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As many as 10,000 whales swim, breach and spout along Newfoundland and Labrador’s 29,000 kilometres of coast each year.SUPPLIED

Whether you see them from land or sea, a close encounter with a whale is an extraordinary experience

Icebergs aren’t the only visitors to Newfoundland and Labrador that make their way to the surrounding waters year after year. The province’s other gargantuan guests are the whales.

“Just like people, they come here for the fish,” says Jill Curran, owner of Maxxim Vacations and founder of Lighthouse Picnics, which provides gourmet lunches for hikers and whale watchers from a lighthouse where her great grandfather was the keeper.

“There are lots of boat tours, [but] what some people don’t realize is that you can also whale watch from land. Our lighthouse in Ferryland is about an hour’s drive from St. John’s, and it’s so far out into the ocean that we see whales in season on a daily basis,” Curran says.

She points out that Cape St. Mary’s Ecological Reserve is also nearby, where you can see whales and one of the world’s most accessible and largest gatherings of seabirds – a double whammy.

“Go another hour south and there’s a beach, St. Vincent’s, with really deep water. You can see whales just a few hundred feet from the shore,” Curran adds.

Whale-watchers can get great views by boat, kayak or from the shore.SUPPLIED

Intelligent mammals with superpowers

As many as 10,000 whales swim, breach and spout along Newfoundland and Labrador’s 29,000 kilometres of coast every year. They include the world’s largest population of humpback whales and 21 other species of whales and dolphins, such as minke, sperm, orca and blue.

If you’ve ever seen a blue whale, you’ll know it. They are typically between 21 and 27 metres long, or about the length of six midsized cars or 15 grown adults standing on each other’s heads.

One of the most common ways to see whales is on a boat tour, many of which are available around the province. Other modes of whale watching include kayaking or hiking up a hill for a view from the land. It’s a captivating pursuit not just because of the massive mammals’ size, but also because they are such interesting animals.

Like humans, the brains of whales contain specialized cells associated with recognizing, remembering, reasoning, perceiving, communicating, adapting to change and understanding and solving problems.

Whales and dolphins also appear to have emotions, and they can produce sounds to communicate underwater. They also have a superpower we don’t possess: echolocation, the ability to bounce sound to perceive surroundings with more detail and accuracy than mere vision or hearing can provide.

Though we can’t know what whales are thinking, people who have seen them in person say the feeling is something extraordinary.

“Watching a humpback whale play is one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had,” says photographer and writer Tom Cochrane. “It feels like you’re connecting with a creature that’s so much bigger than you, yet somehow you feel a connection.”

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‘They bounce around like children’

Whales can be viewed on both sides of the island of Newfoundland and along the Labrador coast, Cochrane says. “If you’re lucky, you’ll just be walking along the shore and there will be a whale.”

Whales come close to the shore when capelin, small fish from the smelt family, come to Newfoundland and Labrador’s beaches to spawn. Whales come in close to feed on them.

“The expression is, ‘The capelin are rolling,’” Cochrane says. “In July and August [the whales] get really playful, they bounce around like children.”

Skipper Bob Bartlett, owner of Trinity Eco-Tours on Newfoundland’s east coast, confirms that whales like to perform.

“They’ll put on a show. They’ll come right up to the boat and slap [their tails],” he says. “It still thrills me. Whenever they leave in September to go to warmer waters, I can’t wait for them to get back.”

Learn more about these fascinating creatures at Great Whales, Up Close and Personal, at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. The exhibit, sponsored by Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism, opens summer 2021, and runs until March 20, 2022.


Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio with Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.