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Learning the art of cod splitting at Prime Berth Heritage Centre

11 Oct 2011 by Candice Walsh in Fishing , Whale Watching and Culture
Region: Central

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Of all my travels around Newfoundland this summer, visiting Prime Berth Heritage Centre in Twillingate was one of my most memorable experiences. An interactive, interpretative centre created by David Boyd as a tribute to the culture and heritage of his fishing forefathers, Prime Berth is hard to miss as you're driving across the causeway: its massive whale skeleton display and giant mannequins are likely to grab your attention.

David Boyd says he was destined for a career at sea. Despite today's fishery being an entirely different scene than before the cod moratorium of 1992, Boyd developed a love for the fishermen's lifestyle. In fact, he left his teaching profession to pursue the open waters full-time. Nowadays, when he isn't fishing, he's hosting cod splitting demonstrations and guided fishing tours on the Atlantic Ocean.

I showed up just in time for some cod splitting. Boyd ushered me and the other travellers into his small shed, where all the tools of his trade are laid out museum-style. He directed me to stand next to the buckets of blubber, and then told us a bit about his background before moving onto the fish.

In one deft, skilled movement, Boyd cracked off the head of the cod and slit its belly from gill to dorsal fin. I struggled to hide my horror as its insides spewed out onto the table, but Boyd wasn't the least bit discouraged, and his audience cheered him on. It's clear Boyd has profound respect for the trade, and no part of the cod goes wasted: the liver is used to dissolve into oil for (you guessed it) cod liver oil, and even the tiny ivory otolith ear bones which give the cod balance are used to make handmade earrings. Yep, you can buy them at the Prime Berth gift shop, and they're special because it's guaranteed that both bones come from the same cod. After an educational session, Boyd flays the cod open and sprinkles its body with salt to keep it fresh. All in a day's work!

We were given free range of the Prime Berth grounds, including the opportunity to get up close to the restored sei whale skeleton. Boyd found the dead whale a few years ago while fishing, and once the Department of Fisheries and Oceans decided they had no use for it, Boyd decided to take matters into his own hands. He left it on a deserted island for three years and let nature run its course, then brought it back to its new home in Twillingate. It's the only sei whale skeleton in Canada.

The museum with its moose skull marking the front doorway documents the skeleton restoration process, along with a massive collection of cultural and local artefacts celebrating the fishing tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador. Old nets, bottles used for candles, boxes formerly containing explosives, and even century-old newspaper clippings adorn the small building.

Boyd, an apparent amalgamation of personalities, is also a poet. His poem I'm a Fisherman (which he recited for us at the end of the presentation) sums things up nicely: "But I care not much for earthly wealth/For I've heard the call of the sea/Her salty lips have kissed my brow/She has whispered-free, free, free!"