Winning with whales
I never win things. It’s not from a lack of trying, because believe me I try. In fact, I try harder than most. Here’s why: I love free stuff – doesn’t matter how big or how small, if it’s free, it’s fantastic.
A couple of weeks ago, Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism held a giveaway during their annual Whale Week celebration – the prize was a massive whale-watching excursion for two, compliments of Air Canada and Maxxim Vacations.
I’d like to take a moment and say that if there is anything in this world that I love more than free stuff – it’s whales. All whales: Minkes, Humpbacks, Orcas, Fins. And this place has thousands of them. Twenty-two species are represented here off our coast. Now, that my friend is a lot of whales. The lucky winner of our Whale Week giveaway was Amanda Stirling from London, Ontario. Amanda found out she won on Wednesday, July 23 — and she was on the ground in Newfoundland by the following Tuesday with her best pal Sarah.
As they came down over the escalator at St. John’s International Airport they were both beaming, despite the fact that they’d both been up since four o’clock that morning.
But, as my Mother often says, there’s no rest for the wicked. So, as soon as they cleared the escalator, picked up their bags, got their rental car sorted, and checked into their rooms at Compton House, just outside downtown St. John’s, we were off to Witless Bay for a whale-watching and bird tour with O’Brien’s Boat Tours.
Every now and then we have a bit of fog. During the summer it’s not as frequent as in other times of the year. But every so often it’s been known to happen. I hear it’s a fantastic way to open your pores though – that isn’t an actual fact, but it could be, maybe.
Point is, it was foggy.
But did we let that dampen our spirits? No sir, we hopped aboard the boat, excited for what was about to unfold. Joe O’Brien, owner and operator of O’Brien’s Boat Tours, was also on board.
You could sense the excitement in the pair of them as the boat left the dock.
Our first stop was the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, which is home to the largest Atlantic Puffin colony in North America, and to millions of other seabirds. The place is electric with the sounds of birds singing their hearts out to the grateful ears of those who cruise past.
Joe O’Brien spent some time with Amanda explaining some of the habits of these beautiful creatures.
There was this great moment where I saw Amanda and Sarah looking out over the island. Amanda was sharing with Sarah the knowledge that was imparted to her by Joe. This, to me, was a microcosm of what this place is all about - people passing knowledge through stories and word of mouth. It was pretty neat to see. If ever there were a true cultural experience, this would be it.
But enough of that, we’re here to see whales, are we not?
And, just as we rounded a headland towards home, somebody shouted:
“Whale! Six o’clock!”
The boat immediately did an about turn, and before you knew it there it was – the back of a Minke rising and falling between the folds of the waves. The entire boat, including Amanda and Sarah cheered with delight. Then before you knew it, there was another shout:
“Whale! Two o’clock!”
And again, we turned the boat hard to the east to face yet another Minke diving down for its supper.
When the boat reached the dock, the two were pretty exhausted, but pleased as punch. And off they went to catch up on some well-deserved sleep.
The following morning, we awoke early and made our way to Cape Broyle, a short 45-minute drive from downtown St. John’s, to Stan Cook's Sea Kayaking Adventures.
Amanda and Sarah were pretty excited about the prospect of heading out into the harbour in a kayak. Me on the other hand – I have to be totally honest here, I was nervous. I’ve never been in a kayak before, and I had no idea what to expect. But, as it turned out, all that worry was for naught.
Once we all arrived at the dock, and were fitted with PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices), Stan made sure we were all in securely, and that we all felt safe.
And, before too long, we were off. Amanda and Sarah shoved off first into the harbour, and then Stan and I followed behind them.
After a brief, but very useful lesson on paddling, we began to make our way down the harbour.
Our first stop was a small inlet not far from where we had left. Here, Stan gave us a hands-on science lesson. Which was great for Sarah, who happens to teach junior high biology. He showed us some of the vegetation that grew along the shores, and then quickly made his way to the starfish and sea urchins that clung to the rocks beneath our kayaks.
Before you knew it we were all sitting in kayaks with Sea Urchins in our hands. These prickly green creatures are rock hard, with spikes that poke out in all directions.
“Would you like to taste one?” Asked Stan.
The Japanese call it Uni, and it’s quite a delicacy, and a costly one at that.
Amanda and Sarah were initially both quite reluctant, but they were troopers, and agreed to give it a whirl. Heck, I even tried it. And I’m a little picky when it comes to food.
It doesn’t look great, in fact it looks the opposite of great, but I have to say it was pretty delicious. I can’t quite describe the flavour. It starts out salty and then becomes somewhat fruity by the time it makes its way down your palate.
After our snack, we then travelled to another inlet where a waterfall of fresh water poured into the Atlantic. This was as good a place as any for a photo op.
As we made our way from inlet to inlet, you could see both Amanda and Sarah’s faces light up. It was as if they couldn’t believe it was real.
One of the highlights of the trip was the Seven Sisters, a series of small sea grottos that amplify the crashing and banging of the waves to create a symphony at sea. They earned their name due to the noise they make, it’s as if they’re arguing with one another.
Our winners then demonstrated their paddling prowess by navigating their way through a sea arch – not without the careful guidance of Stan Cook, of course.
And then, before long, we made it to Freshwater Bay, where Stan Sr. was waiting in a motorboat to collect us. That boat was actually a lifeboat from the William Carson, a popular provincial passenger ferry in the 60s and 70s.
Once we made it back to the dock, we hit the road for the Ferryland Lighthouse Picnics, just fifteen minutes away from Stan’s.
What was waiting for us when we arrived at the lighthouse was nothing short of magical.
For starters, the food is incredible. The package includes a blanket, lemonade, and your choice of a delicious gourmet sandwich, salad, and desert. Both Amanda and Sarah enjoyed every morsel of it.
As we were eating, a seal popped its little head out of the water directly below us and proceeded to wow the crowd by doing the backstroke for a good ten minutes or so. Every now and then, he would dive down for a snack only to pop back up again moments later to wow us some more.
Just as the seal was winding down, a giant humpback breached to the right of us off the coast, creating a gigantic splash of white water on the surface of the ocean.
And, minutes after that, the couple to the left of us got engaged, and asked me to take their photo.
It was incredible. Absolutely incredible. You couldn’t have asked for a better picnic.
Once we finished our meals, and put our jaws back in place, it was time for me to leave our winners in peace.
Their next stops were in Trinity and Twillingate. If the first two days were any indication of what to expect, I’m sure they made out just fine.
Here’s to winning (and whales).