The wonder of whales

The sense of wonder that nature gives you is the best feeling in the world. There is nothing better than a landscape that takes your breath away or seeing wildlife in its natural habitat. This is especially true when it’s a species you don’t get the chance to see very often. For example, I know we all know whales are massive. Some of us have seen a skeleton of a whale. But I don’t think you really get the sense of how magnificent a creature a whale is until you see it in the wild.

I was fortunate enough to take a field course during my undergraduate degree called Marine Mammals and Seabirds that was based out of the Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. I was excited but nervous to go because besides a few classes that took us to nearby conservation areas or ones that took us up to the great Queen’s University Biological Station, I had never had experience in the field. But to no surprise, this was the course that made me realize that studying biology in the wild was far more fascinating than studying it inside a classroom. Being a typical undergraduate student, I signed up for this course because of the “marine mammals” part of it. Sure if we saw birds on the way that would be cool, but I was really there to see the beasts of the sea.

Field boots left on the sand on the Bay of Fundy.

Field boots left on the sand on the Bay of Fundy.

Looking out into the glistening blue water. Is that a fin or a wave!?

Looking out into the glistening blue water. Is that a fin or a wave!?

Every other day we would go out a small fishing boat called the Fundy Spray into Passamaquoddy Bay, an inlet in the Bay of Fundy. Our first trip out was filled with a lot of staring out into the blue water, squinting in the sun, trying to make out if that glimpse of something was actually a living thing or if it was just a wave. The first couple of days we saw a lot of harbor seals hauled out on the rocks and a few harbor porpoises dancing in the waves. During a sea kayak paddle, we came up close and personal with some of these mammals. This was a whole different type of experience because instead of the loud noises of the boat (and besides the occasional swish of your paddle), you can really hear all that is around you. One exception was that we did not hear the gray seals that popped their heads up only about 3m away from our kayak curious about what we were doing in their waters!

One day when we were out off the coast of Grand Manan, we were scribbling down bird species that we saw and counting the seals on the rocks. Business was as usual until one of the guides noticed massive black things in the water. We stopped moving and just stared with our mouths wide open.

A group of fin whales come to the surface before their second dive.

A group of fin whales come to the surface before their second dive.

Six fin whales surfaced close to the boat and then they were gone again. After about five minutes, when we thought to start counting the seabirds again, the fin whales resurfaced again. This time, six whales surfaced on one side of the boat and five on the other. These are massive whales – they are the second largest animal (second to the blue whale) and can dive to depths up to 470m. It is very hard to describe the sense of wonder when you see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat.


A fin whale surfaces next to the boat.

A fin whale surfaces next to the boat.

But let’s not forget about the “seabirds” half of the course. After all, this was the course that got me interested to study seabirds for my graduate work! It was amazing to see the many species fly in and around the boat attracted to the lights in the fog. The best part was when we found a “big buffet” of herring. Porpoises gathered underneath the water pushing the school of herring up to the surface as seabirds dove from different heights to catch the herring. Herring gulls and black backed gulls populated the area, with terns swooping around and shearwaters skimming across the surface.

Birds gather in a group during a feeding frenzy.

Come one, come all – it’s a feeding frenzy!

Shearwaters skim the surface in search of food.

Shearwaters skim the surface in search of food.


This field course was a truly amazing experience, one that led me to fall in love with the field. Just being on the water is a wondrous feeling, one which now I don’t think I can live without!


One thought on “The wonder of whales

  1. Pingback: Oh, the places we’ve gone and the places we’ll go | Dispatches from the Field

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