Writer has close encounter of the whale kind

Steve Bartlett sbartlett@thetelegram.com
Published on August 5, 2011

An award-winning Newfoundland writer has quite a story to tell after an encounter with a whale Wednesday.

Michael Winter was rowing off Western Bay Head just before noon when a massive mammal went under his dory and struck the side of it.

“He went under and he stayed under, and then I saw the pectoral fin come up and then he just came and broadsided the dory,” said the author of “The Death of Donna Whalen,” “The Big Why” and “This All Happened.”

“He just came right up underneath the dory, on the one side of it.”

Winter was taking part in the recreational fishery at the time, and had landed two fish.

He estimates being about 200 feet offshore, in a prime spot for jigging cod.

He wasn’t injured or thrown into the water, and his dory wasn’t damaged.

“But it gave me a good jolt.”

After it happened, Winter rowed a few strokes towards shore, collected himself and waited awhile before he resumed fishing.

But then he saw the whale again so he pulled up his jigger and “came home out of it.”

Winter figures he wasn’t making enough noise for the whale to know he was there.

He said he spoke with a marine biologist friend and she suggested he should have been banging on the dory’s gunnels.

He’s already take measures to reduce the chance of a repeat.

“I made a little club to bang the gunnels with if I see one again. I’m a bit leery bout it. If you look at the size of these whales, they are pretty massive. And they’re wonderful to look at a from a distance. It’s just a little shocking to see one up so close.”

Winter captured the encounter on video and posted it on YouTube.

He thought it was a minke whale, but his biologist friend suggested it may have been a baby humpback.

Jack Lawson watched Winter’s video and confirmed it was a humpback.

He’s a whale researcher with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and he wasn’t at all surprised.

“It’s pretty exciting to have one come that close, but we’ve had animals buzz us like that as well,” he said.

If the animal was feeding, Lawson said it might not have cared about Winter being there.

“On the other hand, it might be just playing around, where he’s feeding and there’s a boat there, he might just be giving it a little rub for fun.”

The researcher said it’s tough to advise people how to avoid close encounters of the whale kind.

“Usually the safest thing, of course, is to be making noise. If you’ve got a motor, you’ll be making noise or to, occasionally, knock your oar. If there’s a whale coming around, just tap the side of your boat.”

But that doesn’t always work. Lawson said he’s been on small fishing boats with motors running when humpbacks have crossed in front of their bow.

While what happened was no doubt a rush and makes for a good yarn, don’t expect it to be a scene in Winter’s next novel.

“I think Michael Crummey’s got that covered already in ‘Galore,’” Winter said.


To view Winter’s video, go to the video link near the top of this webpage. (Note, the footage contains some cursing.)


sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: bartlett_steve

A still taken from Michael Winter’s video of his encounter with a whale Wednesday. — Submitted image