Day 12 |
Sep 08, 2009

Battle Harbour Labrador Canada

By Rob Suisted, General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 052°24.0’N 055°32.4’ W

Weather: Fine, light wind

Once upon a time there was a fish species called ‘fish’. Up in these parts that fish would be cod. A salmon wasn’t a ‘fish’, it was a salmon. A herring wasn’t a fish, it was a herring.

Getting this straight is important because today was all about ‘fish’. It started with a lecture by Susan, our onboard historian, on the importance of North Atlantic Cod fishery to many economies, old and new from many countries. In fact the Cod fishery was one of the driving forces in early exploration in these parts. I enjoyed Susan’s lecture as I’d studied the cod fishery in my university study, but not its historic significance.

Susan’s lecture was also a good introduction for the afternoon, as the Prince Albert II dropped anchor at our destination for the day at Battle Harbour. Battle Harbour was a permanent centre for the mercantile saltfish harvest and preparation of cod since 1770, and was so important it was called the capital of Labrador. This was also the location from which Robert E. Peary proclaimed the North Pole to the world in 1909. Since the collapse of the cod fishery, and closure in the early 1990s, Battle Harbour has been restored as an historic site open to the public. Most of the very old original buildings, the salt store, the pork store, and jetties etc have all painstakingly been repaired and interpreted with displays.

We were met on the wharf by several local guides that took us on a tour of many buildings and a walk about the site. Mike was my guide and he obviously loved his ‘modern’ job. He’d previously been a cod fisherman of many generations and relished the questions. Life changed here suddenly and with great consequences when the cod fishery collapsed and he is testament to the necessary resourcefulness of the folk around here. He picked up new tools, learned carpentry and restoration, and now tourism to survive. Arguably the inshore fisher for cod had been sustainable, but he felt that the industrial scale harvesting of cod on the offshore breeding grounds had destroyed his and the area’s long established livelihoods.

Just before the end of the tour, and the start of the snow crab afternoon feast that was prepared, the Bridge on the Prince Albert II called to say they’d seen humpback whales. Always in ‘expedition mode’, Robin made the call to drop Zodiacs and offer a whale-watching trip immediately. Alas, the viewing was not to be for most, but I was driving a Zodiac with a group of hardcore whale-watchers that did not want to go back in for the afternoon feast. We stayed out searching long after the other Zodiacs went in and were finally rewarded by seeing 7 humpback whales and about 200 white beaked dolphins over the next 3.5 hours. My Zodiac’s compliment continually increased as people were transferred to us while enroute back to the ship. I must say, the day ended with one of the best marine mammal experiences of my life, gently following a mother humpback and calf as they slowly headed south on their migration. The Prince Albert II lifted anchor and caught us up many miles to the south where all onboard were able to get good views. We disembarked onto the ship just at dark under a beautiful sunset. What a top day – history, crab feast, and whale-watching all in an afternoon.