In August of 2020 m’lady and I hosted my brother and his wife for five nights in our new old house in Harbour Grace, Newfoundland. These were our second guests of the season (or ever), their visit having been preceded a month earlier by my mom and her boyfriend Bill who had jumped at the chance to come see the house once New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland & Labrador were merged into a single, mingleable covid bubble.
Anywho, we had been showing them around the best we could and were pretty much out of ideas when Al and Gisele suggested we join them on a puffin/whale tour so of course we jumped. Al had taken just such a tour years back with our mom and dad so we signed on with the same tour company and on August 25th we set out for Bay Bulls along the east coast of the Avalon Peninsula, arriving well before our 11:30am departure.
The boat was a two-storey affair with long plastic benches built into the open upper deck and diner-style tables set up in the indoor lower deck. We boarded and staked out a relatively social-distant bench on the upper deck (masks were not being worn). One of the crew members grabbed a mic and led us through a quick and humour-laced safety drill that weighed heavily on common sense and was delivered in a very honest good-natured monologue. Somewhere below us the unseen captain had a microphone and a sense of humour too, and their genuine back-and-forth ribbing banter was clearly designed to entertain themselves as much as we passengers.
We were told not to expect any whales as it was late in the season and they hadn’t seen any for several days, adding that we were certainly guaranteed to see puffins. I was a-okay with not seeing any whales as I had experienced a whale-watching miracle on my first kick at the can about twenty years earlier, an amazing outing that ended with our captain telling us that he had never seen anything like we had seen in his thirty years on the water and suggesting that none of us should ever go on a whaling tour again as we were sure to be disappointed in comparison.
And he was right.
That said, though I was rather interested in seeing some puffins my expectations were slam-dunked, in a good way. It turns out the four islands we were approaching was home to a half-million of the little birds, the second-largest puffin colony in the world (the biggest is in Iceland). As we neared the aptly-named Puffin Island (home to about 375,000 of the cute little dudes) we were greeted with black dots flitting around in the distance. Puffins! This was pretty much what I expected to see but then we got closer and closer to the island and soon we were surrounded on all sides by magical flying stubby penguins! They were floating all around us, taking off with log runs and madly flapping wings and then landing with a crashing sploosh! Sitting in crowds of birdy-twins one of a pair would suddenly dive in chase of a fish and pop up again in a completely different flock of floating birdy-twins.
The best was when they flew just overhead. With their big fluffy bodies being supported with stout little Opus-like wings they have to flap like bloody hummingbirds to get anywhere, and when I could see them up close and catch the glint of their eyes I pictured them as little yellow-beaked Ralph Kramdens, beleaguered yet steadfast in their daily grind. Weird, I know, but I liked ‘em a lot; identified with them even.
We chugged around Green Island (also aptly-named) and were on our way to a third when Thar She Blows! one of the crew spotted a whale and the captain wheeled us around in pursuit. It was a single humpback diving in search of food. We tracked it for twenty minutes or so and saw it four or five times before the massive mammal ended the game, bidding us farewell with a classic tail shot and a deep dive.
And you know, as meh as it was in comparison to my first whale trip, any close-up whale sighting is a mighty experience. But man, those puffins stole my heart! As the crew took turns singing us songs and the captain steered us back to shore I kept scanning the horizon not for whales but for my little birdie buddies. I suspect this tour will become one of our standard hosting excursions.