot on its trail…
The sound was unmistakable: a deep, heavy breathing coming just metres away from where I was lying. My eyes opened fast, only to be greeted by the pitch black of the bedroom. Out of the corner of my eye I could make out the fluttering of fabric – a curtain, floating in the breeze that flowed through the window that I’d left ajar just hours earlier. Then it came again.
Hearing heavy breathing in your hotel room is an unnerving experience – especially when you know for certain you fell asleep alone. But by the third exhalation of breath my sleep-fuddled brain suddenly remembered where I was, and instead of fear, I felt excitement.
“Whales!” came the call from next door. My guide, New Brunswick local Beth Johnston, had been woken by the sound, too. And so it was that, at 2am on an early September morning, I grabbed my coat and hat and ran outside barefoot, standing on top of the cliff where the little cottage in which we were staying, on this small Canadian island known as Campobello, was perched.
With no light other than the faded twinkle of the distant stars, I couldn’t see these great marine mammals passing by, but I could feel them. The water below moved as they navigated through it, their regular blow spraying an invisible mist that I could feel landing on my face and exposed feet.
For those few minutes that they passed by, it was utter magic. Without the benefit of sight, all my other senses were heightened, with the smell of the ocean in my nose, the damp grass sucking at my toes and the slow, steady rhythm of the whale’s breath vibrating through my body.
That was my first introduction to the whales of Canada’s famous Bay of Fundy. But it wouldn’t be my last...
I had headed to this often overlooked maritime North American enclave after hearing a remarkable story about a woman who, determined to help the dwindling numbers of the North Atlantic right whales, had successfully moved an entire shipping lane.
Her name was Moira Brown, and I met her later that day at the small waterfront café just a few minutes from my cottage. There, over a dish of freshly caught scallops and seafood chowder, she spoke about how she originally arrived on the island to study seabirds back in 1985 and caught the ‘right whale bug’.
“There’s just so many mysteries about them,” she explained, stopping mid-sentence to look through her binoculars when we spied a pod of harbour porpoise jumping by Deer Island. “No one is sure where they go to mate, no one knows just why they have distinctive callosities [rough white and grey hardened patches] on their heads, and though we can map where roughly Ship ahoy! Moira Brown – the woman who successfully moved an entire shipping lane in a bid to help save the endangered North Atlantic right whale ‘We have no idea where two-thirds of all North Atlantic right whales migrate to’ a third of the known population migrates, we have absolutely no clue as to where the others go.”
Luckily for me, what is known about the North Atlantic right whale – and indeed a whole collection of their fellow cetaceans, including minke, humpback, fin and pilot – is that every summer, between June and October, the waters off Campobello Island are replete with them, offering the best chance of sightings. However, as with all wildlife, actually seeing a whale is never guaranteed, so I’d booked myself on a total of four whale-watching expeditions over the course of the next few days, to up my chance of seeing something.
Before taking to the water, I spent the rest of the day exploring the island itself. Once home to the Passamaquoddy Nation, it was later settled by the French, then the British (including a wealthy Welsh family – hence the Welshpool monikers found on the eastern side), and finally encompassed into Canada. Now it floats in the Fundy waters, joined only to the mainland via a bridge into the USA rather than its own country.
But the Canadians do have America to thank for the island’s reputation as a holiday destination – well, one particular American anyway: Franklin D Roosevelt. The former US President spent many a holiday there in his family’s summerhouse as a boy, and then later with his wife, Eleanor. Where they lived is now a museum in the only park owned and maintained by both the US and Canada. I spent the afternoon listening to stories about how the family lived, told by enthusiastic volunteers while they served tea. But while Roosevelt and his wife may have been celebrity visitors for many, for me, the real A-listers would hopefully be putting in an appearance later…
The sun was starting to hang low in the sky when Beth and I left the small port of Head Harbour. We were on a fishing boat belonging to Mackie Greene, a lobster fisherman who, during the off-season in the summer, runs the most well-respected whale-watching trip on the island.
His son was taking us out that evening, headed for a collection of tree-lined islands called The Wolves. As we approached, and the silhouetted shapes of spruce and fir trees emerged faintly ahead, the huge plume of a humpback whale’s blow looked like a milky-white cloud catching the golden light. Soon after it did, another came. It was a group of three, and we were even treated to their flukes (tails) making an appearance, as well as the distinctive dorsal fin of one that guide Robert Fitzsimmons recognised as ‘Lobster Claw’.
We stayed watching them for around 45 minutes. I didn’t want to leave the scene; didn’t want to miss out on a single splash or fluke, but with it getting darker, it was time to head back in. For now, I would have to go back to the cottages and content myself to merely listening to the marine mammals’ breath from my clifftop perch once more.
Over beers and a fire I sat with Beth, chatting about the day’s encounters with the whales, the lighthouses we’d visited (which are only standing to this day thanks to some stubborn older ladies who raised money to renovate them) and the tonnes of crabs that had seemingly washed up on the unexpectedly black-sand beach at Herring Cove.
I left early the next day, leaving Beth on the island, to grab a ride on a Zodiac to see if I’d have better luck with the whales first thing. A foggy day soon cleared into a bright morning, and within minutes of arriving close to the light station on Wolf Island, we were blessed with a humpback in the middle of lunge feeding – this is where baleen species open their mouths and take a huge gulp of water to filter out the tasty zooplankton. Lobster Claw was also back, this time coming in really close.
The air was filled with the moaning wails of the nearby grey seals, calling out in alarm at something that we humans couldn’t even detect. Then, as we supped on hot chocolate that our captain produced for us along with a welcome homemade ginger biscuit, the triangular fin of a basking shark appeared behind us.
Next, we voyaged to the mainland and the town of Saint Andrews – something of a hub for the whale-watching industry. Gift shops, pubs, cafés and just about every single business here is unashamedly named after a marine mammal and there are tours on board everything ranging from galleons to speedboats.
While there, I headed to the Huntsman Marine Science Centre and Aquarium, a place where research is undertaken on all species in the bay – from banding birds to monitoring migration populations, to developing tests to determine the survival of salmon, a fish whose numbers have been severely depleted in recent years.
In fact, before I headed back to watch whales, I took an overnight detour to Fundy National Park to meet a team of biologists who are attempting to restock local rivers with wild salmon – another of the region’s native and endangered species. They’re grown using a gene bank in what is claimed to be the world’s first marine conservation farm for wild Atlantic salmon, in the waters just off Campobello Island, at Grand Manan.
“It’s early days – just four years in – but we’re seeing positive results,” biologist Kurt Samways had explained. “Back in 2016 there were just 13 salmon returning from the ones we released. Now there’s 52.”
The goal is to get the fish stock back up to at least 150 to allow it to be self-sustaining and prove that the model works, so that it can be replicated elsewhere in the world.
It’s all down to the relationships we’ve built, not only with the scientific community but also with the National Park Service and the First Nations people, who have been so inspired they’ve begun a similar project on another river,” said Kurt.
It sounded like a huge success and spurred me on to believe that the work done by Moira and those on Campobello could bolster the North Atlantic right whale numbers, too. But after another trip out the following lunchtime, in which I saw minke, fin and another humpback, I was disappointed that the whale I’d hoped to spot was still lacking.
“The population is low,” said Moira, as I chatted to her later. “Estimates put them at around 420 now, with boat strikes, fishing net entanglement and warming climates being a real concern. With the strikes, we’ve moved the shipping lanes – the Government even enforced a ‘go-slow’ further north after we saw an unprecedented 12 deaths in 2017 – but with the climate, higher water temperatures are bad for zooplankton and less food means the whales now have to swim further to feed. Prospects are not great but we’ve seem them bounce back from a population low of 280 before, so it’s not too late.”
When it comes to whales getting tangled in nets, my final day out on the water saw me understand the great lengths that not just local people but, crucially, local fishermen will go to in order to help free trapped whales.
As it was Labour Day, all whale-watching boats were fully booked, but help came from British zoologist (and Wanderlust’s contributing editor) Mark Carwardine, who was leading Wildlife Worldwide’s Festival of Whales and had booked Mackie and Robert for the entire day. Allowing me to join them meant I could tap into Mark’s expert knowledge while also learning more about the local Campobello Whale Rescue Team, of which our crew were both long-serving members.
“They called them ‘right’ whales because they were seen as being the ‘right’ size to hunt,” said Mark, as we set off past a roaring crowd of harbour seals, in a thick soup of fog. “They stay near the coast, swim slowly, provide lots of blubber – meaning lots of profit – and when they die, they float on the surface meaning they are easy to retrieve. When hunting began, there would have been tens of thousands; now there’s a few hundred – it’s not sustainable. Fishermen working to protect them is key.”
As if on cue, we saw Mackie and Robert spring into action as we passed a herring weir. There, amid the wooden posts and mesh that created a holding pen for the fish, was a minke whale swimming in circles, trapped inside.
Quickly, they assessed the situation: the whale was unharmed and feeding but needed to be freed. Mackie was on the radio within seconds, phoning the weir’s owner, who instantly planned for the creature’s release.
Satisfied it would be safe, we continued on our photographic hunt for whales, heading further into the mist. We never did find the North Atlantic rights that day, but we did find and keep up with a pair of happy humpbacks who came so close to us, diving under the boat and resurfacing the other side, that on Mackie’s depth radar we could see the shape of the whale appear in multi-coloured dots.
“Look at its stovebolts [little spot-like nodules on the head]; they act like whiskers,” said Mackie as we sat with the engine turned off. They blew water so close to us that our camera lenses were instantly covered in spray, and they were very active: flipper-flopping (splashing the water with their white flippers), tail-lobbing (hitting the surface with their flukes) and resting virtually on our hull.
Finally, though, after four hours, it was time to call it a day. As we headed back to land, Robert took out some tools that they use when they go to cut ropes off entangled whales.
“My best friend died in 2017 while trying to free one,” said Mackie, usually a man of few words.
“Did you think about stopping – not carrying on?” asked a passenger.
“He’d haunt us if we did!” laughed Mackie, “that’s not what he’d have wanted. And that whale he was working on – thanks to him, it lived.”
A solemn and pensive silence fell over us as the mist began to burn off and we neared the coast and the harbour. I asked him how a fisherman went from catching seafood to taking people out to find cetaceans.
“In 1995, the fishing industry was drying up and the Government was offering grants to those of us willing to try something else,” he said. “So I decided on whale-watching trips. All my friends laughed at me – but they’re not laughing now…”
Bidding farewell to them all, it was time for me to leave the island. But I had one more stop I wanted to make before leaving New Brunswick – the museum in Saint John.
It’s here where the skeleton of a North Atlantic right whale, called Delilah, hangs from the ceiling. She washed up on the shores of Grand Manan Island in 1992 after being struck by a ship, and was the catalyst for Moira to begin a campaign to work with mariners and the fishing community to move the shipping lane from the whales’ migratory route.
To take in its size (the height of a five-storey building), I lay on the floor underneath. It seemed somehow a fitting way to end my trip, gazing at what marked the beginning of the battle to fight for these beautiful creatures’ survival.
It may have been the closest I came to one on this trip but at least, thanks to impassioned people such as Moira, Mackie and Mark, they are, for now, definitely still out there. Delilah may not have been breathing but, as I lay there, her presence spoke volumes, not just to me but to hundreds of visitors, telling her story of the mighty North Atlantic right whale to all who allow themselves to listen.
The author stayed at Pier Cottages on Campobello Island, ideal for whale watching in the daytime (and whale listening come nightfall around an outdoor firepit).
At St Andrews, the Rossmount Inn is recommended. Ensure you book in for the evening meal at the restaurant, which is rightfully said to be one of the best in the province.
In Fundy National Park, the new Goutte d’Ô shelter offers a glamping experience in what resembles a large water droplet surrounded by the forest at Point Wolfe Campground.
En route to Campobello, the Kingston Peninsula is well worth exploration. Ridgeback Lodge offers Dream Domes to camp in, featuring proper beds, bathrooms, kitchenettes and private wood-fired hot tubs.
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