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Sunrise at Cape Spear: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailedness be damned

I’m not exactly what you’d call a morning person.

Wait. Who are we kidding? As a lifelong night owl, this pretty much sums me up after waking too early in the wee hours:

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…and that’s on a good day

Growing up, my poor dad was tasked with dragging my grumpy arse out of bed every morning and getting me to the breakfast table before school. No small feat, lemme tell you. Without fail, getting a rise out of me took multiple trips upstairs, taking his life in his hands each time.

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Then there was my sister. All giddy and gay, skipping down the stairs each day, greeting everyone with a cheery “good morning” before tucking into whatever dad had whipped up, served with a steady side of death glares from my end of the table.

Needless to say, I haven’t been witness to many sunrises.

But there are times that being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is over-rated. Having the chance to watch the day begin at Cape Spear is one of them.

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You see, as the easternmost point in the North America, the sun rises first here. And who doesn’t like being first? There’s a reason Newfoundland has its own time zone, after all. We’re always ahead.

After bumbling around in the dark to get ready, Cape Spear is only about a 15 minute drive from downtown St. John’s, as long as you and the moose steer clear of each other. Although they’re big, they’re also fast — which I am not at this hour — and you never really know when they might pop out of the bushes to make an appearance in front of you on the road. So just try and avoid them. They always win.

Morris The Moose

Arse on dat!

While you many not be the only person who’s had the idea to take in the show from these rugged cliffs, Cape Spear isn’t ever going to feel crowded. Here you can stand with your back to the rest of the continent. The next thing east is Ireland.

CapeSpear from Signal Hill

Looking across to Cape Spear from Signal Hill.

It’s a dramatic and striking span of rugged coast. Lying before two lighthouses, with ocean on three sides, there’s nothing but horizon stretching out in front of you, waves crashing against the shore and more often than not, wind whipping around you. At least in the summer it’s warm. But when Mother Nature’s in a bad mood, you’re gonna feel her wrath out here more than most places.

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Cliffs. Lots of cliffs.

CapeSpearLighthouse

Love me a lighthouse. This is the original.

Cape Spear Lighthouse 2

…and this is the newer house with the operating light.

At the right time of year, it’s also a prime location for passing icebergs and playful humpbacks — this is smack in the middle of Mutt and Jeff’s stomping grounds.

As someone who has four sound machine apps on their phone and snoozes every night to the sound of waves, everything about the scene, coupled with the fresh, salty air, is enough to lull me back to sleep, but before long, the show gets underway. Things start to lighten off in the distance, with hues of pink and purple breaking up deep blue that’s carpeted the sky around us.

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The show begins

It’s then that those first trickles of orange light start to paint the sky like brush strokes. As that bounces off the clouds, a glow rises from where the sky meets the sea: the pink star of the show has arrived.

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The massive Oceanex Connaigra for scale.

The light at this hour is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Everything is aglow and awash in warm pastels. It’s a dream scene for an impressionist artist and an incredible sight to behold. For the most part, it’s yours alone. You know this is more than a mental picture that won’t leave you any time soon; it’s been an experience you’ll carry with you.

Beams of sunrise

Love how this little vessel lined up

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Postcard worthy

Needless to say, I’m not thinking about the time. This show is more than worth what it’s cost me in sleep.

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Bushy-haired & bleary-eyed…crooked glasses & all.

Humpback Whale

Snorkeling with the gentlest of giants

Humpback Whale underwater portrait

Not my whale…just a lovely stock shot that closely captures the image in my mind.

I’ve never been a big fan of snorkels.

When I’m diving, I find it’s a bit of a nuisance to have it hanging off my mask. I do own one, but it’s flexible enough to tuck into the pocket of my BCD, ready to haul out for a surface swim if needed, but otherwise, I’m happy to forget it’s there.

I was once warned that a snorkel can quickly become a straw and — no surprise here — I’ve had that happen just about every time I’ve used one. There’s nothing like an unexpected mouthful of seawater to get you sputtering.

But there are times when I can get past all that. And the chance to snorkel with humpbacks is definitely one of them.

We headed out with Ocean Quest in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland last summer to do this, but unfortunately didn’t get to see our large finned friends while we were in the water. Early on we’d come across a group of humpbacks feeding at a capelin buffet, but we left them alone to eat in peace. We also had a young humpback put on a playful show of breaches for us off the side of our boat, but waves and proximity to the rocky shore kept us from getting in for a swim with him.

So, once the humpbacks made their way back to the Rock this year, albeit later than usual, we headed out again.

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Is it just me or is there a wee orca resemblance happening here?

Snorkeling in the North Atlantic is not for the faint of heart. The water is cold and it can be rough. There are swells, there are waves. On this tour, you sit on the side of a zodiac and hold onto a rope to keep you in place as you drop over wave crests and have the bejesus bounced out of you  while the wind whips by. Our guide called it the ‘Newfie roller coaster’ and I happen to think it’s worth the price of admission alone. We hooted and hollered our way across the waves, though a few ‘come-from-aways’ (CFAs) on board didn’t quite share our enthusiasm for it.
At all.

One fine bump sent my sister arse over tea kettle over the side. She was fins up, but managed to hang on to the rope and get a good facewashing in the process. Anyone else, we’d had to have swung around and headed back a ways to pluck them out of the water. But Stimpy’s hard core.

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It kinda looked like this…

It wasn’t long before we saw the distinct humpback spouts off the bow in the distance. These babies can spray up to 13 ft. in the air, so if you scan the horizon, they’re not hard to spot.

Once we got up close to our first whale, the CFAs were a bit discombobulated and in a bit of a whiny snarl trying to find their gear and get it on. They took so long the whale was gone by the time they were ready to go.

We headed off again and soon enough a spout led us to another humpback. This one appeared in the mood to play, so over the side we went.

Now as I mentioned, the water is cold. But as long as you’ve got a wetsuit on, it’s not bad at all, except for that first trickle that makes its way into your suit at the top of the zipper and creeps down your back. Once that’s over, you’re off to the races.

Face down and snorkel up, I started to swim in the whale’s direction.

I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to look down into open water with no line or bottom to help gauge a frame of reference. That’s obviously not an issue in tropical waters when you have 100 feet of visibility before you. However, anyone who’s given themselves over to the North Atlantic knows all too well that’s not what we’re dealing with here. You have no idea how deep the water is, what might be below or any sense of what’s what other than an endless wall of blue-green.

Just how much ocean do some people need?

All the same, floating on the surface is a quiet and calm place to be.

That is when your fellow snorkelers aren’t swimming into you and pawing across your back. Just how much ocean do some people need?

We soon realized this whale wanted nothing to do with us and had dove, so we headed back to the bateau.

Dear readers, I’m not going to lie, getting back in the boat is hands down the hardest part of this adventure. You’ll be tired from kicking and swimming against the swells, so pulling yourself up over the side of a zodiac, which isn’t easy at the best of times, becomes even more of a challenge.

Let’s just say, it ain’t pretty.

But thanks to my smart ass dad, who asked our guide (thanks, Matt!) to snap a pic of me trying to get back in, we have this little gem.

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And this one.

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No kids, that’s not a beached humpback on the boat.

Just a stellar example of a graceful exit.

That spectacle behind us, we soon caught a glimpse of the distinct back of another humpie cutting through the surface of the water. Unlike me, they are the picture of grace, glistening as they go.

Once the captain said the word, we plunged back into the water.

Over the side again

As one of the first in, I was out ahead, swimming in the whale’s direction. At first I saw nothing beyond the blanket of blue. But as I swam on, I noticed the water’s hue start to lighten and turn turquoise in front of me. A moment later, the end of the whale’s white pectoral fin came into view. I couldn’t believe it. There she was. It took a moment to register what I was seeing and I was in utter awe to be floating next to this incredible creature. I started talking to her through my snorkel. I couldn’t help but tell her how beautiful she was.

She was facing away from me and appeared to be about to swim away, so I gave my fins a few flutters to move in her direction. A second later, she all but turned on a dime and soon we were facing each other. Hovering about 8 ft. in front of me, and about the same distance down (it’s hard to gauge) — she didn’t stir. Nor did I. There was no one else around. I couldn’t believe I had this whale all to myself.

Without a movement on her part, she started to rise up slowly towards the surface. For a moment I thought I was about to have a humpback head under my belly, and I considered trying to move myself back out of her way. But having seen her agility and knowing how self-aware humpbacks are, I stayed put. This gentle giant was only going to get as close as she wanted to.

Stillest of moments

As effortlessly as she rose, she turned, the movement majestic. Her head now to my left and her body perpendicular to mine, I could see every inch of her peaceful presence — the bumpy tubercles on her head, each long groove running along her throat, her wing-like fins, her small dorsal and the many notches on her fluke. It is a picture that will forever be frozen in my mind.

We stayed there for some time with curious eyes, until one slow, effortless stroke of her tail took her back into the blue. Without a sound, it wrapped around her; it was as if she’d never been there.

It was the most serene and surreal moment of my life. I’ve heard others say that once you look into the eyes of a whale, you’re forever changed.

I can’t imagine how you’d come away from it any other way.

 

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The zipper goes in front, right?

 

whelfie

Who says whales don’t have legs?

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It’s been almost a year since “I missed it.”

It was a beautiful day in the middle of last July when a group of us decided to head out on the water in search of whales.

The humpbacks had returned to Newfoundland from the Dominican Republic to feed and fatten up at the capelin buffet before heading back south for the winter, and the waters were teeming with them. My social media feeds were full of beautiful whale tail shots and breaches. While the odds were in our favour of seeing some ourselves, I wasn’t about to hold my breath.

I was a whale repellant, after all.

I’d lost count of how many times I’d gone whale watching over the years, only to see none. Actually, that’s a lie. I’d managed to have one humpback encounter. That’s right, one. But he hadn’t come handy; he chose to stay clear of us and spent an hour playing with another tour boat, popping up to look at passengers leaning over the side before swimming underneath the catamaran to do the same on the other side. We had to settle for watching from a distance. Good times.

Now, if friends or family went out in the boat without me? Oh, they’d see more whales than you could count. And it seemed every one had a story of watching whales off Cape Spear. Except, of course, yours truly.

Song sung blue

I’d even heard humpbacks underwater while diving in Hawaii a few years earlier, but hadn’t laid eyes on one. Their voice travels when they sing, so they may not have been as close as they sounded, but even if they were, sharing a tune wasn’t in the cards.

When friends came to Newfoundland from Grand Rapids in 2013 specifically to see whales, I deliberately didn’t go out on the whale watching tour with them.

“You don’t want me on your boat,” I told them.

So that’s where things stood last July as we set out under the bluest of skies from Bay Bulls with O’Briens Boat Tours.

Capt. Joe announced that there was a free Iceberg Beer to be had for whoever spotted the first whale spout. I was already scanning the horizon and soon enough eyed the distinct spray at 11 o’clock.

“There she blows,” I hollered.

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It’s hard to beat beer in a blue bottle made from 25,000 year old iceberg water.

Beer in hand, this trip was already shaping up to be better than most.

We weren’t long out of the harbour when we found ourselves alongside three humpbacks feeding at the surface. I was mesmerized, in awe and moved all at once. These gentle giants were unfazed by us being there. They were mellow and kept coming closer, surfacing next to the boat and swimming under it, their white pectoral fins turning the water a beautiful turquoise as they went.

11 o’clock, 2 o’clock, soon we were surrounded by clusters of feeding humpbacks. There was even a momma and a calf. Leaning over the side of the lower deck, I talked away to them, hoping to have the chance to make eye contact. Joe said they respond to the cheers and singing, so we made noise every time they dove and showed us their beautiful flukes.

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Majestic whale tail

We floated in place a long time and eventually had to carry on with the tour. Most of our finned friends had dove beneath the surface and after a few minutes of waiting for them to reappear, the captain revved the engine as we set out for the bird sanctuary on Gull Island.

And with that, it happened.

Two humpbacks burst from the water and breached over my shoulder while I had my back turned.

My friend Sue Bailey had just switched on her camera to capture some video for a travel story a moment before and I was about to give her some of the live-on-location foolishness that often documents our globetrotting jaunts when the boat erupted. I quickly looked around and caught the two whales on their way down.

“Oh my god. Oh my god. And I missed it,” I cried.

But really, I hadn’t. When we looked at Sue’s video, it was all there. We couldn’t believe it! The camera didn’t playback with sound, so I was worried what kind of f-bombs I might have dropped in the madness of the moment, as the video was being shot for Canadian Press. As it turns out, there were none. Another wonder!

A moment later, a third whale breached.

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Mike Wert’s beauty shot of the third breacher

To say we were giddy with glee would be an understatement.

Back on shore, Sue sent the video off to her editor and before long I had a tweet from a friend telling me the story was on the Globe and Mail’s website. Then another saying it was on Yahoo.ca. The next day it was on Canada AM and then the National. From there it took off. Sue was interviewed by CBC News and VOCM in St. John’s. Our whales were all over local and national television and radio. Online, they were front page on the Huffington Post Canada. Friends around the world messaged me to tell me where they’d seen the video. We even made the CBS Nightly News. This went on for some time. Even this past winter word is the double breach was the topic of conversation in a Dublin pub.

Better than the Banff Squirrel?

One fine chap on Twitter said our #whelfie was an even better photobomb than the Banff Squirrel. Those are big words considering how cute he is.

Now, the whales are making the social media rounds once again. Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism has dubbed this Whale Week and has produced a wonderful video of Joe telling the story of our #whelfie.

It’s one of five beautiful whale tales that’s being shared, as of course is Sue’s viral video.

Who says whales don’t have legs?

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it, but every time someone tags me in a post about it or tweets about it, I have another look and laugh. It just never gets old.

That ‘helllllooooooo’ makes me howl. Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism posted this unedited version with more colourful language that captures the ruckus on board after the breach, with everyone sputtering a mile a minute all at once. Gold.

There’s rarely a dull moment when Sue and I get together, and while we’ve long joked about our spaziness, having it go viral took the cake.

In journalism, there’s an old adage: Report the news. Don’t become the news. We kind of blew that out of the water this time around.

But given that it captured the end of my whale repelling days with the biggest of splashes, I’m okay with that.

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A giddy crew back on dry land