Where the wild things are

Our Boston whaler charges and smacks the waves rolling in from the northeast. There’s a pod of low-lying islands on the horizon. Our destination is one of them, a mere speck of land nine miles out in the open ocean. We manouevre around a giant chess set of carved icebergs. Closing in on a point of land, we hear the chatter of whitecaps around a nearby shoal where an enormous iceberg has grounded. It’s listing. Yet more surprising is what we find around the corner. Across a tiny blue slip of water is a perfectly restored red-roofed village seemingly frozen in time.

This is Battle Harbour, once known as the capital of Labrador. The resettled community has been the focus of a monumental, decade-long restoration project. Merchant stores, homes, church, wharves, stages and walkways form the living museum of a place that once attracted the likes of British merchants, American doctors and Arctic explorers.

These days, the place is attracting visitors who want to see what a 19th-century fishing outport looked like and discover how those early adventurers survived. Visitors get the chance to live the experience because, unlike other national historic sites, you can stay overnig. Battle Harbour Inn, once home to the resident merchant’s agent, has a cosy parlour (a good place to enjoy an iceberg-popping drink). Several cottages are for rent, including the circa-1906 gingerbread-trimmed Grenfell Cottage; a restored 1830s fisherman’s cottage lit by oil lamp and heated by wood stove; the lighthouse keeper’s residence relocated from a nearby island; RCMP house (I stayed in the room that once served as the jail); and the cookhouse with its bunk beds. Add to this setting no televisions, no telephones, no streetlights and you’re quickly whisked away like a time traveller.

Battle Harbour is also attracting another group of intrepid explorers. They are part of a nine-day Northern Whale Study Tour, which includes a three-day stop at the island.

Arlene Erven is a 50-something retired teacher from Ontario. For the past couple of years, Erven and a small group of ecotourists have helped biologist and tour operator Dave Snow study and catalogue whales by taking photographs of dorsal fins and saddle patches. According to Snow, the coast of southern Labrador is rich in wildlife yet is one of North America’s least studied marine areas. The information he collects is passed on to the Whale Research Group of Memorial University of Newfoundland or to Allied Whale, a Maine-based marine mammal research group that co-ordinates whale population studies.

The whale that headlines their most-wanted list is the orca, or killer whale. “This is an exciting whale. They’re smart, fast and curious,” says Snow. According to aboriginal carvings, orcas have been around the area for thousands of years. “But there’s a lot we don’t know,” he says. “The information [we get] could answer a lot of questions because this is an unstudied group of orcas.”

“No one knows enough about these whales to know whether they’re a resident or transient population,” says Erven, a self-professed orca-addict.

But Erven returns home with more than fin photographs. Her last trip out of Battle Harbour is permanently imprinted on her memory.

“We travelled north, heading for Spear Point. There were humpback whales lunge feeding around the rock,” she says. “We were just about to grab some sandwiches when somebody said ‘Orcas!’ Well, I don’t know what happened to the sandwiches, but for the next four hours, we were surrounded by two different families of orcas. We were in a little 22-foot Boston whaler, and these orcas were playing in the wash of the engine.”

Margaret Elliott was also bopping around in the boat. From West Country England, Elliott is a pensioner whose part-time job supports what she calls her “Canadian fund,” that is, her whale study trips to Newfoundland and Labrador.

“One large male came straight at us. I thought we were going to be tipped out,” recalls Elliott. “At the last minute, he flipped on his side and came underneath so gracefully. Not one of us spoke. It was absolute magic.”

“I love the coastline up there. It’s remote. It has a rugged beauty that is alluring. There’s a whole range of emotions that you feel up there,” says Erven. “It keeps you coming back.”

Both Erven and Elliott have pre-booked for this fall’s whale study tour and the search for orcas off Battle Harbour.

“We’ve got a starting point now,” says Elliott about their catalogue of whale photographs. “From now on, when we take photos we can see if it’s the same family or totally new. That’s exciting.”

“We may find them. Then again, we may not,” says Erven. “I hope we’re lucky.”

For independent travellers, contact the Battle Harbour Historic Trust. Call Margaret Pye at 709-921-6325.
There are regularly scheduled flights into Blanc Sablon, southern Labrador, where car rentals are available. Or take the ferry from St. Barbe, Nfld., and drive to Mary’s Harbour.