Celebrating World Whale Day: whale watching around Newfoundland

Next Sunday, 21 February, is World Whale Day. The origin of World Whale Day can be traced back to 1980, when it was declared in Maui, Hawaii as part of the annual Maui Whale Festival. During our visit to Hawaii in 2014 whales were in short supply (it was the wrong time of year), but over the years we’ve been lucky enough to see them in the waters off Iceland, Madagascar, New Zealand and Alaska.

However our best encounters were around Newfoundland, Canada, in 2017, and to celebrate World Whale Day I thought I’d revisit some of the blog posts I wrote at the time. We spent around four weeks on The Island, as the locals call it, and without doubt the whales were the highlight of the trip. I wrote a blog of our Newfoundland journey at the time, but the following focuses on our magical, memorable meetings with some of the many humpbacks that spend the summer months around its shores.

Having a whale of a time

4 July 2017

The tell-tale spout of a whale announcing his presence

Today’s been a woolly hat day, courtesy of a bitter wind howling in from the high Arctic. It’s appropriate therefore that we should have seen our first iceberg this afternoon as we drove the coast road towards the bizarrely named township of Heart’s Content, which, as I’m sure you know, is just down the road from its sister settlements of Heart’s Desire and Heart’s Delight!

The cold has been made more bearable by the warm afterglow of yesterday evening’s brilliant whale-watching trip. Whale-watching is always a bit of a lottery, and sometimes you lose.  But yesterday we hit the jackpot.

Pretty soon we are amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks

St John’s sits in a sheltered harbour, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet unimaginatively referred to as “the narrows.” Passing through the narrows we were thrilled to spot the towering, tell-tale spouts of whales announcing their presence to the world.  Hey guys, they seemed to say, we’re over here, why don’t you pop along and say hello.  We took them at their word and pretty soon we were amongst them, surrounded by a pod of five or six humpbacks.

Best of all was when they arched their backs to make a deep dive. This is the manoeuvre that causes the whale’s huge, fluked tail to lift clear of the water, a clown’s battered, white-gloved hand waving goodbye to his adoring fans before the animal plunges into the murky depths in search of lunch.

A clown’s white-gloved hand waving farewell to his adoring fans

I struggle to explain why I find whale-watching such an emotional experience. Partly, maybe, it has something to do with the fairy tale notion of a gentle giant.  But also, mixed in with this, is a sense of shame at mankind’s persecution of this majestic, harmless creature in the pursuit of a quick profit.  Hunted to the brink of extinction humpbacks are, thankfully, now on the way back.  They are awe inspiring animals, and it’s a joy to see them.  Yesterday was a memorable day; yesterday was a great day.

In the thick of it: the whales of Witless Bay

27 July 2017

Our evening whale-watching trip out of the harbour at Bay Bulls starts with a visit to Gull Island. Unsurprisingly, it’s generously endowed with gulls and other seabirds, including the ever-popular puffin. But birdwatching isn’t the purpose of our journey today, and we quickly move on to Witless Bay, reputedly the best place in Newfoundland to get up close and personal with humpback whales.  For once the hype is fully justified, and within a few minutes we find ourselves surrounded by a group of between 15 and 20 humpbacks, all gorging themselves on fish (capelin) that congregate here to breed.

Surfacing with a loud, fishy-smelling blow of exhaled air and tiny water droplets

The skipper kills the engine and we sit still in the water, mesmerised by the whales circling all around us. The humpbacks patrol the bay, breaking the surface as they swim sedately along, then diving suddenly in pursuit of their quarry, then surfacing again with a loud “blow” of exhaled air and water-droplets.

A couple of times we see them lunge-feeding, exploding from the deep with huge gaping mouths that have, in this single manoeuvre, made short work of thousands of tiny fish.  Occasionally we spot one spy-hopping, raising his head above the water’s surface to watch what we’re up to. They approach within metres of the boat, so close was can see barnacles growing on their skin. Sometimes they simply lie at the surface like floating logs, as if winded by the sheer volume of fish they’ve just swallowed.

They approach so close we can see barnacles growing on their skin

Today could have been a pretty miserable day, but it turns out to be one of the best we’ve had in Newfoundland. Yet this is a strange place, and Newfies march to the beat of a different drum.  After the whale watching is over we retire to a nearby restaurant that specialises in fish.  The waitress welcomes us warmly, says we can sit anywhere we like and have anything on the menu … except fish.  Unsurprisingly perhaps in a part of Canada where Basil Fawlty sets standards that some locals find unattainable, it appears that the fish restaurant has completely run out of fish.

Relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world: the whales of Witless Bay

31 July 2017

Our last day on The Island.  We decide to end the adventure in style by taking another whale-watching trip to the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, hardly daring to believe it can be as successful as the first.

Whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind

This time we know the ropes, arriving at the dock and joining the line early.  This means we can be amongst the first to board, which allows us to choose a prime position.  We head for the top deck and station ourselves at the pointy (bow) end, which offers good views both left and right of the boat.  The weather is warm and sunny, the sea swell rolling our boat gently as we ease our way out of the harbour and past the low cliffs lining its entrance.

Again we call at Gull Island on the way, enjoying the sight of the puffins and smiling at the excitement of our fellow travellers when they spot their first “sea parrot”.  There are thousands of puffins sitting on the rocks watching the world go by, while a few others venture out on to the sea and swim past our boat.

We quickly leave the clownish birds behind us and head towards the spouts that tell us the humpbacks are still here. Soon we are amongst them, whales to the left, whales to the right, whales in front and whales behind, while seabirds wheel overhead, seeking out the same fish that have drawn the humpbacks to this spot.

Little and Large (Notice the puffin in the bottom left corner of this shot!)

There must be two dozen whales at least, and some of them come so close we can almost touch them, can smell their fishy breath.  A few swim alongside us, keeping pace with the boat as if out for a stroll with a group of friends. Others cross casually in front of us at the surface of the water, relaxed, unafraid, at peace in their world.

But then, somewhere deep within them, instinct kicks in. With an arch of their backs they dive deep, seeking out capelin beyond counting, fish needed in huge quantities to accumulate the thick layers of fat that will sustain them in the waters off Dominica, until they return to these cold northern shores next year.  And as they dive they wave their tails, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes.

As they dive they wave their tales, bidding farewell to their spellbound acolytes

It is a truly extraordinary hour, one of the best wildlife watching experiences of our lives.  In several respects The Island hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations, but the whale watching has surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us.

Whale song

Reflections on the fate of the whale, UK, August 2017

One of the unexpected delights of Newfoundland is its thriving folk music tradition.  Much of this has a Celtic flavour, reflecting the strong connection between The Island and Ireland.  Interestingly many of the locals have a slight Irish lilt to their accents, though in some cases it’s much more pronounced than this and you could believe you were in Dublin or Cork or Kilkenny or wherever.

Some come so close we can almost touch them

We picked up a few CDs during the trip, but couldn’t play them until we got home. Our car, a Chevy Cruze, was great to drive with lots of high tech features, but despite this (or perhaps because of it) there was no CD player!  The first CD I tried when we got home was by a well-known Newfoundland folk band, The Irish Descendants.  The lyrics of one of the songs, the Last of the Great Whales, brought a lump to the throat, not least because of all brilliant humpback encounters we enjoyed during our trip.  The song is written by Andy Barnes, from Milton Keynes in the UK, and goes as follows:

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Last night I heard the cry of my last companion
The roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone
I thought of the days gone by when we were thousands
But I know that I soon must die the last leviathan

This morning the sun did rise Crimson in the sky
The ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sigh
I rose for to take a breath it was my last one
From a gun came the roar of death and now I am done

Oh now that we are all gone there's no more hunting
The big fellow is no more it's no use lamenting
What race will be next in line? All for the slaughter
The elephant or the cod or your sons and daughters

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Poignant, n’est pas?   I can’t trace on YouTube a recording of the Irish Descendants singing this song, but here’s a link to an excellent version performed by Celtic Crossroads. Though the whale has been saved for now, for me the lyrics capture with devastating clarity the nature and scale of the wrong that has been done to these gentle creatures throughout the ages.  Let’s hope that Andy Barnes will be proved incorrect in his gloomy prophecy.

The whale watching surpassed anything we had imagined.  This, above all else, is the memory of Newfoundland that will stay with us

Isle of Man highlights – (3) Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour

The Black Guillemot isn’t a rare bird. Many thousands breed in the British Isles – the RSPB estimates 19,000 pairs in the UK – scattered along the coast in pairs or small groups. And ours is just a small part of the world population, which is estimated at between 260,000 and 410,000 pairs: these striking seabirds are also found around the coasts of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, across Siberia to eastern Russia and Alaska. The species is rated as Least Concern by BirdLife International.

We’ve previously encountered Black Guillemots at various locations in Scotland, where they are relatively common, particularly in Orkney and Shetland. Here the bird is known as the Tystie, a name derived from Norse, the language of the Vikings who settled in the Scottish islands many centuries ago. A similar name is still applied to the bird in Iceland and Norway.

Black Guillemots are also found around much of Ireland, on the Anglesey coast in north Wales and at a few spots in northern England. Around 300 pairs breed on the Isle of Man, where you’d be hard pressed to find a better place to watch them than at Peel Harbour.

The hustle and bustle of fishing and recreational vessels at Mann’s busiest port makes Peel Harbour an unlikely place for these distinctive seabirds to thrive. But thrive they do. Away from human settlement they breed among rocks at the base of cliffs, or in the shelter of boulders on rocky islets, but at Peel, gaps in the harbour wall offer an attractive alternative. They appear completely at home here.

During our visit in June 2018, the Black Guillemots at Peel Harbour were displaying their distinctive breeding plumage: black all over, with a large, white oval patch on each wing. The bill matches the black plumage, but when the bird opens its mouth a bright red gape is revealed. The legs are also a vivid red. However, outside the breeding season the Black Guillemot loses its good looks, turning white, with black barring on its back, and black wings.

Peel Harbour gave us our best ever views of these splendid birds, and it was fascinating to watch them strutting their stuff, resting up and posing on the fishing boats in the harbour. They were clearly oblivious to the human activity all around them, not to mention the admiring looks of birders like us! You can enjoy a glimpse of their antics on my YouTube video:

Isle of Man highlights – (1) The Chough

There’s a good good range of birdlife to enjoy on the Isle of Man, but the star of our 2018 visit was undoubtedly the Chough. Pronounced chuff – to rhyme with stuff – the Chough is a member of the crow family. It can be easily identified by its bright red bill, which is slightly down-curved, and paler pinkish-red legs.

Once locally common in the British Isles, the Red-billed Chough – to give this handsome bird its full name – suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Farmers wrongly identified them as agricultural pests and blasted them out of the sky, trophy hunters shot and stuffed them, and egg collectors wrecked their chances of successful reproduction.

However, the final straw was a change in land management practice. Choughs are specialist feeders relying mostly on invertebrates, and therefore need access to an environment that supports their diet, including a mosaic of vegetation with lots of short grass and open areas. Grazing animals are essential to maintain suitable coastal and upland habitats, but a reduction in such grazing activity in the 20th century adversely affected the birds’ food supply.

Thanks to rigorous conservation efforts the Chough is now showing signs of recovery, although progress is painfully slow. The RSPB reports that in 2014 there were 394 breeding pairs spread across the British Isles, up from 284 in 1982, and of these, 30% were found on the Isle of Man. As the figures below demonstrate, numbers of breeding pairs on the island almost doubled between those two years.

 19822014
Isle of Man60118
Wales142215
Scotland7253
England07
Northern Ireland101
TOTAL284394
SOURCE: RSPB Website, retrieved 27/06/2020

Choughs can be found at various locations on the Isle of Man, but when we visited in June 2018 our best sighting was at a coastal site called the Chasms, where the sandstone cliffs are incised by deep fissures. It’s a scenic but exposed and windswept spot, where purple heather, low-growing shrubs and coarse grasses hug the ground to avoid being battered into submission and then unceremoniously deposited into the Irish Sea.

The juvenile Chough is a scruffy-looking bird with less vivid colouration than the adult

The cliff-top vegetation is ideal habitat for Choughs, and we were treated to excellent views of a couple of adults probing about in it for grubs and bugs. There was also a juvenile, a scruffy-looking bird reminiscent of a moody teenager indifferent to his appearance, its bill less brightly coloured than those of adult birds, and its plumage lacking their glossy black lustre. Click the link below to view the short video I made of the Choughs we spotted at the Chasms.

After around 30 years of birdwatching it’s unusual for us to add a new species to our British Isles life-list, so seeing these striking birds for the first time felt like a special privilege. Thank you, Isle of Man!

* * *

Researching this post, I’ve discovered lots more stuff about the Chough, some of it rather surprising. Read on and find out more.

Choughs in Cornwall

Before Covid-19 wrecked our plans, we’d intended to renew our acquaintance with Choughs during an April visit to Cornwall, England’s most westerly county. The Cornish have a special affection for these birds, which, as the table above shows, have made a comeback in the 21st century after becoming locally extinct in 1973.

The Chough was once so common in Cornwall that it was known as “the Cornish Chough.” As such it became a symbol of the county, and featured in the heraldic arms of the County Council and several prominent local families. It also appears on the arms of the Duchy of Cornwall, the private estate of Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

File:Coat of arms of the Duchy of Cornwall.svg

The Coat of Arms of the Duchy of Cornwall. IMAGE CREDIT: Sodacan This W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Inkscape. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

Historically the county’s rugged coastal landscape was well suited to these birds: sea caves and old mine shafts offered suitable nesting sites, while the ponies that worked at the tin and copper mines encouraged the proliferation of their invertebrate diet by grazing on the cliff-top grass.

However, the esteem in which these birds were held by Cornish people could not protect them from the combined impact of shooting, egg collecting, habitat degradation and the collapse of the mining industry.

In 1973 Choughs became extinct in Cornwall, and remained absent until 2001 when some vagrant birds arrived from Ireland. A pair of these bred the following year, and with the support of the RSPB’s Cornwall Chough Project, a slow recovery is underway. In 2019 there were 12 successful breeding nests in Cornwall, from which 38 chicks fledged.

An Arthurian connection?

King Arthur, legendary 6th century leader who is said to have defended native Britons against the invading Saxons, had strong connections with Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, therefore, his story has become intermingled with that of the county’s favourite bird. It is said that after his death, the spirit of King Arthur entered into the body of a Chough. The bird’s red legs and beak are supposed to represent the blood shed by Arthur in his last battle.

Most reasonable folk regard the whole King Arthur story as romantic nonsense, or, less politely, a load of old codswallop.  I’ll leave you to decide whether Choughs owe their distinctive colouration to Arthur’s untimely demise.

Choughs in Heraldry

Whatever we think of the Arthurian connection, it’s clear that in earlier times the Chough was widely known and admired in the British Isles. From the early 16th century onwards it began to appear in the heraldic arms of families with no connection to Cornwall.

Arms of Thomas Wolsey

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey (and, subsequently, Christ Church Collge, Oxford, which he founded). IMAGE CREDIT: ChevronTango / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Most notably, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor and chief adviser to King Henry VIII in the 1520s, commissioned a coat of arms which included two Choughs. This may have been a devout churchman’s punning tribute to the martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who was gruesomely murdered in his own cathedral, reflecting the fact that an archaic name for a Chough is “beckitt.” 

There is, however, a less charitable interpretation. Wolsey’s vanity was legendary, and he cannot have been unaware that the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is “Strategist in battle; watchful for friends.”

How well this describes Wolsey, who, having failed to secure his master’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, died while on his way to London to answer a charge of treason, is questionable. But the cardinal did have a good friend in Thomas Cromwell, who succeeded him as chief adviser to the King. Out of respect for his friend and mentor, Cromwell also included Choughs in his coat of arms when he was awarded the title Baron Cromwell in 1536.

File:Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell (Order of the Garter).svg

The Coat of Arms of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell. IMAGE CREDIT: FDRMRZUSA (talk · contribs). See sourced file for original authors. / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

It seems improbable that either Wolsey or Cromwell could spare time from sorting out the King’s disastrous matrimonial problems for a spot of birdwatching, but had they done so they would doubtless have sought the Chough, which so handsomely adorns their coats of arms.

And who could blame them? As we learned on the Isle of Man, it’s a very special bird.

Puffins – the upstairs neighbours from hell

Bird cliffs are wonderful things.  Home to thousands – sometimes tens of thousands – of birds living in close proximity to one another, they are a cacophony of noise and a maelstrom of action.  On the cliffs birds mate, lay their eggs, raise and feed their young, and fight off predators.  All life – and sometimes death, too – is here.

And then, of course, there’s the delicate matter of having a poo.

We all know that when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.  And we also know it’s best not to mess in your own back yard.  But how does the fastidious bird cope with this, without leaving – and therefore possibly losing – its favourite spot on the crowded cliff?  During our visit to Sumburgh Head on Shetland we were pleased to see a puffin demonstrate how it’s done.

We’d been watching the bird for a while.  It was standing motionless on scrubby grass close to the cliff edge, staring out at the ocean as if deep in thought.  Finally, it seemed, the puffin reached a decision. 

The bird shuffled around until its head was facing inland and its tail out to sea.  It then engaged reverse gear and inched gingerly backwards.  At last, teetering on the very edge of the cliff, just inches from disaster, it dipped its head, raised its backside into the air and casually did the business. 

Except for its bill a puffin’s face is unmoveable, an inscrutable mask.  But I’m sure I could detect in that bird’s eye a mischievous twinkle, the barest hint of smug satisfaction.  I swear the puffin was quietly rejoicing in a job well done as it waddled away from the cliff edge, turned and resumed its previous position to stare serenely out to sea.

It was a fine performance, and Mrs P’s photo captures for posterity the exact moment when the foul deed was done.  But spare a thought, if you will, for the poor fulmars and guillemots nesting on the cliffs below without a care in the world, unaware that just a second or two later they’d be showered in puffin poo, courtesy of the upstairs neighbour from hell.

Sometimes people disgust me: puffin trophy hunting

My last post described how puffins at Sumburgh Head were the highlight of an otherwise miserable visit to Shetland earlier this year.  I hope future generations will have the same opportunity to enjoy them, but the prospects are not good.  The Atlantic Puffin is now identified on the BirdLife International/International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as a vulnerable species.   Massive population declines are projected over the next 50 years because of food shortages due to climate change, as well as pollution, predation by invasive species and adult mortality in fishing nets. 

Iceland is one of the puffin’s strongholds.  Mrs P and I have visited Iceland on a couple of occasions, and were impressed by the Icelanders’ ability to carve a decent living out of that bleak, inhospitable lump of rock in the North Atlantic.  To do so they had to use whatever nature offered, and therefore included seabirds as an important part of their diet. 

Harvesting and eating puffins is traditional in Iceland, and I can – reluctantly – forgive the locals for doing so, even though I myself would no more snack on a puffin than I would dine on broken glass.

But I cannot forgive Icelanders for allowing puffin trophy hunting.

The Metro newspaper reported recently that trophy hunters are paying to kill up to 100 puffins at a time.  Follow the link for photos of the gloating hunters and their “trophies”, but prepare yourself to be appalled.

Where, for god’s sake, is the sport in killing 100 puffins, not for food but simply for the “fun” of it?  All life is precious, and no creature should die simply to enable men – it’s usually men, isn’t it? – to show off their prowess with weapons.  There are times when people disgust me, and this is one of them.

What also disgusts me is that it’s legal to import puffin trophies into the UK.  Surely we, collectively as a modern, environmentally-aware society, and individually as responsible citizens of a fragile planet, should be better than that. 

It’s all about the puffins

I wish I could tell you we had great holiday in Shetland earlier this summer, but as the Platypus Man never tells porkies I’ll simply say that it was, sadly and for all the wrong reasons, an unforgettable experience.  We were there 17 days, and it rained on about 14 of those.  On several days it didn’t stop raining at all, while a bitter wind from the north made us wish we’d packed our thermals. 

Shetland is an island group at the northern extremity of the British Isles.  It’s much closer to Norway than to London, and it’s a different world up there.  We’ve been before, nearly 30 years ago, and when the sun’s out it’s strangely beautiful in a stark, barren, pared-back kind of way.  In June 2019, however, we barely spotted the sun at all.  Gloom and despondency settled upon the Platypus Man and Mrs P, and we bitterly regretted not going somewhere more congenial, like Antarctica, or maybe Everest base camp.

But of course every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case it was the puffins.  Shetland is one of the best places in the UK to see the Atlantic Puffin, and although their numbers are falling steadily due to the impact of climate change on the fish that make up their diet, they are still present in good numbers. 

Sumburgh Head, at the southern tip of Shetland, has an easily accessible puffin cliff.  We went twice, and on both occasions a miracle occurred: the rain stopped and the sun came out, though the wind buffeted us mercilessly, howling like a banshee and tugging roughly at our hair and coats like an old woman stroking a cat.

Mrs P and I are seasoned birders – bird-nerds, some might say – and enjoy nothing more than spending time watching birds of all types.  The average Brit is less keen, but I defy anyone not to be enchanted by puffins.  Some people call them sea parrots, others cliff-top clowns, but what’s in a name?  They are, quite simply, the most iconic and instantly recognisable of this country’s seabirds.

And they came in their droves to the cliffs at Sumburgh, ordinary folk who’ve probably never done a day’s birdwatching in their lives, to be captivated by the puffins.  Some of the birds are so close you can almost touch them, and they seem to pose for the camera.  It’s difficult not to take a good photo of a puffin.

Everyone loves a puffin, wants to see them, wants to get up close and personal with them, wants a selfie with them.  It was just the same when we visited Newfoundland a couple of years ago.  In coastal areas, wherever the birds were known to nest, the conversation between ordinary tourists was dominated by one subject: where is the best place to see a puffin? 

In coastal Newfoundland, as at Sumburgh Head in Shetland, one thing is beyond doubt: it’s all about the puffins.