I am invited to a party at the home of people I do not know, a family called O’Brien. The house on the lower side of Waterford Bridge Road is about 100 years old. A handsome boy of about twelve comes to the door, all chatter, and asks who we are. We give our names and he gives his and leads us in.
His mother, Trish, is in the kitchen, where my stepsister and her boyfriend, who is also the town cryer of St. John’s, have taken possession and are whipping up seafood tacos. Trish, I learn, is a physician who manages to combine locums with being at home with her children. Her husband Loyola appears after a few minutes, just back from work. He runs a tour-boat in Bay Bulls that takes people to see whales and a bird-sanctuary. During the winter months, it is his turn to be mostly at home. Something about the chemistry of their lives impresses me.
My step mother is perched on a stool sipping her glass of sparkling wine. Looks like my chance to volunteer. I ask if there is anything I can ruin. It turns out there is: I can grate some carrots. I am warned that slicing my knuckles is my business, but I am not to get any of into the coleslaw.
The room fills with people I might have known but didn’t — single degrees of separation when we were in high school. I seem to know a brother or a sister of each person who comes in.
I wander out to the patio which looks down on a little ravine through which runs the Waterford River. There is a man from the south coast who combines teaching and singing in a band — he will pull out his guitar in a little while.
I sit on a wooden bench beside Loyola, and we talk about his boat. I have not been on the sea in a long time. He thinks I should come out for a tour. I consider this for a minute and say, dammit, that is a good idea.
On Sunday morning he shows up in his van. I hop in. The other passengers, picked up at hotels, are a medical researcher of Persian descent living now in Alberta, and a German who is planning to ride all around eastern Canada as soon as his motorcycle arrives from Iceland. I am not sure how it got to Iceland, but it is on a ship headed this way.
Bay Bulls is on the southern shore, once a long way out, but now the city limits have reached it. Much of my family comes from this area, some from Kilbride, and more from Admiral’s Cove a little further south. Most of the old families in these parts came from the southernmost part of Ireland at the time of the famine.
About thirty people have gathered for the tour. At first, the souvenir shop is over-run by people grabbing up tee-shirts, hoodies, and mugs. Then we board. The boat is tall for its size, and rises and falls in one-metre waves. We are told this is not much of a sea.
Our guide, a whimsical young man named Justin, tells us that he can promise birds. There are millions of them over on the island. If we see something like a potato flying past, that is a puffin. As for whales, he makes no promises. There are five tour companies running boats here and they radio each other when a whale is spotted.
There. A couple of points off the starboard bow and maybe half a mile away, a whale is spouting. The boat speeds up and heads towards it. We can no longer see the whale — it is diving. The boat slows and waits for it to reappear.
‘Now look there — a lighter colour in the water. Almost emerald.’ The sea is dark blue, nearly grey, but I don’t see the contrast. Then the whale breaks the water and spouts again. The boat matches its pace and direction and keeps a distance of perhaps 200 yards so as not annoy it and send it into a deep dive.
It is a big humpback whale — about 40 tons with long pectoral fins. Now I have a sense of the contrast in the water, the patch of emerald where it is just below the surface. Again and again it rises, blasting air and drops of water out the two blowholes like nostrils on his back. He never fully breaches — I don’t see him waving his tail. But this is as close as I have been to a whale and am touched by gratitude.
The clock is running on our tour, so we turn towards the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve. I have been on dry land for years and am just a little queasy as the boat rises and falls. Still, this is something I want to see. I go to the bow, hang on to a railing, and let my knees remember how to roll with the waves.
In the distance, the island looks low, grey, and a little forbidding. There is fog on the water, and the temperature drops very fast the further we get from land. Soon plenty of little potatoes are flying past our heads or scooting through the water. The island is looking more green and white — the great streaks of guano on bare rock.
After its first year, Justin tells us, the puffin goes out to sea for three years and does not mate until its fifth year. Then it comes back to the island with the same mate to the same burrow for as many as twenty years. ‘Same house, same spouse,’ he says. ‘These are good Catholic seabirds.’
But the island is not a safe place for hatchlings or for any small birds. Some of the seagulls looking for food have wing-spans of six feet. They are classified as kleptoparasites — I am surprised that this term originates with ornithologists rather than political scientists.
The island is home to 600,000 pairs of Leach’s storm petrels, little black birds with white rumps, that stay out of the light to avoid predators. They come out only at night and don’t trust themselves even to a full moon. The island is also home to other species such kittiwakes and murres, a cousin of the long-vanished great auk.
The boat turns round and we are heading back to Bay Bulls. It seems not long enough. My face is a little burned. My stomach has settled down. What can I say? It is a day of gifts.