The beluga (not quite a baby anymore) was clearly as curious about the humans around it as the humans were curious about it.
The small white whale (small being an entirely relative term, since this juvenile dwarfed any human being) had swum into Red Bay harbour in the wake of a boat that was returning from ferrying late-season tourists to Saddle Island.
As the beluga explored the depths beneath the docks, emerging now and then to breathe, the boat’s driver said the whale was attracted to the stream of bubbles his propeller shoots behind it. The boatman demonstrated by starting the motor on his tied-up boat.
The whale left whatever it was doing and pushed its nose into the bubble stream. Then it let it wash over its back, avoiding the dangerous propeller. Several old scars suggested it might not have always escaped such rapidly spinning blades.
Remarkably, if humans ever caused this animal pain, it showed no sign of holding a grudge. It did not fear people at all. Nor did it ignore them.
This whale was even able to make contact of sorts, approaching close enough to look people in the eye for minutes at a time — giving anyone who looked back a clear reminder that humans share this planet with other sentient life.
One might think Red Bay had enough attractions.
In Labrador, a land that can boast more than its fair share of awesome beauty, Red Bay was already one of the prettiest towns set in as lovely a land-and-seascape as can be found anywhere.
However, what brought visitors from across the sea to Red Bay centuries ago to make contact between two continents had nothing to do with the beauty of the geography and all to do with the species of animal likely to explore its harbour — although not the beluga in particular.
When Europeans came to Red Bay in the 1500s, they sailed from the Basque lands to hunt the great whales, the right and the bowhead. They rendered their flesh into oil and shipped thousands of barrels back to Europe at the end of the season.
Countless bones of the beluga’s long dead cousins still litter the stony beaches of the sheltered bay and the red tiles the Basques brought with them from home to roof their summer stations still lie broken in heaps along the shorelines.
The Basques stopped coming after a couple centuries. Their visits were forgotten until recently, when the European-manufactured tiles were finally identified for what they were and the story of the early whalers came to light.
Archeology revealed the extent of the Basque operations. A graveyard holding 140 men was found on the island and several sunken vessels were located under the harbour — two galleons the Basques sailed across the uncharted Atlantic and some chalupas, the small open boats they used to hunt the gigantic whales.
One carefully reconstructed chalupa is now on shore, on show at the extensive Parks Canada facility called the Red Bay National Historic Site, a museum complex that displays much of what has been learned and discovered from the digs both on land and under water. It includes the afore-mentioned boat trip to Saddle Island, where trails lead through grassy fields to reveal ancient ruins and graves.
Red Bay’s past was shaped by the sea and the life in it, but the town’s future (at least one aspect of it) might soon be decided in faraway Cambodia.
In June, a United Nations organization may very well declare Red Bay a UNESCO World Heritage Site, elevating recognition of the town’s global cultural significance to the level of such places as Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt and the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. This should, of course, be encouraged, especially since the province currently only has two UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is in danger of losing one of them (Gros Morne National Park, that is) to the oil industry.
It would also give another reason for even more humans from around the world to visit the pretty town and not only meet some local people, but some local wildlife as well.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.