AMY FISH and her husband have been waiting decades to see whales in the wild. It took a Covid-induced backyard trip to finally see these incredible marine mammals.
“Is that a whale?” I ask, pointing toward a blur in the deep blue of the Saint Lawrence River.
“No, mom. I think that’s a bird,” says my middle son, Benji.
Having never seen a whale up close, I’m not exactly sure what to look for. Every smudge out the window holds the potential to amaze and delight me.
“I think when we see an actual whale, we’ll know it,” offers my oldest son, Ezra, iPhone poised to capture any passing marine life.
“Fingers crossed,” my husband says.
“Listen. The tour boat company said that they have a 99 per cent success rate. They said they can’t give a moneyback guarantee, but—”
The boat stops. The window walls come down.
This is good news because it means we are heading into whale-spotting territory. It’s also good news because it means we can remove our face masks and breathe in fresh air. This being a pandemic, we are used to wearing our masks all the time—and we are also used to removing them as soon as we safely can.
Somehow, with my mask down, I feel like I can see better, and looking to the right of the boat I spot them: two majestic creatures jumping clear out of the water. Goosebumps rise on my arms. I want to pinch myself to make sure it’s really happening.
I am astounded by how graceful the whales are. Their moves look choreographed—like synchronized swimmers. Are they performing for us? Are they playing together? I have no idea. But I can tell you this—they are not smudges. Those are two honest-to-goodness, full-size, in-the-flesh humpback whales.
My family squishes together, watching and pointing as the whales frolic 40 or 50 metres away from us. We spot their tails. We see their heads. We watch them surface. Blow air. They breach—pull their entire bodies out of the water—and even my 15-year-old daughter gasps in delight.
My husband reaches his arm around me and squeezes. We have been waiting 27 years for this moment. Not because we are such whale fans, but because our inability to spot a whale has become a running joke. We have been on three or four whale watching tours over the years, from Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, to the great fjords of Norway. Each time, the guide has returned the boat to harbour saying something like, “Huh. I don’t know what happened. Just this morning, we saw 11 belugas, six dolphins and a Pacific walrus sunning itself on that rock.” Dave and I saw nothing but blue waves.
On this landmark tour, our guide tells us that whales have been evolving for 50 million years. With that in mind, 27 years of searching doesn’t seem like much. And eight months of a pandemic is like a grain of sand.
This is a big change from our usual summer vacation. At some point in July, I realized that the US border was not going to reopen and our annual beach holiday had to be cancelled. I sadly gave up our ferry reservation to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and resigned myself to being stuck at home with no family bonding vacation to look forward to.
After a day or two of wallowing, it dawned on me that just because we couldn’t have our usual road trip didn’t mean we couldn’t take any road trip at all. We just needed to figure out how to travel safely during the pandemic.
I put together a list of requirements: I was looking for a wholesome family activity that was driving distance from our house in Montreal. I wanted something that would entertain our three children (plus a girlfriend) ranging in age from 15 to 21 years old. I was not looking for adventurous activities, like sleeping under the stars or kayaking over a waterfall—not for this group.
I thought a cottage rental would be the safest bet because we would be able to bring extra cleaning supplies and prepare our own food. Plus, there would be no elevators or lobbies to worry about. The government restrictions allowed for some travel between regions at that time, so we were within the Ministry of Health guidelines.
I started clicking around and found a little A-frame house perched on the rocks in Les Escoumins, Quebec. Every single one of the 30-plus reviewers said they sat on the back deck and watched whales swim in the water below. I was sure that the whale population would disappear when they heard we were coming, so I hedged our bets with a whale watching boat tour which turned out to be front-row seats to a whale ballet.
Covid-19 has been devastating for so many. At the same time, I know this life-changing experience never would have happened if the global pandemic hadn’t derailed our normal travel plans.
Destinations that used to be easily accessible are now closed to us, forcing us to stay closer to home. We have masks covering our mouths and noses. We have hand sanitizer and wipes in our bags, and extra sweaters tied around our waists in case an icy wind blows off the Saint Lawrence. We also have matching t-shirts, memories of a great family vacation and finally, finally—I can spot the difference between a 30,000-kilogram mammal and a smudge on the window.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Canadian Traveller.