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There are some experiences Newfoundland offers that are straight-up magical. One of those experiences is whale watching.

Every summer whales arrive in our bays and close to our shores, putting on a show for onlookers. I’ve watched whales swim and feed near me for decades, and it never ceases to amaze me.

A humpback calf fully breaches in Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel of Molly Bawn Tour
A humpback calf fully breaches in Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

Visitors may wonder about whale watching in Newfoundland. So I’m here to answer your questions!

All photos in this article are generously provided by Jeannine Winkel of Molly Bawn Boat Tours.

Whale watching: What brings whales to our waters?

The short answer to this question is food.

Peak whale watching times coincide with the arrival of small fish called capelin. Every July, capelin show up in droves, to the point where they “roll” onto the beach. Crowds go to the shore with nets and buckets, and everyone collects fresh capelin that the ocean basically throws at them.

Capelin is a favourite among some of the whales we see in Newfoundland, but it’s not the only thing they eat. Whales feed on krill, plankton, squid, and other small fish. Orcas will feed on seals and even other whales.

Whales generally stick to a pattern throughout the year. The head to warm waters in the winter for mating and birthing. They return to colder waters in the summer for feeding.

A humpback whale shows its tail on a sunny day in Witless Bay. The fluke is mostly whit with black in the middle. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A humpback whale shows its tail (fluke) as it dives. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

What whales can I possibly see?

It’s important to realize that spotting a whale is never guaranteed. They do have patterns, but they’re live animals and as with basically every other living thing, they can be unpredictable.

With that being said, there are several species of whales that are common in Newfoundland.

Humpback Whales

Newfoundland has the largest population of feeding humpbacks in the world. It’s possible to see them anytime between April and October. For the rest of the year, they hang out in the Carribean.

Humpbacks are the goofballs of our waters, for sure. They love hamming it up and playing, which can result in quite the show.

Three humpbacks play among birds in Witless Bay. One is diving with its fluke in the air. One is on its side with a pectoral fin in the air. The third is just swimming.
Humpback whales diving, waving, and swimming. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

They’re well-known for slapping the water and waving their fins, and showing their tails. The most exciting part of a humpback show is when they fully breach—that is, they jump almost entirely out of the water.

Humpback whales can be most easily identified by their white side (pectoral) fins. Those fins have bumps along the edges. Their acrobatics are also a dead giveaway.

Minke Whales

Minkes are quite possibly the most common whale you can see in Newfoundland. They start showing up in bays around the island in early summer, and they tend to stick around until fall.

A minke whale swims among birds in Witless Bay. Its dorsal fin is visible. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A minke whale swimming in Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel

Unlike humpbacks, minke whales don’t show their tail when they dive to feed. But they are inquisitive animals! Though they don’t breach like humpbacks, you may be able to catch a glimpse of their bellies as they move around.

Minkes are smaller whales. Their backs are black (or very dark) but their bellies are white.

A minke whale calf swims alongside a boat, showing its white belly. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A minke calf showing its white belly to the occupants of Molly Bawn’s boat. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

Fin Whales

The fin whale is the second-largest species of whale. They’re fast swimmers, and they’re usually spotted among humpbacks and minkes. They’re less commonly spotted, however, because fins don’t come close to shore as often.

A fin whale swims along the surface on a foggy day in Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A fin whale swimming through the fog on Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

The fin whale can be identified in several ways. They have v-shaped heads, and their dorsal fins are closer to their tails. They also have asymmetrical colouring on their head. Their lower left-side jaw is dark, while the right side is white, and the tongue is vice-versa.

A fin whale calf raises its head above water. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A fin whale calf raises its head above water. You can see the fin whale’s distinct head shape and colouring. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

Blue Whales

Yes, I am including the blue whale on my list. No, you’re not likely to see it. I just thought it would be cool to learn about.

See, the blue whale is the largest mammal that has ever existed in the history of ever. Like, we have a straight-up dinosaur in our oceans. They’re generally 90-95 feet. (Essentially a brachiosaur.)

Despite being friggin’ gigantic, blue whales are notoriously hard to see. They tend to prefer deeper waters. They usually travel solo, or groups of 2-3. Blue whales are listed as endangered, with a population somewhere between 10,000-25,000.

Killer Whales

Here’s a fun fact that Liam reminds me of all the time: orcas are not whales. They are a species of dolphin.

And depending on who you ask, they’re either a delight or they’re terrifying. I fall into the latter category, personally. But I will admit that my experience with orcas starts and ends with Blue Planet and this article. I’ve never seen them in the wild.

But people all across Newfoundland have seen them, particularly further north. The catch is that if you see them it will likely be by chance. Orcas (at least the ones out east by us) are transient animals, so their migration is unpredictable.

Orcas are the easiest of the whale/dolphin visitors to identify. Their colouring is striking: intense black bodies with white bellies and patches around their eyes. They have long dorsal fins, which you can see sailing along the water even before they breach.

A pair of orcas swim together in Witless Bay. Both dorsal fins are visible, and one whale's white eye patch. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A pair of orcas swimming around Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

These aren’t the only whales it’s possible to see, just some of the most common and popular. Other possibilities include sperm whales, several species of dolphin, and even the occasional beluga.

How do I go whale watching?

You have a couple of options when it comes to whale watching. If you want to spend some money to try and get up close and personal, you can take a boat tour. If you’d rather the free method, visiting a coastline will give you a good chance.

Whale watching boat tours

If you want to join a boat tour, there’s no shortage of options.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no guarantee that you will see a whale at any point. But you still get to experience local birds and incredible local scenery, if nothing else. I promise it’s worth it!

Here are some of your top options for boat tours in Newfoundland:

O’Brien’s Boat Tours

This is one of the most popular tour companies on the island. O’Brien’s is located in Bay Bulls⁠—about a half-hour outside of St. John’s. If you’re staying in St. John’s without a car, they offer a shuttle service.

They give the option of their award-winning large boat tour, or a smaller, more personal boat tour. They also have packages that pair their boat tours with other local activities such as beer flights and wine tasting.

These tours are tourist-centric. They play Newfoundland music throughout the tour, and perform screech-ins for visitors. (Don’t worry, they won’t make you kiss an actual cod!) Despite the party feel, the guides are very knowledgable and you will certainly learn a thing or two.

Gatherall’s

I did a tour with Gatherall’s recently, and I really enjoyed myself.

Gatherall’s is similar to O’Briens, and they even sail from the same bay. They also offer a shuttle from St. John’s to Bay Bulls.

Gatherall’s is a family-owned business, and you can feel that among the staff. There’s lots of joking and gentle ribbing, and you will definitely have a laugh.

Gatherall’s also offers a large catamaran tour and a smaller experience. I took part in a catamaran tour earlier this month, and I have to say, it was a delight. Again, lots of Newfoundland music (the guides even sing to you!), screech-in ceremonies, but lots of interesting information as well.

Molly Bawn

This boat tour is located in Mobile, about 10 minutes past Bay Bulls and 40 minutes outside of St. John’s. Molly Bawn is a smaller company, and that comes with its own perks.

You’re not getting screech-ins and traditional jams here. But with a small crowd (about a dozen!) and a Master of Science for your guide, you get a much more personal and educational experience with Molly Bawn.

Their Master of Science is Jeannine Winkel, who provided the photos for this article. She often brings her Sheltie, Arwen, as their official whale spotter.

A humpback whale surfaces in Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A humpback whale surfaces among birds in Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

Trinity Eco-Tours

As the name suggests, this tour is located in the picturesque town of Trinity. These tours are three hours long (compared to most tours’ 90 minutes or so) and they use zodiac boats.

Zodiacs are small powerboats with a capacity of 12 and inflatable “collars” that make the boat safe in all kinds of conditions. According to their website, they also choose a zodiac for the safety and comfort of the whales.

Trinity Eco-Tours also offers sea-kayaking tours. They’re suitable for everyone from beginners to experts, and they also last about 3 hours. You will get to see the scenic town of Trinity, and the same wildlife you would spot on their zodiac tour.

A recent addition is that they offer accommodations for those looking to spend some time in Trinity. Trinity Eco-Tours offers tour discounts when you book your stay with them.

Bonavista Boat Tours

It’s no secret that I’m head-over-heels in love with Bonavista. So you know there’s gotta be a Bonavista tour on this list.

Bonavista Boat Tours last for about two hours. Their boat carries about 50 people, and it has indoor and outdoor seating for your comfort.

Northland Discovery Tours

Located in the northern community of St. Anthony, Northland Discovery boasts the longest iceberg and whale season in the province. St. Anthony is well known as a prime whale-watching town (and right along the path known as “iceberg alley”.)

They offer two different tours: a 2.5-hour standard tour and a 2-hour zodiac tour. Both tours have a naturalist on board to educate you on all the cool things you see. The standard tour has Newfoundland music for entertainment.

Free whale watching options

The really cool thing about Newfoundland is that you can watch whales from the coast. If you can see the ocean, you have a chance of spotting a whale.

Here are a few spots that I like watching from:

Cape Spear

This is a great spot for whale watching because it’s a well-maintained Parks Canada location. It’s the most easterly point in North America and offers a great view of the ocean.

During the height of whale watching season, you can watch whales feed and play almost every day. On particularly calm days, you may get lucky enough to see them come pretty close to shore.

(But for the love of goodness, please obey the signs and stay on the designated paths.)

East Coast Trail

If you’re a fan of hiking (or even if you just don’t mind a little bit of walking) then the East Coast Trail is a great way to see some whales. Some of my preferred trails for this are the Spout Trail, the Cobbler’s Path, and the Silver Mine’s Head Path.

Elliston

This small Newfoundland town is known for its prime puffin-watching location. But that beautiful spot is also a great place to see some whales playing in the background of nesting puffins.

I spent a near-perfect afternoon there one summer watching humpbacks splash and play while puffins were literally feet from me.

A puffin floats in the blue ocean water on a sunny day. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
No matter what way you choose to watch whales, it’s almost certain you will see these sweet little birds as well. This puffin photo is from the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

Other practical whale watching tips

Now, because Nan loves ya and wants you to be safe, you know I’ve gotta get into the nitty-gritty.

Dress appropriately

Newfoundland weather is a fickle thing. The weather people try their best and you may think you know how a day is going to feel. But it can change in the blink of an eye. So make sure you’re ready, especially if you’re going out on the water or going hiking.

Take boat safety seriously

If you’re taking a boat tour, there are some that don’t require you to put on a life jacket (though they do have them on board, of course.) Some of these boats also serve alcohol on board.

Even on the nicest day, boat rides can be bumpy. So while you’re having lots of fun, also listen to the rules and safety precautions of the boat operators. And if you feel uncomfortable without a life preserver, don’t be afraid to ask for one.

A minke whale partially surfaces as puffins take off in the background. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
A minke whale surfaces among puffins taking off. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

Follow designated signs and trails

Whether you’re exploring the East Coast Trail, Cape Spear, Elliston, or any number of amazing vantage points around the province, please follow the signs and paths!

Rugged coastlines and unpredictable waves are no joke. As much as we all want to get the best view possible, please don’t push your luck or risk a misstep.

Three humpbacks swimming together. Two backs are surfaced and one fluke is showing as the humpback dives. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.
Three humpback whales play on a sunny day in Witless Bay. Photo by Jeannine Winkel.

If you’re visiting Newfoundland during the summer, whale watching is a must. These humongous and beautiful creatures will leave you feeling awe and excitement no matter where you watch them from.

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