Whale-watching tours are back on the water, but operators say it will take a few years to recover

The 2021 season has been successful for frequent whale sightings. The whaling season usually lasts from June to September. (Sent by Capelin Creations)

The whale watching industry – a major draw for Newfoundland and Labrador, attracting tourists and locals alike – is rebounding this year, although seasoned operators say it will take some time for the business back to pre-pandemic levels.

Since Newfoundland and Labrador opened its borders to fully vaccinated visitors from Canada on July 1, operators are seeing an increase in business.

But Michael Gatherall, owner of Gatheralls Puffin and Whale Watch in Bay Bulls, just south of St. John’s, says the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt for years.

“As the days go on, I mean, we see more and more people from different parts of Canada,” he said. “We’re starting to see people from Western Canada. … It’s definitely a very marked improvement from 2020, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Gatherall partnered with O’Brien’s Boat Tours last year to deal with the pandemic. The partnership, which is called GO Tours and which has been a success for both companies, has been renewed for the 2021 season.

Ocean Quest Adventures in Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove has also managed to stay afloat during the pandemic.

The key to success, according to owner Rick Stanley, was offering a wide range of activities beyond whale watching, such as kayaking or scuba diving.

The rugged coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador are also a major attraction for tour boat customers, both locals and tourists. (Henrike Wilhelm/CBC)

“We’re so diverse… Our season is probably much longer because tourists don’t usually start arriving until June, July and August,” Stanley said. “We have two boats here. We usually only have one boat, so it works out pretty well for us.”

A slow path

Coming out of the pandemic, Stanley acknowledges, will be a long one.

“There’s a slowness from what I’m hearing in the industry because of the slow opening,” Stanley said. “It’s going to be slow, and I hope everyone rides that wave.”

While Stanley is grateful for the government support the industry has received from federal and provincial levels, he believes the timing of the province’s reopening has caused many domestic tourists to stay away.

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“What we see here are families, families that have a relationship in our province…but the tourists who had to plan to travel, they still stay home,” Stanley said.

The tour boat industry typically runs from June to September and is inspired by the province’s two main natural attractions in the summer: whales and icebergs. Gatherall hopes the impact of the late opening of international borders will not be felt in future seasons.

“From an international point of view, we have lost a big part of 2021,” he said. “We may see some international traffic in September, but … most of those people would have moved to other destinations by now, possibly putting Newfoundland on the back burner for another year or years, which is unfortunate.”

He was very slow to respond at the international border and we are still dealing with a lot of that fallout.”

Gatherall’s boats will be on the water until September 20, and maybe even longer.

Whales and icebergs aren’t the only attractions visitors can see on their boat tours. Puffins are also a common and popular sight. (Sent by Capelin Creations)

Rebuilding what was lost during the pandemic, Gatherall says, will likely take his company two to three years.

Stanley hopes the province’s pandemic response will be an attractive factor for visitors.

“Newfoundland and Labrador is doing a great job and I think the world is taking notice,” he said.

“I think we’re going to be that safe haven for traveling in the very near future and hopefully that very near future is next year.”

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