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.
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.
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.
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.