Whales, Moose, and Grouse, Oh My! Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail

October 13th, 2008 at 9:34 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

This morning we had our earliest wake-up since we left Bonaire over a week ago – 6am, for an 7am departure from the resort. The reason for the early departure was that I had committed the family to a 9am whale watching expedition in Cheticamp, which was an 80 minute drive away.

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas wear foul weather gear in anticipation of the Zodiac ride

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas wear foul weather gear in anticipation of the Zodiac ride

We broke fast in the mini-van along the way, and managed to arrive in Cheticamp with time to spare, and checked in at Captain Zodiac’s, right on the waterfront. We and our five other fellow whale watchers were given these great big puffy red suits that made us look like (according to the kids) those astronaut chimps. I personally felt a bit like a red Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man (from Ghostbusters). But those suits, for all their lack of style, were incredibly warm and comfortable. That’s a good thing when you’re whipping through a rough ocean at forty miles per hour in chilly air. Which is precisely what we ended up doing.

For those not familiar with Zodiacs, they are a brand name for a rigid inflatable boat (RIB) and look somewhat like the fast craft that Navy Seals use to do beach landings. The benefit of using a Zodiac for whale watching is that they are small and highly maneuverable.

We spent over an hour bouncing around the ocean at high speed until we spotted several cetacean dorsal fins in the distance. As we approached, it was clear we had found pilot whales. Pilot whales are, species-wise, big brothers to porpoises, getting up to about 20 feet in length (at least based on the pilot whales we saw), with big melon-shaped heads.

A pilot whale in the water off Cape Breton

A pilot whale in the water off Cape Breton

The pod of pilot whales we encountered numbered approximately eight or nine, and were spread out over about a square kilometer of ocean near some cliffs a ways north of Cheticamp.

Two pilot whales breach the water off Cape Breton

Two pilot whales breach the water off Cape Breton

Most of the whales were hunting for food in pairs, but came across a trio of whales as well – a juvenile and two adults. It wasn’t clear if the adults were the parents or two large females (including the mother, no doubt), but it was great to see all three on the surface together, and then see them dive and then surface again, always with the juvenile between the two adults.

A juvenile pilot whale is flanked by two adults off Cape Breton

A juvenile pilot whale is flanked by two adults off Cape Breton

The whales got within a couple of feet of the Zodiac on numerous occasions, and it was great to hear them exhale through their blowholes and see their large sleek shapes glide smoothly through the water.

We were also able to hear the whales “speaking” while they were submerged. Unlike larger whales, and more like dolphins, their speech was high pitched – like a whistle.

After nearly a half hour with the whales it was time to head back to Cheticamp and the warmth of our mini-van heaters.

Until we had driven to Cheticamp, incidentally, we had thought that the western part of Cape Breton was all Gaelic in ancestry, but this morning we discovered that Cheticamp is in the heart of an Acadian section of Cape Breton. All road signs there are in English and French.

Anyhow, the plan was to spend the whole day driving the famous Cabot Trail, which Baddeck sits on, as does Cheticamp. We also had great hopes of wandering one of the main trails along the Cabot Trail and seeing a live, wild moose. Amazingly, we didn’t have to wander at all to see moose, however.

Shortly after we paid our park entry fee, we came upon a “moose-jam” – a traffic jam involving people gawking at moose. We joined the moose jam and discovered a pair of moose (or is it “meese”, as the plural of “goose” is “geese”?) – a large bull and a cow, peacefully grazing off the side of the Cabot Trail. Intent on shooting the moose (with our cameras), Krystyana and I got out of our mini-van and made our way over to the guard rail which separated the people from the moose in the wooded gully below. The moose were obscured by the brush and trees, but clearly identifiable as moose.

Dutch spectators observe a moose cow on the Cabot Trail in Nova

Dutch spectators observe a moose cow on the Cabot Trail in Nova

After a few minutes, the cow wandered up the hill side, grazed a bit and then looked around. At about the same time, Krystyana had started walking back to the mini-van, and the cow started following her, unbeknownst to Krystyana. There did not appear to be any danger to either of them, and Krystyana finally realized she had a companion trailing her when her brother started gesturing wildly from inside the mini-van. Krystyana slowly got inside as well, and the cow settled down behind the mini-van to snack on more vegetation.

A moose cow grazing on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

A moose cow grazing on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

Meanwhile, the bull started to come up the gully’s slope as well, but stopped at the edge to graze as well, calm as could be even with a half dozen people within 20-30 feet of him (I made sure to put other gawkers between me and the bull moose, of course).

A moose bull on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

A moose bull on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

We ended up with over 10 minutes of moose time and some great photographs as a result. Our day was nearly complete – whales and moose. All we needed was a bear or beaver or other unusual creature to round things out.

After driving on we started encountering quite a bit of rain, but that did not prevent us from stopping at various look-out points to behold the vistas of fall foliage and dramatic terrain.

Lunch was at a small motel/restaurant in Pleasant Bay called the Midtrail Motel and Inn – it had been recommended to us by one of the people at Captain Zodiac’s. We had a simple but decent meal, including some great seafood chowder. And we got Bas to try the local version of poutine, a dish consisting of cheese melted over french fries and then topped with gravy. Not for the low-card oriented diner though.

Fall foliage is peaking on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

Fall foliage is peaking on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting various art and craft shops along the Cabot Trail, a stop at the North Highlands Community Museum (where we watched movie footage from the 1950s about life at a nearby fishing village), and walking some trails in search of a beaver dam (never found one).

However, as the day wound down, we almost ran over a grouse (we believe it may have been a spruce grouse) as it waddled across the road in front of us, got scared by an oncoming car, and then flew up into the air just in time to avoid our windshield. We figured that the grouse would be the closest we’d get to an unusual critter trifecta today, hence its inclusion in the title of this blog. Alas, we did not get a picture of the bird as we were as startled by it as it was by us.

Dinner was at the Lobster Galley in St. Ann’s Bay. Linda and Krystyana enjoyed traditional Thanksgiving fare (Krystyana sans the carb-laden fixings) as it was Canada’s Thanksgiving Day today, while I had a seafood appetizer platter for two (for just me, as a main course). The main courses were pretty good, but the desserts were quite poor – we had an apple crisp and a three berry crisp, and both were gummy and lacking in flavor. And the whipped cream was either DreamWhip or something made with Cool-Whip. Weird texture there too. The lobster dishes some of the other folks had looked like they might have been a better choice, but we were all lobstered out.

Along our travels we realized that paying cash in U.S. dollars meant we were actually paying 10% more for things due to the current exchange rate, so we ended our evening by getting Canadian dollars from an ATM machine with our new Capital One Online Banking ATM cards – they are the only ones I have found so far which do not charge a hefty foreign transaction fee (which seemed to exceed 3% in some cases for our Citizens Bank checking account ATM cards, even when getting U.S. dollars abroad, like back on Bonaire). This change alone should save us a lot of money in the coming year.

Our plan tomorrow is to move up to Louisbourg and visit Fort Louisbourg for a tour of that old fortress. And on Wednesday we make our way to Prince Edward Island. So far we’ve been averaging over 250km per day on our mini-van. That’s a lot for a person like me, who generally hates to drive. But I’m managing.

Footnote: You may have noticed this post, unlike others from Nova Scotia, has pictures. They were necessary. The full trip on-line photo album is still planned, but may be a week away, at least.


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5 Responses to “Whales, Moose, and Grouse, Oh My! Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail”

  1. The Old Folks Says:

    Very nice story an pictures (especially those three red monkeys.) Just FYI Jake, The Celtics and Kelts (Gaelians) lived about five centuries in the area where is now Czech Republic, then moved north and ended up in Ireland. (That´s why we have the same kind of humor with the Irish…Also the blue eyes and fair complexion.) If you would one day check your DNA you will find taht you (and obviously also Yana and Sebastian) have roots in Celtics blood. Now, as the Czech citizens, I believe you should know that.

  2. Bonnie McCormack Says:

    Dear Richters,

    I stumbled upon your website while cruising the net for info on the Hopewell Rocks. I liked what you wrote about your visit to Canada. I think I have met a few of the not so friendly Canadians you speak of and I appreciate that you don’t judge all by the few. I do hope you come back for another visit. Canada is indeed a beautiful country. I have seen 8 of the ten provinces and intend to see the other two just to say I touched the country, end to end…dipping of the toes in both oceans. Cool or what?

    One comment I really wanted to make regarding the moose pics.
    (plural of moose is still moose although I like the meese comment)
    I have seen moose all my life and not once did I get out of a vehicle to have a closer look. In fact, if a moose stops us on the road, we keep the car in reverse ready to get the heck out of the way because you won’t find a more unpredictable animal then these, especially in mating season, which you happened to land smack dab in the middle of. (hence the reason the cow was soooooooooo “friendly”. The bull, well, I have no idea why he didn’t do anything about “intruders” on his territory. This is not meant to be a lecture or an insult, just an observation. You folks were indeed lucky and actually envied. I will never take that chance myself but I thank you for the beautiful pictures. Please be very careful next time.

    Love to have you for coffee

    Take care

  3. Jake Richter Says:

    Thanks Bonnie! We may well take you up on the offer of coffee (and hopefully tea too).

    As far as the moose rutting season goes, we were told by the locals in Cape Breton that it was already over, and certainly the non-aggressive behavior on part of both moose seemed to reflect that. But we proceeded cautiously nonetheless, in part by trying to always keep other tourists between us and the bull moose (as well as carry a very big lens for my camera) 🙂

    We still have a few provinces to cover before we’ve hit them all. Good luck on getting to your final two!


  4. Pamela Says:

    Really pretty pictures!!
    In Cape Breton, we have had multiple animal attacks in the past few years, and moose have no problem charging people. Especially the bulls in the rut in the fall, and if you get too close to a calf… sometimes without even seeing the calf, a cow will attack. Yet tourists are less scared of moose than bears!
    Please keep your distance. Especially with your children. It’s nice to be close to nature, and be outdoorsy… but please respect wild animals’ space for your own safety and thiers.
    So that you can keep taking lovely photos : )

  5. Pamela Says:

    I did not read Bonnie’s post. Could have just said ‘ditto’.