Newfoundland: Swimming with Whales!

“Giver’ til ya shiver!” exclaimed Rick Stanley as I walked out of customs in the St.John’s airport. I had just arrived in Newfoundland, Canada after a long day of traveling! Rick Stanley is the owner of Ocean Quest Adventures, an adventure and eco-tourism tourism company based in South Conception Bay, Newfoundland that provides their guests with high quality close encounters with nature. I stayed with Rick and his wife Debbie at their dive resort situated on the pristine Conception Bay South along with their other guests during the week. After Rick gave me a tour of their resort, I met explorers Jill Heinerth and Sabine Kerkau, who were also staying with Rick for the week. Jill has been extensively involved with the Sea Rovers in the past and is a world-renowned exploratory cave diver. She has an impressive history of diving in extreme environments and I sincerely appreciated her willingness to interact with and teach me throughout the week.

On the first day we all drove to the coastal town of Petty Harbor, which is sheltered in a cove on the Eastern side of the island. Migratory whale species, such as Humpback and Minke, stop in the rich waters of Newfoundland and Labrador to feed on capelin during the summer months. Newfoundland is one of the few places on Earth that you can legally snorkel with whales and Ocean Quest is extremely respectful and courteous of the animals while also providing their guests with an unforgettable experience with these gentle giants. Johnny Olivero is the operator of Ocean Quest’s close encounter whale tours and he leads the Zodiac trips with Rick Stanley. Johnny also graciously took me diving on several occasions throughout the week and he even helped me work towards my Advanced Diver certification! We cruised along the coastline scanning the horizon for any signs of feeding whales. Typically, large flocks of feeding sea birds are an indicator of whale activity. The whales drive schools of fish up from the depths to feed on them at the surface, where eager puffins and kittiwakes will snatch up any extra fish. Everyone in the boat scrambled to get our snorkeling ad camera gear together when Johnny spotted the first whale. Everyone plunged into the frigid water and swam to the front the boat where we followed Jen Jeans, our Ocean Quest whale guide, to the feeding area. Below us swarmed schools of capelin when out of the blue appeared a behemoth humpback whale! While our encounter was brief, since the whale continued onwards, looking into the eye of a whale was an exhilarating and simultaneously humbling experience. After attempting to find more whales, we continued onwards and were greeted by a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins that playfully surrounded the boat. We also saw numerous puffins, kittiwakes and even an Eagle nesting on the rocky coastline. Johnny brought the boat along the coast to a spectacular waterfall that plunges into the ocean from a several hundred foot high cliff. Everyone crowded to the front of the boat to get a freshwater rinse, as Johnny edged the Zodiac underneath the falls. The melt water was brutally cold but worth the excitement! Later in the afternoon, we explored the town of Petty Harbor by visiting the Mini-Aquarium and having lunch at a local café.
That afternoon, I rode my bike that Rick lent me around the area and to see the fields of lupines and the local fishing boats in the harbor. I met Rick at the docks we headed out into Conception Bay to the historic Bell Island! The island is ripe with history from the WWII era because of its well-known iron ore mines and the WWII wrecks that lie off its shores. We met the rest of the group that took the Ferry on the island and headed to the Bell Island Mining Museum. The Museum is perched over the entrance to the Bell Island mines and we were even able to receive a tour! Walking down ¼ mile into the mines was unlike anything I have experienced before. The temperature drops dramatically after descending just a few feet and all light is lost. The mines were used to help fuel the British demand for iron during the war since Newfoundland was a British colony at the time. Many of the mines have since flooded and they are largely unexplored. Jill Heinerth, Cas Dobbin and John Olivero attempted a cave dive and I was able to witness their intense preparation and entrance to the mines. After ascending they described the numerous untouched artifacts left preserved in the mines from intact wooden horse stalls to metal carts still full of ore. The Bell Island mines hold many secrets and the museum is working in conjunction with Ocean Quest to continue exploring and documenting their history.