Sea Kayaking with a Menke Whale off Campobello

We were going to do the trip the day before, but this day turned out to be a better choice. Actually I hadn’t been planning on paddling either day. A few days earlier I had been eating lunch in the Maine Maritime Academy cafeteria when Amy asked whether I was going up to Cobscook. I knew that Clark Bowlen scheduled a week of paddling up around Cobscook Bay in Maine for members of the Connecticut based CONNYAK and the Appalachian Mountain Club, but I had not thought of joining even though I was going to be in the area. It sounded like they were planning on doing some fun trips, and I hadn’t paddled in the area since my parents brought the family up on vacation when I was a teenager. I decided to join the group. That is how I happened to be along when we saved the whale.

Like I said, we were originally planning on doing this excursion the day before. From the state campground on Cobscook Bay, it is almost an hour drive to East Quoddy Head on Campobello Island in Canada. The woman at the Canadian customs probably pretty much knew what we were going to say by the time the last of seven cars with sea kayaks on the roof went by, but she still had to go through the whole script. None of us admitted to having alcohol or firearms or anything unwholesome along so she quickly waved us through.

On the bridge onto the island it was obvious there was some fog in the area and it was generally overcast and not too pleasant looking, but we drove on.

However, by the time we got to East Quoddy Head, Clark had made up his mind. He did not want to be responsible for seventeen kayakers when fog might roll in at any time. There was moaning, but nobody else wanted to lead seventeen paddlers in the fog either, so mutiny was forestalled. If one paddler had decided to go, everyone would have joined in. Nobody was happy about it, but we all climbed back into the cars and had nice chats with the US border guard on the way back to the campground. That’s how we didn’t end up doing the trip when we expected.

Jon was particularly frustrated because he had to drive back to Connecticut the next day, almost a 10-hour drive, and he had someone he wanted to visit on the way back. We had a nice paddle in Denny Bay over to the reversing falls in to Cobscook Bay and Jon and I played a while in the current, but what we really wanted to do was get out into the open water around Campobello Island. There were whales out there.

After a decent dinner at a restaurant in Lubek, Jon, Amy and I discussed our options. Jon was for an early morning start so he could do some paddling before heading home. Amy and I were up for it and we let Clark know our plans. That is how we ended up paddling off Campobello on the day we saved a whale.

The next day we were up around 6:30 but Jon and Amy had a little trouble finding my campsite, so it was probably 7:30 before we got going. We exchanged pleasantries with the Canadian Customs guard as the sun shone down on a beautifully calm day in Canada.

I could go into some of the history of Campobello. For example it is where the Roosevelt family used to spend their summers and it is where Franklin D. came down with polio. But this is a story about kayaking with whales, and the summer homes of rich folks don’t really seem to be all that important when you compare it to being out on the water on a beautiful day and you’re hunting whales. I can pull out a dime and see Franklin D. any day of the week. I don’t have that many opportunities see whales. Thank you brother, I can spare a dime.

We weren’t exactly sure where we would take out, but we planned on putting in at Head Harbour (must be a foreign country, they spell harbor wrong.) We spotted a car at Friars Bay so we could take out there if we chose, and then drove on out to Head Harbour.

It was close to low tide and the tidal extremes of the Bay of Fundy were evident in the long carry we had down to water edge.

Launching at Head Harbor
Click on Pictures for and Enlargement

At low tide it is a long carry down to the water at Head Harbor.

The rip-rap leading down to the water was a little slimy. Amy only dropped her brand new Surge kayak once but, the well-built kayak that it is, it was not damaged. A quick scramble up and down the seaweed to the car to retrieve the stuff we forgot when we thought we had everything, and we were ready to go.

Amy was paddling her Surge. The Surge is made by Surge Marine of Westport, ME and is built with what I think is the best workmanship of any production kayak on the market today. It is a light weight layup of Kevlar and other cloths in a vinylester resin which can take a serious beating. Paddles nice too. Jon was paddling a long, lean rocket of a kayak, the Vyneck. He is planning on using this kayak for a circumnavigation of the Northeast US and Maritime Provinces, by going from Lake Champlain, down the Hudson, around the outside to the St. Lawrence and back to Champlain. The Vyneck is well suited for such a trip with plenty of volume for gear and an efficient shape to cover some water. I was paddling my Guillemot Kayaks Night Heron, a strip-built kayak of my own design. Imagine all the things a highly biased designer and builder would say about their favorite kayak. My Night Heron is all of that only better!


An old lobster boat hulk in Head Harbor.


Head Harbour is a narrow slot cut into the north end of Campobello with room for a good number of lobster and fishing boats. We started with a brief swing down into the southwest end of the harbor before turning out towards the sea.

Aquaculture is going strong in Canada. The harbor had several salmon pens with silvery flashes erupting from the surface in frenzied splashes. What makes a fish jump from the water? Is it the simple joy of being a fish capable of escaping its water world if only for a moment? Or, is it frustration with being penned up with thousands of its brothers and sisters awaiting the day it is sucked into the processing plant to be turned into lox and laid across the open face of a bagel? Going from one little round world to another. The jumping looks like fun, but it swimming around in circles must get old.


With 20 to 30 foot tides, you can get a good look at dock pilings.

The mouth of Head Harbour is protected by Head Harbour Island. The chart makers must have stayed up all night to come up with that name. We turned to the right to circumnavigate Head Harbour Island. Tucked in along the southern shore were several weirs. The weirs are constructed of de-limbed spruce trees pushed into the bottom with nets draped between. The nets are strung across the path of bait fish or sardines. The net directs the fish into a narrow opening in the weir. Once within the confines of the netting, the fish just swim in circles without finding their way out. Cormorants bobbed up within the weir, obviously appreciative of the engineering of the system. They just flew out over the top of the netting.

Rounding the southern point of the island we were confronted by the open waters of the Bay of Fundy, a body which is rarely so benign. The water was flat and smooth as far as we could see. But there was a current. The tides in this area are typically around 20’ to 25’. With many large bays connected by a few small openings, the water has to move fast to get from the open water of the Bay of Fundy into Passamaquoddy Bay and its tributaries and then back out. The area is known for its boat swallowing whirlpools, but if we paid attention we wouldn’t come anywhere near them. Even so the water off Head Harbour Island was accelerating towards the opening of Head Harbour Passage. Those chart makers were really at the top of their naming game out here.


Fishing weirs are set up in the path of bait fish.

Jon offered the advice "Don’t try to fight a current you can hear." If we listen closely, we could start to hear the current, but it was going our way. We stuck in close to the island, exploring among the rocks along shore. As we rounded northeast point of the island we got a look at East Quoddy Head Light, white with a red cross, and the sound of the current grew louder. East Quoddy Head Light should not be confused with West Quoddy Head Light, the lighthouse marking the eastern most point in the United States.


East Quoddy Head Light. Notice the smooth water near shore where the current is less.

At low tide the Canadian lighthouse is attached to Campobello island with low gravel barrier beaches. People crossing from the island to the light risk becoming trapped at the light by incoming tides that can rise at 5 feet per hour.

At the point of land beyond the lighthouse, there was the rushing, roaring sound of current. The power of the tide was quite audible as the water swept around the point of land creating a distinct eddy line which sloshed, bubbled and boiled. Crossing the eddy line we would have to paddle against a distinctly audible current. Luckily, the current has a lot of spaces to fill and there did not seem to be complete consensus as to which direction would be the most effective for the job. Every few boat-lengths the water seemed to have chosen a different direction. Oily smooth boils were surrounded by rough, peaked waves. By keeping a weather eye open, we could pick our way across without having to fight any particular current too hard for too long.

This confused confluence where the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine mixed with the rich waters of Passamaquoddy Bay and the St Croix River is prime fish habitat. Where there are fish, there are creatures that eat fish. The air was speckled with gulls and cormorants. Close by seals periscoped up to see the new competition as we paddled by and in the distance we could hear the soft "puff" as harbor porpoises worked the eddy lines. By turning quickly you could catch the quick rise and fall of the small mammal’s dorsal fin as they took a break from fishing to breath. But we were looking for whales.

We paddled across the 350 foot deep water towards Spruce Island keeping our eyes open for the large dorsal fin of a whale. One time I thought I saw a large gray back appear, but it was moving away from me and I didn’t see it again. We continued across to Spruce Island, a small island covered in spruce, and went around the point where we saw Sandy Island, a small sandy island. Again we were impressed with the thought and care the chart makers put into naming the local landmarks.

We explored up the northwestern side of Spruce, but we still hadn’t seen a whale for certain and Jon was starting to look at his watch and worry about the drive home. We figured we would go back out into the current and try to ride the tide down towards Friars Bay where we left the car. I was thinking about lunch.

Back out in Head Harbour Passage Jon saw what he thought might have been a whale but, you know, it was far away, it might have been something else. Jon suggested we cross over and follow the northwest shore of Campobello for a while. I was thinking about lunch.


A hovercraft pulled ashore on Spruce Island.

I pointed out that Casco Bay Island looked interesting. It was covered with spruce plus it had some nice sandy beaches. The combination evidently confused the chart makers so much they named the island after a bay that was several hundred miles away in another country. I also noted to Jon that it was almost time for lunch. I think the mention of lunch made the virtues of this small island clear to Jon. Amy knew better than to get in the middle of such a weighty decision.

The choice for Jon was between getting back to the car to drive home or eating lunch on a pretty island in Canada. He made the logical choice. With the current pushing us along, it didn’t take long to get down to Casco Bay Island. The beaches at the eastern end looked nice, but we decided to do a quick circumnavigation to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

There was a car parked on the west end of the island. At least it looked like a car. It turned out to be a hovercraft. A couple had come over from Eastport and the craft let them drive right up onto the beach.

Around the north side of the island a small island protected a small cove. There was not much in it, just a log splashing up against the rocks. I paddled inside of the island and was headed out of the cove when there was a sound.


Jon asked, "What was that?"

Again "PUFFT".

It was the log. Again the log went "PUFFT".

It is not my experience that logs make much noise. The occasional "bump" or "thud", but rarely do they go "PUFFT"

Jon announced, "It’s a whale!"

"What’s wrong with it?" Asked Amy.

"Its stranded."

"What should we do?"

"Let’s check it out."

The small (12 to 15’) Minke whale was in amongst the rockweed with its lower jaw up on a ledge.

Jon pulled ashore and went over to get a closer look. Its lower jaw was scraped up with small pieces of skin floating around and blood showing.

Amy and I got out to get a closer look. The whale was breathing heavily and erratically, in evident distress. Jon walked out on the rock and put his hand on the back of the whale. It’s breath slowed down and became more consistent.

Amy asked again, "What should we do."

Everybody has heard of whales stranding themselves and resisting all efforts to assist them.

I suggested we could call the Coast Guard on my VHF.

Amy went to pet the whale while I went to fetch Jon’s camera.

The whale was breathing evenly, but it looked in bad shape. Its lower jaw was really a mess. It just floated there with its pectoral fins pulled tightly against its body. It didn’t seem to be making any attempt to extricate itself from the situation.

The body was smooth and sleek. Light gray on top fading to almost white on the bottom. Its skin was the gently curved and fair surface of an object engineered to move through the water with minimum resistance. As a kayak designer it was a shape that would put my best designs to shame.

Click on pictures for an enlargement
Menke whale
Menke Whale
Jon patting the whale.
Jon and Amy and the whale.

Amy asked, "Can you push it off the rock?"

Jon said, "Yea, right. The thing probably weights a ton."

But he pushed a little and the whale rolled over slightly and slid off the rock. It drifted away from the seaweed and then slowly settled to the bottom. It was too deep to see what was going on, but we could see a little current where it must have been moving its tail.

Amy ran to get her waterproof throw-away camera and pull on her wetsuit with the intention of swimming in to get a picture.

After about five minutes, just as Amy finished putting on her wetsuit, the whale started to move. At first all you could see was a flicker of light under the surface, then a wave on the otherwise glassy water. The wave did a couple laps off the point where we were standing. When it was close to us we could see the whale stroking with its tail. After two or three laps the whale surfaced in front of us, went "PUFFT" one more time and the last we saw was a wave moving out of the cove to the sea.

"Cooool!" said someone.

We just stood there and looked out towards where we last saw the whale.

What do you do after you have petted a whale and to all appearances, saved its life?

Eat lunch.

The rest of the paddle was exceptionally nice. We paddled around rocks around the end of Casco Bay Island. Then we crossed Head Harbor Passage and explored sea caves. We met up with Clark and the rest of the group. We did some serious gloating and made it clear we were having more fun than they were. Then we played in the surf and surge at the end of East Quoddy Head. Everything we did after the whale was really a lot of fun. But I expect the afterglow of the whale experience cast a light on the trip back to the cars which made it seem much more fun than it would otherwise have been taken all by itself.

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