East Coast Summer Tales: Campfires and Whale Watching

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The “Road Trip” experience is an essential part of a Canadian summer. Blasting the stereo with your favourite tunes as you barrel down the highway to your next destination is like a summer right of passage (though not so environmentally friendly).

The way through central Nova Scotia was not scenic until roughly 30 mins south of Cheticamp where a transformation started to happen in the landscape, and I met up with the coast. Waterways appeared, and Cheticamp opened up with these rolling grassy hills overlooking cliffs that peeked over the atlantic waters.

Escaping from Halifax for a weekend was an expensive venture, costing around $500 due to gas prices and car rental and everything else but my rationale was that this might be one of my only chances for this kind of experience for awhile.

I drove the winding highway following the GPS instructions, eventually working my way into the mountainous highways. Smiling tourists touting cameras walked along the highway edges by some of the many roadside stops dotting the way up to Pleasant Bay. There are almost no sandy beaches on this route.

The harbour in Pleasant Bay was quiet and small. I snapped several shots of the  surrounding fishing boats docked in a sheltered waterfront.

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The little excursion shack contained raincoats and pants.

“Some of the other people today used them, and said they were too warm,” the lady at the ticket booth mentioned.

The captain of the boat said, “Ninety-five percent sure you will absolutely not get wet on this trip.”

Good enough for me, no rain gear it is!

Out of the harbour we sped off, out into the distance. From shore the water had looked completely calm however  half a kilometer offshore in a small boat, you really start to feel the waves.

We weren’t guaranteed a sighting because whales are wild animals, and obviously they move around. Whale watching companies make it their job to find them though. Obviously they want happy customers. “You could see five, or you could see fifty. It just depends,” the captain said on our way out.

A couple of kilometers offshore, we ran into a few whales in the distance.

The pods were traveling together in families of generally 2-3 whales and the whales were only slightly bigger then dolphins. What looked like multiple pods started to converge off in the distance as we closed in…Success.

A very social and active group of whales  jumped out of the shimmering Cape Breton waters. A red sort of meat-like mass appeared in the center of the large group which appeared to be the after-birth which comes out of the female after they give birth to a live whale. The whales sang to each other as they jumped out in mass numbers, and flapped their fins out of the water as they coasted on their side, as if waving at each other.

“Oh god,” one lady yelps getting hit by blowhole spray. “He just spat on me,” she remarked as her friend chuckled. Not two meters from our boat whales were popping out of the water then submerging again. You could see several meters down into the water.

Pilot whales are known as being particularly social animals. Perhaps the combination of this, the birth, and the sunny weather after four days of rain prompted the playfulness. Perhaps they liked us as a group or were in a more social mood. Maybe they’re as curious about us as we are of them. Or perhaps the hydrophone in our boat amplifying their sounds was causing a stir. Whatever was causing the whale’s most unusual behavior, they were clearly a happy bunch of cetaceans.

“Do you know if red tides effect the whales?”

“Not sure.”

“Do you know what they eat?”

“Squid and fish.”

“Do you know if they name each other like recent research has shown dolphin’s do when communicating?”

“Uhhhh…. hmmmmm…,” the captain replied to the questions coming at him.

“I wonder if the baby just breathes on their own or if they need help coming to the surface,” a lady asks.

I think they would just come to the surface on their own,” I reply, thinking that would make sense. It turns out the mother brings the baby to the surface for its first breath. After this first aided breath, whales will resurface to take breaths through their blowholes for the rest of their ocean lives.

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Within another few years, we may even be closer to cracking the whale communication code. Dolphin communication is one of the hot research topics right now, and also quite media friendly. Departing that large pod for the day, it was a clearly a special excursion for everyone. My study of cetaceans only prompted more and more questions but it seems clear that society has come a long way from the hunting and whaling days of our past and moved into a tourism and conservation focused approach to these animals. 

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After checking into the hostel and fixing a quick dinner, I made my way with the other guests down to the waterfront for a beach campfire. Beach campfires should be an essential ingredient of summer vacation. There’s something about the woodsmoke, flames and heat that bring you down to earth, and back to simplicity. If everyone sat around fires and told stories more often, the world might just be a better place.

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