Pleasant Bay, Cape Breton – Jeff Timmons has a personal relationship with the sea and its creatures, having worked as a lobster fisherman on these waters since the age of 14.
He knows this coastline and loves this life, so it made perfect sense some years back to trade his lobster traps for nature tours.
Jeff has spent a great deal of his life in the tiny fishing village of Pleasant Bay on Cape Breton Island. Before the arrival of the Cabot Trail in the 1930s, Pleasant Bay was tucked away in one of the more isolated corners of the world and only accessible by boat or snowshoes.
Pleasant Bay’s earliest settlers must have felt quite at home here when they arrived two centuries ago from the equally inaccessible Isle of Skye, Scotland. Interestingly, geological evidence based on millions of years of continental drift points to the likelihood that part of this island was originally attached to present-day Scotland.
As I arrive at Pleasant Bay on this early morning, a stiff breeze is sweeping in from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The sun touches the slightly unkempt and peeling buildings and the small fleet of fishing boats with a golden glow.
A couple of days ago, as I’d hiked the Skyline Trail that follows the crest of a mountain to a spectacular headland in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, I had a stunning view: a pod of about 40 whales, their outlines discernable in the waters off the rugged coast.
This sighting led me to the Whale Interpretive Centre in Pleasant Bay, where I learned more about the relationship between whales and humans in recent centuries, and it has been an ugly one.
Although there is now a world-wide ban on commercial whaling (a ban defied by Japan), we threaten their very existence with increasing quantities of industrial waste, oil, untreated sewage, radioactive discharge and habitat encroachment.
Back here in Pleasant Bay, the sun has climbed a little higher in the sky and Jeff has gathered a handful of intrepid whale-watchers and first mate Jo. We zip on our vibrant orange flotation suits before climbing into the inflatable Zodiac craft.
It rides low in the water and is subject to minimal roll, an ideal choice for folks like me who tend to turn green with the sway of higher vessels.
Jo, not one inclined to idle chit-chat, unties the craft and pushes off with a heavy rubber boot. She sits quietly, scanning the far horizon for a spray of foam or the glimpse of a slick, dark form slicing through the swells.
We pass sheer red cliffs rising from the rhythmic pounding of waves. This awesome scape was familiar to generations of fishing people who worked these shorelines for a living.
Seals slip into the water from huge granite boulder perches. Soon, their silvery grey faces appear in the waves, peering at us curiously, always keeping their distance. Then Jo spots a black, streamlined tail sliding into the waves.
And then we all see them, and suddenly we’re amongst a group of 20 or more pilot whales, practically face-to-face with their bulbous foreheads and imposing 5-metre length.
Whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively known as cetaceans, are among the most ancient of earth’s mammals, and it appears that we’re as fascinating to this pod as they are us. They swim straight for our tiny craft and dive beneath it, surfacing just beyond.
Their movement is fluid and powerful. A mother and calf arch from the water in perfect unison, but then they all disappear as the pod dives. Jeff explains that they will emerge in a few minutes for a breath of air before continuing their feast below us.
After all the excitement of our first sighting, our little group falls into a contemplative silence, but soon we’re straining to see what’s ahead.
Again we’re surrounded, this time by a school of white-sided dolphins about 2 metres long. They use a horizontal tail flick to swim, which makes for a speedy and graceful arcing over the water’s surface.
I never imagined being so close to these spectacular creatures or had a real sense of what lies beneath this liquid skin. I feel profoundly changed by these glimpses of another world.
Returning to Pleasant Bay, we observe two bald eagles perched high in a leafless tree. These magnificent surroundings, packed with wild and majestic beauty, are awe-inspiring. I tell Jo she has the perfect job, but her only answer is a smile as mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s.
I’m not sure if she’s acknowledging her luck or her expression masks the toil and uncertainties of life in this remote corner of Canada.