st. john's / witless bay

This morning we headed south on the Avalon Peninsula to the beautifully named Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, hoping to see icebergs, whales and birds. (Newfoundland is famous for its place names. The Avalon Peninsula alone sports towns called Dildo, Heart's Content and Tickle Cove, among many others.)

Witless Bay is a group of four rocky islands just off the shore, about 25 kms south of St. John's. On our way down, as soon as we spotted the bay, we could see a few icebergs from the road. It's really a surprise the first time you spot them - shining white and bright blue in the middle of the bay.

We had some trouble finding a boat tour operator, and now we realize that's because many of the smaller ones haven't opened for business yet. We're a little ahead of the tourist season. We followed a sign down to a dock, but it seemed deserted, although there was a boat in the water.

We asked at a nearby coffee shop, and the owner said she'd ring them up. She made a call, put me on the phone. Another woman gave me a man's name and number and told me to call him. Everyone was super-friendly, but it was a bit mysterious, like I was arranging some sort of shady deal.

The man who I called asked how many people we were, and could we wait an hour, which was perfect, since we were in a coffee shop and hungry. As it turns out, the guys who run this boat-tour company are carpenters all year, and they take off July and August to do the tours. One of them left work to come over and get us.

We had a lunch in an adorable little place, with huge windows overlooking the bay. You could see icebergs in the bay, and the islands that form the Witless Bay Reserve.

After we ate, we met a guy named Ray on the dock. He gave us big orange jumpsuits that double as insulation and life preserver, which we wrestled on over our clothes. It was a beautiful day - sparkling sun and calm water. It was just Ray driving the boat and us, an open boat that seats maybe 6 or 8, tops. That's the upside of traveling a off-season.

I know it should be no surprise, but Ray sounded like a stereotype of a Newfie. I would almost think he was someone putting on a Newfie accent. It took me a couple of minutes to get used to it, but it's a great sound. I hear the Celtic in it, and also bits of New England.

First we went out to the icebergs, which are closer than the islands. They're so beautiful! We saw icebergs in Alaska, but that was a very different setting, an ice cove with huge walls and shelves of ice. Seeing these miniature ice mountains floating out in the middle of a bay, ringed by houses, boats and greenery all around, was pretty amazing. Ray told us that a few months earlier, the whole bay would be full of icebergs, changing size and shape as they flow south, melting and breaking up along the way.

Ray also said we were early for whales, that whales usually begin to be seen in Witless Bay and the St. John's area in early July, often lasting until September. He described the bay full of all kinds of whales, to the point where you can see them from land. Several people and guidebooks said whales can be seen from June to September, so I'm trying to not get too disappointed yet. But if I go home without seeing whales, I will be.

After driving around the icebergs for a while, we headed out towards the islands. They are rocky outcroppings with some scrubby grass and shrubs, but as you approach them you realize the rocks are completely covered in birds. Thousands - hundreds of thousands! - of birds.

There are mainly puffins, kittiwakes (a kind of gull) and murres. The murres are beautiful - they look like miniature penguins.

Ray was knowledgeable about the birds, their habits, who eats what, who is seen when. There are no other land animals on these islands - the birds' natural predators are other birds, such as eagles (who don't nest there but come to feed) and gulls. We could see hundreds of nests, as well as holes that are the openings to puffins' underground nests. They are all mostly marine birds, and only come on land to mate and breed.

During World War II the bird population declined from all the oil in the water, and in the 1950s there were only a few thousand left, total. But the islands have been protected since 1962, when the population started to grow again. They've also benefited from the collapse of the fishing industry in the early 1990s: birds used to get caught in the nets. Now they are all thriving.

On every rock ledge, on every crevice and nook, there is a bird. Thick clouds of birds fly near the rocks. And all along the surface of the water, low flying birds are splashing the water. You hear hundreds of little thwacks as their wings flutter on the surface.

We drove past all four islands, getting very close to the rocks so we had a very good view. We spotted one gull with a few chicks - tiny fluffy grey balls with legs, wobbling on the rocks. Later on there will be thousands of chicks, and hundreds of other birds trying to eat them.

Before the islands were protected, locals hunted the birds all the time, and also gathered their eggs. Ray said now there are two times a year when hunting is permitted, with strict limits. He said locals eat murres, which they call ters (sp?). "We got a different name for all de birds." I asked him what the bird is like to eat. He said the old joke is you put the ter in the oven with a beach rock. Bake it for four hours, when it's done, throw the bird out and eat the rock, it will be more tender.

To me the most notable part of this bird reserve was the sheer number of birds. Several times we thought we were looking at gravel or striated rock, only to realize it was actually a huge crowd of birds.

On the way back, Ray regaled us with stories of the bay full of whales. Ah well. Here's hoping.

After the boat ride, on Ray's recommendation, we drove further south, to La Manche Provincial Park. We hiked down a flat, wooded trail next to a marshy lake. We saw a sizeable beaver dam and tracks that must have been moose, and eventually came to a waterfall, but we never found our supposed destination. There used to be a remote fishing village here, until it was washed away by a tidal surge. The government helped people relocate, but there are remains of the village and an old bridge, somewhere on the trail. We never found it, but we had a nice hike without it.

We were starved by this time, and stopped at a roadside place for - what else? - fried seafood. This will clearly be the mainstay of our eating habits here.

I think we're going to a pub tonight to hear music, although Allan is sleeping right now. (You can't imagine how many sentences I can end that way.) Tomorrow morning we'll visit Cape Spear before heading towards Clarenville on our way to the Bonavista Peninsula.

Random note I forgot to post yesterday. In the Signal Hill visitors' centre, I learned that St. John's was attacked by German U-boats on more than one occasion, including the sinking of a passenger ferry. Canadian readers probably all know that, but I don't think I knew that U-boats had ever actually fired on North America. I found that quite amazing - both that it happened and that I didn't know!

Pictures of Witless Bay are here.

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