In Search of Whales and Icebergs: Quirpon Island, Newfoundland
Wildlife photographer George the Explorer shares his experiences from a recent visit to Quirpon Island, a little-known corner of Newfoundland and Labrador on Canada’s Atlantic coast.
The far-flung beacons that punctuate the end of our lands have a certain mystical allure about them. Flicking through an atlas, these ‘land’s ends’ scream to be explored, bringing out the internal explorer that lives within us all.
It’s for these reasons that, ever since I first caught wind of the place, I’d been longing to visit Quirpon (pronounced ‘kar-poon’) Island. Craggy outcrops and mountaintops, hidden coves and explorers’ treasure troves. Everything about this four-mile long island off the northern tip of Newfoundland – from its mythical history to wildlife rich waters – meant a visit was inevitable.
As we cruised by Zodiac the short distance out to the island, our host Ed explained what makes Quirpon so unique. The island is perched on the edge of ‘Iceberg Alley’, where strong ocean currents bring massive icebergs on a journey from Greenland across to Labrador, and then south along eastern Newfoundland’s jagged coastline. Moreover, huge schools of fish and krill take the underwater escalator belt down too, bringing with them more marine mammals than you could ever begin to comprehend.
Upon landing on the island we walked up to the two semi-detached 1922 lighthouse keeper’s cottages that make up the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn, now a lovingly converted 10-room guesthouse. Here we were met with the warmest of Newfoundland welcomes from Brian, Marilyn, Mariah, Madonna and Doris, the fantastic team that look after the island.
It’s important note that there’s no phone signal, WiFi, or TV at the Quirpon Lighthouse Inn — but who cares? Nature’s entertainment is prime-time viewing, in particular the profusion of marine mammals (around 7 species of whales are common here) that feed just metres away from the shoreline.
Exploring Quirpon Island, you’ll find that each place name tells its own story: Dead Sailors Point, Admiral’s Grave, Tickle Cove, and French Captain’s Headstone. In fact, Quirpon is steeped in history, with Vikings setting up their first camp in the Americas just 5 miles away, and indeed some turf houses on the island itself.
Then the wildlife. Oh, the wildlife. As a wildlife photographer I’ve been all over the world but, spoiler alert, Quirpon Island is hands-down the best photographic experience I’m yet to have.
Gannets diving like bullets 50m from shore, humpback whales semi-beaching themselves to fish, white-beaked dolphins zipping around gorging on capelins, minke whales gliding through the ocean. Stay here between June and late August and you can expect to see hundreds of whales and dolphins. Yes, hundreds. In fact, up to 22 different species of whales can be found in the waters off Quirpon Island.
Much of my two days on the island were spent sat atop the cliffs watching the spectacle below. Icebergs would roll in and collapse, whales breaching, gannets circling, dolphins darting around. Christopher Nolan could only dream of creating such an epic.
At the end of the day the communal dinner was a real highlight; swapping stories of whale spotting, sharing top-tips on locations, and learning more about the jam-packed history of the island in the Inn’s snug lounge.
Leaving Quirpon was hard and although we all had places to be, nobody wanted to leave. It’s only when you reach the earth’s limits that you feel closest to its heart. I can say as a surety: I’ll be going back. Again, and again…. and again.
Plan your adventure
Getting there couldn’t be easier. Like me, you could drive up from the gorgeous Gros Morne National Park, following the unsurprisingly history-rich ‘Viking Trail’ for 4 hours and taking in stunning coastal views along the way. Alternatively St Anthony is the closest airport to the island, with regular flights from St John’s. From the tip of Newfoundland, transfer to Quirpon Island is by Zodiac.