The magic of whale watching in Newfoundland

BY Brian Clarke

21st Sep 2023 Inspire

4 min read

The magic of whale watching in Newfoundland
Join Brian Clarke as he experiences the magic of whale watching in Newfoundland with scientist and whale researcher Peter Beamish in an article from the RD Archives (June 1994)

Waiting for whales 

The June air is still. The late-evening sun is low on the distant cliffs of Newfoundland, and fingers of light splay out. Only the boat moves on the softly breathing sea; the boat and the gulls, tinsel-flickering across the hazed blue sky.
"Blow, seven o'clock. 1,000."
The clipped voice, the precise directions, come from Peter Beamish, the scientist who owns the boat. 14 heads—English, Canadian, American, German—turn. Our eyes pick out a whale's ostrich-plume of spray beneath the dark grey cliffs.
Beamish, bronzed and bearded, slips the two outboard engines into gear and opens the throttle. Ceres, his 26-foot custom-designed rigid-hull inflatable craft leaps forward like an untethered hound.
The half-mile or so takes moments. Spray hurtles past like chopped ice. Then the engines are closed off, the bow settles and again we wait. 

The humpback whale

The coast of Bonavista, Newfoundland
Close by, a huge, slightly convex, circular dish of water starts to widen. Kittiwakes and terns launch themselves into it like white lances. 
"That's where she dived. She'll show in about another two minutes."
Beamish again. He is studying animal communication, concentrating mostly on the whales along this north-eastern part of the Newfound-land coast.
Every trip out from Trinity, where he runs a scientific centre-cum-inn, is a contribution to his research, paid for by tourists like us. Beamish knows that humpback whales typically dive for around seven minutes and surface for two. This whale has been down for about five minutes already.
"Humpback. 12 o'clock. 40 metres. Wait for the blow."
I hear the blow close up. It is like the cut-short burst of steam from a huge locomotive. In the vast sea, lifting, lifting, the whale goes on and on, filling up the consciousness, blacking out the sky. 40 feet long? 50 feet?
"Oh!" "Ah!" "Isn't she huge!" "Isn't she beautiful!"
The voices are excited, then awed, taking on that pitch reserved for talk in cathedrals.
Beamish takes us right in behind her. We keep pace, easing along at around five knots. I am in the bow and can see right down the centre of the whale's back, her black sides glistening, curving out smooth and round. She looks as big as an upturned ship.
"She could swamp us with a careless roll, smash us with a blow of her flukes"
I can hear the water sluicing along her flanks, see the vortices building up behind her head, watch them turn and purl along the thin line of her wake. Though she could swamp us with a careless roll, smash us with a blow of her flukes, there is no sense of danger. She makes no move to accelerate or turn down or lose us.

A whale with wings 

Humpback whale in water
"See the arms? The arms are right below us!"
The flippers of a humpback whale can grow to 12 feet long and in the North Atlantic they are usually white. I can see one gleaming to my right and then, with a start, see the other out to the left. Megaptera—big wings—is appropriately named.
I look down through the slipping water. The arms are planing out to either side and, beneath me, are the flukes of the tail, undulating. If is a leisurely movement, though massively powered, as if by a turbine.
"She's going to dive. Wait for the tail."
Our two minutes are up. The whale eases a little to our left. Her back arches slowly, the water spilling off it in curtains, the spine gleaming, the roundness of each great vertebra picked out in scallops of light. 
And then one of the most memorable sights on earth: the tail unfurls from the surface in endless slow motion, the immense flat flukes cascading water and light, the irregular, barnacled edge only yards away.
For a moment it seems to pause; then it straightens and the underside shows. White markings, unique to every individual, are visible for an instant; and then the tail slowly slides down, melting little by little at the base. The sea rushes in, foaming; the phosphorescent arms plane down-wards; the trail of bubbles behind her dissolves to nothing; and she is gone.
"That was Barbara."
Beamish gives every whale a name while it is here. Barbara had been seen a few days before.
"She's a 40-foot female, somewhere between seven and 15 years old. She'll have come here last month with the rest of the herd—about 100—up from the Caribbean."

Translating whale song 

Beamish is a great man to be out with—intense and enthusiastic, he has been absorbed by whales for most of his professional life. Now he is using a computer to transmit signals through the water, recording what he believes are whale responses
"Humpback whales produce loud sounds at low frequencies, and can be heard for hundreds of miles"
"They produce very loud sounds at very low frequencies, and can be heard for hundreds of miles. I'm trying to understand what the sounds—especially the pauses between the sounds—might mean."

The certainty of the whale 

Humpback whale in water
All through my whale-watching trip, experiences crowd in. We see minke whales, slicing through the wave-tops like black scythes; dolphins that are aimed like bullets; painted puffins on an outcropped rock; bald eagles coiling the thermals that rise from a crag.
And we see humpbacks again and again—memorably, on my last night, a huge male erupting from the sea like the ending of the world, half his 30 tons out of the water, before crashing back down with a bomb's deep boom.
Before I went to Newfoundland I prepared myself for the possibility that all those television documentaries would dilute the experience, leave me with a sense of anti-climax. I need not have feared. 
The surfacing of a whale beside a small boat in the sea is an experience that can not be diminished. It is not only the creature's size, nor even its power and grace. It is the sense it conveys of all time continuing; of living by some other clock, more measured and certain and older than our own.
This article was taken from the RD Archives (June 1994)
Banner credit: photosbyjim
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