The O’Briens and the Gatheralls soldier on
Ottawa’s Department of Transport thought it was some kind of joke – the O’Briens and the Gatheralls were asking for a mutual licence to operate a 100-passenger tour boat to watch whales and Puffins gather along the southeast shore of Newfoundland.
For more than 35 years the two fishing families from Bay Bulls, Newfoundland had been fierce competitors in attracting tourists from around the world to their small town to head out to sea on a family fishing boat to watch Hump Back Whales and colourful Puffins go fishing.
Although they were fierce competitors on the high seas, on shore the O’Brien brothers, Joe and Loyola and the Gatherall brothers, Michael and Al have been good friends since grade school.
The Corona virus has ended their annual competition out on the water and forced the two families together to keep whale watching alive on Newfoundland’s southeast coast.
There simply weren’t enough tourists arriving in Bay Bulls last summer to support two separate tour-boat operations. And it’ll be the same this year.
Around May 1 thousands of Humpback Whales arrive in Newfoundland’s waters to enjoy fish dinners with a side of krill and play with each other before they head south again in September to have their babies in warmer water.
The Southeast coast of Newfoundland off Bay Bulls is one of the most populous gathering spots on Canada’s east coast for Humpbacks, plus a half dozen other breeds of whales.
May 1 is also the normal return date for cute, colourful Puffins, auks that spend their winters out on the storm-tossed North Atlantic east of Newfoundland. They build their nests – only males do that – on craggy islands and sheer cliffs close to Newfoundland’s shores to avoid foxes and other land predators.
Getting aboard a tour boat is the best way to get up close to the Humpbacks and Puffins and of course the huge icebergs that drift by until the middle of June.
Last summer the O’Brien brothers operated their 52-foot-long, double-deck tour boat – The Atlantic Puffin – for a week and for the following week Michael and Loyola took the helm of O’Brien’s 100-passenger boat.
Together the two families kept 60 young people employed all summer.
The two Gatherall brothers and the two O’Brien brothers, plus their fathers and grandfathers before them, were Cod fishermen for years before creating their tour companies. The Cod moratorium imposed by the federal government in July 1992 shut that industry down. The brothers had struggled through lean fishing years until they opened their separate tour companies in 1986.
Their passengers come from all over the world, but most are from Southern Ontario and eastern Quebec – many on organized bus tours.
The brothers take their passengers out to an island in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve that is home to 4.6 million seabirds – Puffins, Common Murres, Petrols, Razor Billed Hawks, Thick-billed Murres.
“There’s a lot of noise and quite a smell. It gets louder as the tour boats approach. The birds aren’t disturbed, they’re just excited about visitors,” said O’Brien.
He said some seabirds dive 600 feet under water to catch a fish.
O’Brien says the whales also know when a tour boat has left the dock in Bay Bulls.
“They have been coming up here as individuals for many years and they get to know us like we get to know them.”
“We take photos of the flukes on their tales to identify each whale. We share the photos with whale watchers from around the world and we’ll hear from some guy in New Zealand who said he saw that whale in New Zealand waters last year.”
O’Brien said he doesn’t see the two families operating separate tour boats for the foreseeable future. “Even if the vaccinations get us back to a more mobile society I think it would take a lot more time to get back to the volume of tourism we used to see here.”
IF YOU GO:
If you do get to Bay Bulls – about 30 kilometres south of St. John’s – this summer don’t be too concerned if you see coffee mugs in a restaurant with a Swastika emblazoned on the side.
Late in World War ll Bay Bulls had an unusual visitor. A Nazi submarine surfaced 600 miles off Newfoundland beside an Atlantic convoy and offered to surrender. The Canadian Corvette crew that accepted the surrender said their vessel couldn’t leave the convoy, so they put some Canadian officers onboard to guide the German sub into St. John’s.
But as the submarine approached St. John’s the crew was told the harbour is jammed full of ships with no room to accommodate the sub and it would have to go south to Bay Bulls.
The sub arrived in Bay Bulls at night and when the locals awoke the next morning there was some panic to find a Nazi submarine floating in their harbour.
“That German submarine was docked right beside my dock” said Michael Gatherall “and everybody in the village climbed inside to have a look and pick up a souvenir.
“The Nazi coffee cups were very popular.”
INTERESTING FACTOIDS: The guy who told me about the surrender of U-190 was William C. Winegard, who was president of the University of Guelph and was the minister of science in the Mulroney cabinet. Winegard was an 18-year-old officer aboard the corvette that accepted the surrender of U-190 at sea, but did not accompany the sub to Bay Bulls.
The sub was later commissioned in the Canadian Navy for two years and used for training. It was paraded up and down the St. Lawrence River, visiting a number of ports so people could see a Nazi submarine. This was the same sub that sank the last Canadian ship lost during WWII. HMCS Esquimalt was torpedoed on April 16, 1945 just off Halifax about three weeks before the end of the war. Twenty eight of its 71-man crew perished.
On July 24, 1947, U-190 was towed out to the spot in the Atlantic where Esquimalt went down and scuttled by fire from Canadian ships and airplanes. She now lies beside the Esquimalt . . . but not all of the sub went down.
Her periscope still spies on passing ships from the roof of a unique naval club in St. John’s. The Crow’s Nest is a wartime naval officer’s club on the top floor of a five-storey waterfront building on Water Street, the oldest commercial street in North America.
RUMOUR HAS IT: The periscope used to offer a 360-degree view until club managers learned that most members were using it to scan the roof of a “Gentleman’s club” just down the street, apparently to watch some of the employees sunbath in the nude on the flat roof.
Now the periscope pivots only 180 degrees.