Newfoundland one colourful character
CAPE BROYLE, Newfoundland & Labrador -- "That's human blood dripping off those beaks," warns guide Stanley Cook as three Atlantic puffins with orangey red-tipped bills fly low across the bows of our sea kayaks.
When I protest that these stumpy seabirds are adorable, Cook shakes his head.
"Don't be fooled," he deadpans. "They'll go straight for your throat, those aggressive little beasts."
I roll my eyes and dig my paddle into the charcoal-grey waters off Cape Broyle.
Although Newfoundland's provincial bird may not be aiming for my throat, this rocky shore south of St. John's, with its humpback whales and millions of seabirds, is doing a number on my heart. I have seen plenty of rocky shores in my travels, viewed lots of wildlife and met legions of welcoming locals, but no place has enthralled me the way this wild coast has.
I begin exploring Canada's far-east coast during a two-hour O'Brien's Whale and Bird Tour that departs from Bay Bulls, about 30 km south of St. John's. Our destination is Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, home to over five million seabirds.
Perky guide Deirdre Williams sings rousing, "I'm proud to be a Newfoundlander-"type songs as we motor to Gull Island. Once there, the captain edges us close to steep cliffs where thousands of puffins mill around grassy burrows, common murre nest ("We locals call them 'turrs.' Or 'dinner'," Williams says) and kittiwakes swirl in the air.
We head for open water and a humpback whale appears. Williams tells us humpbacks are attracted to rambunctious boats and before you can say "tourists acting stupidly" we're waving our arms and yelling. The whale rewards us with 45 minutes of up-close flipper-slapping and lob-tailing.
O'Brien's tour is the aquatic highlight of this coast for me, and the Colony of Avalon, an archeological dig of a 17th-century British settlement 75 km south of St. John's, is the historical high point. I visit the museum that's chock full of artifacts, then walk past building foundations, cobblestone streets and "North America's first flush toilets," according to guide Judy Watch. (She explains that tides clean out the rock privies.)
Lunch awaits us at the end of a 25-minute walk from the colony to Ferryland Lighthouse, built in 1869. Here, Lighthouse Picnic's owners Jill Curran (the great-great granddaughter of one of the original lighthouse keepers) and Sonia O'Keefe hand me a picnic blanket and basket. I find a green patch overlooking the sea and tuck in to crab cakes and strawberry fool, washed down with lemonade.
It's a close encounter with the sea (and those blood-thirsty puffins) when I join Stan Cook Sea Kayak Adventures in Cape Broyle. With Cook in the lead we paddle into sea caves nicknamed Dragon's Throat and Seven Sisters for the moan-y, groan-y sounds they emit, and alongside the Cliffs of Insanity (Cook's description, of course).
When a humpback whale surfaces, then dives, not four metres from my kayak, I'm terrified, then delighted. When I recover enough to speak, I ask Cook what he made of the surprise.
"I thought sure we were dead," he laughs.