There is nothing quite like coming face to face to a humpback whale and you will never get a better chance to experience this than in Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact you can get up close and personal with no less than twenty-two species of ocean mammals in this area of Canada alone. Muchmor Canada Magazine explores this beautiful location and details what you can expect to see on a trip there.
Many of us have visited marine parks and seen whales and dolphins up close such as the orcas at Sea World but there is no substitute for seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat. We guess the whales feel pretty much the same way too!
So what can you expect to see when visiting Newfoundland and Labrador? Well, a lot depends on when you visit of course as the whales and other mammals are not year round residents. Whales are usually sighted between the months of May and September, so you are just in time to book that trip.
If you are one of those people who doesn’t have any sea legs and thinks that it is not worth going as you « won’t get into that boat » think again. Whales here are so common and numerous that they can be spotted not just from boats out at sea, but from the land as well. In fact you can even get into a kayak and paddle alongside them if you dare.
What species will I see?
As we previously mentioned there are twenty-two species of ocean mammals off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. There are two types of whales, baleen and toothed. Baleen whales have bristle like baleen plates instead of teeth. The baleen is made of keratin the same substance found in hair, nails and horns and the whale uses them to filter water and catch food. Toothed whales have a set of teeth they use to catch and eat food.
Humpback whales: The most common whale here is the humpback whale (pictured on our title page) and Newfoundland and Labrador has the largest population of feeding Humpbacks in the world. The Humpbacks spend the winter months in the Caribbean and migrate north to the Newfoundland and Labrador coast during April and stay until October.
Humpbacks are baleen whales and the adults can weigh 36,000 kilograms and measure 12-15 metres in length. Females tend to weigh more than males and are longer. Adults can eat two tons of fish and planktonic crustaceans every day. They only feed during the summer, living off reserves in the winter months.
This species is know to catch fish using a bubble net feeding technique. This is where a number of humpbacks encircle a school of fish whilst blowing air bubbles. The circle grows ever tighter forcing the fish into a small area when the whales suddenly swim upwards through the fish catching thousands in one mouthful.
Females give birth every two or three years and have a gestation period of 12 months. The calf will weigh around one ton at birth and be 3-5 metres in length. They typically feed from their mother for the first year.
Humpbacks are notorious for their acrobatic skills and can be seen jumping out of the water – known as breeching – and falling back, slapping the water. They are also the star of many a photograph when they dive under the water raising their tail flukes in the air, as pictured to the side.
Individual whales can be distinguished by their tail flukes as each one is unique. This is rare amongst whales making them one of the most studies species.
Minke whales: These whales have a distinctive narrow, triangular shaped head and are one of the smallest baleen whales. They are very fast in the water reaching speeds of 16-21 kilometers an hour.
They can be seen in the bays around Newfoundland and Labrador but spend most of their time below water, so can be more difficult to spot. They are however curious and will often approach boats and swim alongside. They are most common in summer and early fall.
Adult males measure around 8-9 metres in length and females slightly longer at 8-10 metres. Both weigh around 10 tons and feed on krill and small fish.
Females give birth once every two years and calves measure around 3 metres and weight 450 kg at birth. They nurse for around six months.
Pilot Whale: This whale is actually a member of the dolphin family and is very intelligent and second in size only to the orca or killer whale. They swim in large groups of around one hundred individuals and are very social. They have a distinctive round bulbous head with a long, stocky body. Unlike the previous two species we discussed the male pilot is larger than the female at around 6 meters in length and weighing in at three tons. The female is around 5 metres and weighs only 1.5 tons.
Pilot whales are toothed whales but only have 40-48 teeth compared to the usual 120 or so in other dolphin species. They feed primarily on squid but also eat octopus, cuttlefish an other small fish such as herring.
Females give birth only every 3-5 years and calves are typically around 1.8 metres in length and weigh 100 kg at birth: they nurse for around two years.
Pilot whales can be seen in the Newfoundland and Labrador water during summer and early fall.
Finback Whales: These whales are huge and the second largest whale in the world. They have very distinctive lower jaw colouring with the right side being white or creamy yellow and the left mottled black. The colours are reversed on its tongue.
These whales tend to be found further from the shore than most other species and so may only be seen from a boat, usually in small groups of 5-8 individuals.
Adult males grow to around 24 metres in length and weigh between 50-70 tons. Females give birth every three or four years and the calf nurses for 6-8 months.
Blue Whale: This whale is the largest mammal ever to have lived on earth. Adults can reach lengths of over 30 metres but are more usually between 23-25 metres. The largest ever found was 33 metres in length. Females are larger and can weigh up to 150 tons compared to around 100 tons for males.
Surprisingly for such a huge animal they feed on small fish and krill but have to eat around four tons a day which equates to around 40 million krill a day.
Females give birth every two or three years to a calf weighing tons and measuring 8 metres in length. Calves are weaned at around 8 months by which time they weight around 23 tons.
The best time to catch a glimpse of a blue whale in Newfoundland and Labrador is in the fall and winter months.
Orca: Also commonly known as the killer whale, Orcas are seen off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador during the summer months.
These are probably some of the most familiar species of whale with their distinctive black and white markings. Every orca has its own distinctive markings making each individual identifiable. This makes them another well studied species. The dorsal fin is also very distinctive and can reach 1.8 metres in length and is a straight triangle shape on males and a more curved triangle on females and young males. Orcas in captivity seem to loose the rigidity of their dorsal fin allowing it to bend over to the side. This phenomenon is not seen in the wild.
Orcas are toothed whales and will feed on any small animals including seals, sharks, penguins and other smaller whales. Males can grow to just under 10 metres in length and weigh around 9 tons. Females are much smaller at around 8 metres weighing an average of four tons. They give birth every 3-5 years and the calf will be around two metres in length.
The summer months are the best time to spot Orcas off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
White-sided Dolphin: These playful dolphins can often be seen jumping out of the water and riding the waves. They tend to be found in large groups from a few dozen to many hundreds.
The belly of the dolphin is white, the sides grey and the back black. It has a black beak and a black eye ring and a yellow patch at the rear of the dorsal fin making it a very attractively colored dolphin. They tend to be around 2-2.5 metres in length and weigh around 150 kg.
They eat squid and small fish such as herrings and tend to feed at night. Females give birth every two or three years and the calf is usually about a metre in length.
Harbour Porpoise: This small dolphin is not easily seen as it tends to stay under the waves and does not seek out boats as many other dolphins do. They tend to stay close to shore making them easily studied and also easily hunted. They make a loud puffing sound when the break the water to breathe.
They are dark grey in colour with a white belly and are around 1.5 metres in length and weigh around 60 kg with females being bigger than males.
They feed on small fish and have to consume around 10% of their body weight every day.
Other species: There are many other species you can spot off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador such as the White-beaked Dolphin, Bowhead Whale, Sperm Whales and Beluga Whales.
How to see them
There are many boat tour operators along the coast who can offer you the opportunity to see whales. They are very experienced and can almost guarantee you will see whales and can answer any questions you have along the way.
It is not unusual for whales and particularly dolphins to swim alongside a boat to get that extra special view.
You can also join a kayaking tour and get up close and personal with the wildlife. Always use a qualified operator if you want to kayak as approaching whales and dolphins can be very dangerous and the tour guides are trained to give you a save and enjoyable experience.
As we mentioned before, those of you who simply cannot take a boat tour you can usually see plenty of whales simply by walking along the coastline. Some of the best viewing sites are Signal Hill, Cape Spear, Cape St. Francis, Trinity, Cape Bonavista, Twillingate, White Bay, Strait of Belle Isle, St. Vincent’s, Cape St. Mary’s, Cape Race, Witless Bay, and Groswater Bay.