I am finally going whale watching this year. I have a car and I can almost drive it. Please note, driving a standard in the hilly town of St. John’s is mighty scary. Please stay back if you see me.
I know nothing about whales, but this is what I have gathered from all the literature I am reading, or by talking to people I have met and asking them questions, which, as Ms Judith Keenan ( book trailer guru ) will tell you, is my fave thing to do.)
At least 15 species of whales will come by in the spring and summer months to feed in the Newfoundland waters. They are coming up after spending their winters down south where they calve – and they are arriving hungry. The humpbacks (not sure about the other species) haven’t eaten all winter, so they are coming up to feed off the capelin (caplin) – a small smelt-like fish which lives in plentiful numbers off Newfoundland’s coast.
The reason we see whales more often in the spring and early summer off Newfoundland’s Avalon coast is that the whales are close to shore. They are following the capelin, and the capelin have come in to shore to “roll.”
The capelin roll is quite a site I am told, as millions of fish “roll in” with the waves and onto the beaches to spawn. The waves are literally made of fish and it is common for people to be on the beach with buckets and rubber boots, ready to snap them up for a fish-fry meal.
That is if the whales don’t get them first. Here’s a humpback caught on video only 30 feet from shore at Middle Cove Beach – just 15 minutes away from downtown St. John’s. Middle cove is a popular spot for bonfires and picnics for St. John’s residents, and the capelin roll here too.
As for when the capelin roll – it’s usually mid-June to mid-July but last year they didn’t roll until August 2009.
The humpbacks will continue north, following the capelin, and once fed and full, will swim out into the ocean, farther away from shoreline and camera’s view, to return back to their winter birthing grounds.
But while they are here, you may have encounters such as this one while kayaking with humpbacks in Mobile, Newfoundland, Canada. Yes, I believe “Holy shit” is the proper expression to say if one of these surfaced near your kayak.
Here are some of the whale species that you might see here in Newfoundland.
Minke Whales – arrive earliest in the season, they are here by June, and also leave the earliest. Minkes are very shy and unpredictable and smaller than the Humpbacks and Fins.
This is a baleen whale. Baleen is the stuff that hangs in place of upper teeth in this type of whale’s mouth – think Finding Nemo. The whales feed by filtering fish through these long fibrous plates. Here’s an interesting fact – baleen was once one of the products that made whaling hunting so profitable – it’s a hard yet flexible fibrous substance and was used as the “stays” in Victorian corsets and early bras – to keep women nice and rigid. I used to work at the Ontario Science Centre, where we had a piece of baleen on display at the Health and Beauty demonstration. We would corset up volunteers good and tight, to make sure they weren’t “loose.”
Back to whales. A Minke will average about 16 feet long, is the smallest baleen whale, and will not show its tail when diving. You can see them from the shore in the summer and fall as they feed on capelin, herring and mackerel.
Here’s a minke seen by a whale watching group in Bay Bull’s Newfoundland.
Humpback Whales - arrive from the Caribbean in the early spring to feed. They can be spotted mid-June to mid-November and arrive super hungry. Humpback whales are huge and can grow to 50 feet long and weigh up to 40 tons.
Here’s a video of a humpback showing off his tail (in Bay Bulls again.)
The humpback, like the minke, is also a baleen whale, eating up to 2 tons of fish and planktonic crustaceans a day, in 2 to 4 meals.
Humpbacks are the bales that breach – that’s the word for used for when whales jump out of the water and crash on their sides. No one knows why whales breach – some think it’s a way to get barnacles and parasites off their hides.
Some think the whales are actually “showing off” and many people I’ve spoken to said that they’re sure they are doing that – breaching multiple times if a boat is near.
Fin slapping is another popular whale activity. Though you may not see them breach, you may see the Humpbacks slap their flippers on the surface, roll over, and play.
Humpbacks are also the whales who show off big fan tails when they dive.
Fin Whales are the second biggest whale after the Blue Whale and will arrive late July. These are less acrobatic, but at 80-feet long, they will outsize most tour boats. A fin whale’s back is black and its underside is white. Their blows are high and straight – reaching 20 feet. They travel in groups of 2 – 8, are fast swimmers and are generally a bit farther off shore.
These whale watchers get so close to a fin whale they are rendered speechless for a few seconds.
The Pilot whale is Newfoundland’s only toothed whale. These whales thrive on the abundance of squid in the southeast coasts and like to travel in a pod. You’ll see pilot whales, known as potheads to locals, from early May through October.
Here’s a pod of pilot whales chasing squid at King’s Point, NL
The Harbour Porpoise - is the smallest of the whales and is called a “puffin pig” locally because of the grunting sound it makes while breathing. Usually seen alone or in small groups of 3 to 5 playing and spinning amongst each other.
It’s skin is dark grey on the back and speckled white underneath with a rounded head with no beak. The shy animals are listed as “threatened” on the Canadian Endangered Species List.
You might also spot an Orca – in fact the 1977 eco-cult film Orca was filmed in Newfoundland. These whales travel in pods and can be spotted year round.
Orcas have teeth and are predatory animals – they hunt seals, salmon and other large fish and may even attack other whales including the much larger fins and humpbacks. They are very curious and will often come quite close to a boat – like these orcas din in Quirpon, NL. More “Holy Shit.”
Other whales you might see are the occasional Beluga or Sperm Whale, though these are less common.
Excited yet? Here are a few companies that will take you whale watching.
Stay tuned for my whale watching newfoundland report.