A few months ago a video of a diver nearly getting eaten by a humpback whale went viral on the Interwebz. People everywhere expressed their terror.
“I am NEVER diving again!” they said.
“Those divers are idiots for being in the whales’ terrain,” added the YouTube trolls.
But humpbacks are as docile as lambs, and they don’t want to eat stinky humans. They like fish. They’re also baleen whales, meaning their mouths are filled with a keratin protein that filters out tiny fishes, like caplin. You have about as much a chance of being eaten by a humpback as you do getting eaten by a kitten.
And being the logical person I am, as soon as I saw this video I thought, “That’s it, I’m snorkelling with humpbacks.”
Ocean Quest Adventures garnered some HUGE attention a few years back when they launched their “snorkelling with whales” package. It became a Canadian Signature Experience, and newspapers sent out journalists galore to cover the trip. It helps that a half-day tour only costs $199CAD.
The tour leaves out of Petty Harbour, just outside St. John’s. When I arrived, I was handed a wetsuit, a snorkel and mask, and some flippers, and then I immediately stripped down on the dock. It felt like preparing for an excursion into the coral reef, except I was about to hang out with 50-tonne mammals.
The beauty of this tour is that your shuttle is a small Zodiac and your group has about 10 people in it. I was the only Newfoundlander, other than the crew. Other patrons included a duo of hungover guys (this was during George Street Fest), a jolly British chap, and an older couple who mastered the water far better than I did.
Captain Rick manned the Zodiac, and his daughter Holly served as our guide for the day. The fishermen gutting their cod near the wharf told us the whales had been busy all morning just outside the harbour. Perfect.
Except I was nervous as hell. As we zipped out toward the open Atlantic, we almost immediately spotted four spouts jetting into the air.
“No, you can’t ride the humpbacks,” Captain Rick said. Damn.
The first thing I noticed about the whales was the unsettling smell.
“Humpbacks have really smelly breath,” Holly explained.
We weren’t much discouraged, though. And neither were the humpbacks, because they didn’t seem to mind us encroaching on their territory. We knew the whales were all around us, as we could see their “footprint” from where they disturbed the water. After awhile, Rick cut the engine and told us to jump overboard.
I felt like a seal sliding into the water.
The visibility of the water was poor but we didn’t mind. I had borrowed Captain Rick’s GoPro for some sweet footage, but it made me clumsy and unable to keep up much with the others. (This footage later turned out to be corrupt. I wept.)
The whales put on quite a show, though: they rolled, frolicked, waved their fins, spouted water, and flipped their tails at us. During those brave moments I was actually able to put my face underwater, I watched jellyfish and smaller fish drift by. And then a minke whale swam directly underneath me. I screamed into my snorkel, but nobody heard.
When our tour was over and we started towards shore, we were all ecstatic and grinning and high on life, having literally thrashed around the big bad sea with some of the world’s largest mammals. Seriously. That happened.
Then someone commented on the water’s poor visibility.
“Probably just whale poop,” remarked Rick, all chipper and nonchalant.