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Visiting Red Bay-the province's newest UNESCO World Heritage site

11 Sep 2013 by Keith and Heather Nicol in History and Red Bay
Region: Labrador

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On Wednesday, August 28 we awoke to strong north winds and the forecast was calling for rain in the afternoon so we decided to head immediately for Saddle Island which is where most of the Basque whaling took place. The Basques arrived along the coast of Labrador in the early 1500’s looking for cod and when they discovered the abundance of whales they decided to harvest the whales for their oil. It was a very valuable product and whale oil from Red Bay was used to light the cities of Europe throughout the 1500’s. Saddle Island is just a short trip by boat from the Visitor Interpretation Centre and Phil Bridle, a Parks Canada interpreter, gave us an informative tour of the island. He told us that he was part of the early archeological digs on the island and he even discovered a Basque ring that is now on display in the visitor centre. “Most of the archeological work was done on Saddle Island since it was not settled and researchers could uncover artifacts more easily than they could in people’s gardens and lawns in the community” Phil told us. He showed us many whale oil rendering stations called tryworks and their adjacent cooperages where the barrels for holding the whale oil were assembled. “After being harpooned, the whales would be towed to the trywork stations where their blubber would be stripped away and put into large copper pots where it would be rendered to oil” Phil added.

Phil shows Heather some of the important Basques sites on Saddle Island

By the end of the tour the rain had started in earnest so we decided to head to the Parks Canada Visitor Orientation Centre where we viewed an excellent film on how the site was discovered and how both land and marine archeologists worked together to uncover the story of Basques whaling in Red Bay. After lunch we returned to the Visitor Centre where many of the artifacts are housed. We were also fortunate to meet Cindy Gibbons, the site supervisor, who told us about how the site became nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. “It started way back in 2004 when Canada put forward a list of possible sites worthy of UNESCO World Heritage recognition. In 2008 we began to compile the documents needed to support the bid and it was submitted in January 2012. Finally in May, 2013 we found out that it had been recommended and it became official in June, 2013” she told us with a grin.  Red Bay is now Canada’s newest UNESCO World Heritage site and Cindy said that it already seems to be attracting more visitors. The Parks Canada Visitor sites will be open until September, 27, 2013  and for more information see: http://www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/nl/redbay/index.aspx   

Heather (left) chats with Cindy Gibbons about how the new UNESCO World Heritage designation came about  

We also enjoyed seeing the Right Whale Exhibit in the Town Hall in Red Bay. The skeleton displayed in the exhibit was one of those killed by the Basques several centuries ago. That night we stayed at another Whaler's Station Cabin -The Loft (www.redbaywhalers.ca) and it had a fine view overlooking the harbour. 

We stayed at The Loft which faces Saddle Island and the harbour