By Kate Proctor
Grab a tourist guide for Newfoundland and there will be many “must see” things that make headlines – Gros Morne National Park, whales, puffins, Vikings, kitchen parties – but we discovered many things not listed in the guides that made our trip especially memorable. Many who travel to “The Rock” will also mention the people – how friendly, helpful, and outgoing they are. But there is more than that – they are resilient and share a love of place that was evident in the number of people we met who had gone, but eventually found a way to return.
The Trans Canada Highway (TCH) runs between Port Aux Basques on the west side of the island and St. John’s on the east side. It takes about 10 hours to drive – but there are lots of places to explore if you have time. Most of the roads heading off the TCH lead to the ocean – but you never know how long that will take as you wind your way through miles of bush that are reminiscent of northern Ontario.
For me, there were three stops that highlighted both the natural marvels of Newfoundland and the people. On the way to one of our stops for the night, I saw a billboard advertising King’s Point and the Whale Pavilion there. We took the turn and headed through the trees to find the small village on the water.
The only focus of the Dr. Jon Lien Whale Pavilion is the Humpback Whale. The skeleton itself is impressive – measuring 50 feet – and is the largest Humpback Whale skeleton on display in the world. But the story of the whale and how it came to be in King’s Point is also impressive.
Whales are mammals and as such, need to come to the surface to breathe. The humpback housed in King’s Point became tangled in fishing gear and was unable to reach the surface, which caused her to drown. However, she kept her calf on her back, keeping it close enough to the surface of the water so that it survived.
The people of King’s Point learned about the carcass of this whale that had washed up on a beach 100 kilometers away near Cobb’s Arm. The King’s Point Heritage Society towed it to their town, working together to clean and preserve the skeleton. Many of us are familiar with volunteering for our communities but it is difficult to imagine the dedication it would require to volunteer for the job of removing decaying flesh and blubber from a 50-tonne carcass. Interviews from some of these volunteers can be found at the CBC website: (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/whale-pavilion-opens-in-newfoundland-1.942015).
Once the people were finished removing the meat and blubber, they placed the skeleton back in the water in wooden baskets to allow sea creatures to help continue cleaning the bones. More work was required when they brought the bones back to the surface, then the whole thing was shipped to Drumheller, Alberta. Reconstruction experts who were used to working on dinosaurs put the skeleton back together, then they shipped the whole thing in pieces back to Newfoundland.
Once the skeleton was returned to King’s Point, the community raised money to construct a pavilion to house and display it for public viewing. The whole project took about 10 years and relied on local volunteers to complete. Now over 20 years after the big whale died, whale oil still drips out of the bones during hot weather, but the tourist busses have increased from one in the first summer to 114 in 2022.
Further along our route in the Green Bay area, another whale exhibit is housed in Triton. This exhibit, also impressive, and relying on local people to get it off the ground, highlights the differences between sperm and humpback whales. Stopping for lunch after visiting the pavilion, we were treated to our best whale watching experience as two humpback whales slowly made their way around the small bay where we were sitting. We saw and listened to them as they came close to shore, then turned and passed again, also enjoying their lunch.
While we didn’t know it when we visited, both whale exhibits were originally part of a larger plan to have a whale skeleton tour throughout the region. Federal funding to help with the series of projects disappeared in 2005, so while there are skeletons that have been cleaned and prepared for exhibit in other villages, they remain in storage (https://www.cbc.ca /news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/land-and-sea-whales-tales-trails-1.6675911).
On our last day on the island, we stopped at the Salmonid Interpretive Centre on the Exploits River near Grand Falls Windsor. While they may be small relative to the whales we had been observing, Atlantic salmon are no less remarkable. Unlike their Pacific relatives, Atlantic salmon do not die after spawning but continue to return to the river of their birth to spawn. Their bodies adapt to allow them to move between salt and freshwater, and they migrate up to 4,000 kilometres in the ocean before returning to the exact place where they were spawned. They use chemical sensitivity that humans cannot detect to find their way back.
The Exploits is Newfoundland’s longest river, covering 246 miles. While the conditions of the river should provide perfect habitat for Atlantic salmon, it only supported a relatively small population. The first recorded salmon harvest on this river took place in 1768, and in 1974, the river had a salmon population of about 2,000.
“In 1984, the Environment Resources Management Association (ERMA) was formed. With $100, a used typewriter and a little help from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the community-based group embarked on a bold plan to turn the Exploits into a world class salmon river.” By 2008, the salmon population in the river had risen to 35,000.
Passionate workers at the Centre help raise awareness and monitor the salmon populations. Again, it was through the dedication of local people that this project got off the ground, and it continues to support both the Atlantic salmon and local people. ◊