The Bay of Fundy, with a coast shared by Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, has the highest tides in the world. Small and relatively remote, Brier Island sits at the mouth of the bay, on the tip of a thin spit called Digby Neck. Due to its location and natural beauty, Brier Island is one of the top places in Canada to go whale watching.
During the spring, you can expect to see fin whales, minke whales and harbour porpoises. In summer, you may see humpback whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins. There are some rarer sightings too: the occasional right whale or pilot whale. All Bay of Fundy whale-watch operators stick to a code of ethics that governs how they interact with the whales.
We chose Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours for our whale watching tour because of their excellent reputation. Our tour guide, and lifelong resident of the island, Penny Graham advised as we began our tour: “Whale watching is just like a jungle safari. Remember that we are visiting their environment, not the other way around”. She also added that there was no guarantee we would see any whales at all.
Our visit in early July happened just as the whale population begins its spring migration from the breeding grounds off the US coast to the to the rich feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy. Although we knew that the best months for whale watching are August and September, we had been told that one day earlier, the crew had seen a very playful Minke whale, who put on a great show beside the boat. We hoped to meet her, or see a humpback. And so we waited, and watched…
A typical whale watching tour can be from 2-4 hours in length, but after nearly 3 hours of squinting at the sea, our group had seen nothing more than a few seabirds. My daughter and I took out a deck of cards and played, appropriately, Go Fish to pass the time. My daughter plotted our journey on this excellent map, which I downloaded here, in advance of our trip.
Suddenly, one of the passengers stood up and pointed toward the horizon, shouting excitedly. We all stood up…but it was nothing. By the time 3 hours had passed, we were so desperate to see a whale that every wave and every shadow looked like a whale. But each time we were disappointed. The sombre mood on the boat was palpable. It was clear that there were no whales coming out to play.
Just after 3:00pm, the crew began taking orders for hot drinks and giving out cookies. As I sipped on what is possibly the most welcome and delicious hot chocolate I have ever tasted (everything tastes so good on the sea!) I remembered what the girl in the office had told us when we checked in. A hot drink and a snack would be served on the way back into shore. “How’s everyone?”, said Peggy in a loud, unconvincingly cheerful voice: “such a nice day to be out, isn’t it?”. You could tell Penny was disappointed too. And ready to call it a day.
But then, just as hope was lost and we were about to give up, the shout came from Penny. “Whale!” – and the next stage of our journey began. Styrofoam cups were quickly collected as we raced and stumbled from one side of the boat to the other, trying to get a view of the two fin whales which were diving and swimming in the water near the boat.
Then, out of nowhere two other boats appeared. Tour operators on Brier Island are close knit. They share information with each other, benefiting all, but are careful not to confuse or disturb the whales. For several minutes three boats were in view, each tour group hoping that the whale would come up close to their boat. Whale roulette!
Our tour guide, Penny became animated, telling us facts about the fin whale. There was an exhilarating moment when the fin whale breached. Penny was exhilarated too. She said that in all her years of whale watching on the Bay of Fundy, she has never seen a fin whale’s tail… until now!
On the way home, Penny took out some artifacts to show the passengers. Whale baleen, plankton..and whale lice! She answered all our whale-related questions with ease. As we came back into shore, Penny thanked our group and suggested that perhaps we learned one important thing today: sometimes Whale watching on Brier Island is all about patience!
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based writer. Helen and her daughter were guests of Mariner Cruises Whale and Seabird Tours