As we traveled northeast up the Strait of Belle Isle during the night, Quebec faded behind on our port side. We had reached Labrador, the other half of the province of Newfoundland Labrador. Here lies Red Bay National Historic Site, which tells the story of the 16th century Basque galleons that plied these waters in search of right and bowhead whales. The wreck of a galleon here in 1565 was the clue which led archeologists to the shores of Red Bay’s Saddle Island, within the natural protection of this small harbor.
Attracted here initially by the cod fishery, these fisherman from part of present-day Spain and France soon set their sights on the much more lucrative migrating whales, harvested for their oil and baleen. It seems incredible that men had the courage to set forth in these tiny, vulnerable chalupas to harpoon their massive prey, not once but many times. After the first blow, additional harpoons carrying small sea anchors called drogues were used to further tire the whales, at least 25,000 of which were killed here over the years.
Like an Indiana Jones mystery, researchers discovered ancient documents hinting at the location of the ill-fated San Juan, which was discovered remarkably well-preserved. The fine condition of its artifacts can be attributed to its rapid destruction and burial in silt. Dad was intrigued by the array of early navigational tools on display in the museum, as well as such fragile items as woven mats and looms for weaving textiles onboard.
A small boat ferried us over to Saddle Island, where the remains of tryworks for rendering the whale blubber into precious whale oil were visible, as well as a burial ground, cooperage, and lookout where fires would be lit when whales were spotted. This was what I had come to see, the weaving of ancient mysteries with the dramatic textures of the far north. More than an hour slipped by as I gently crouched on the edge of the spongy matted vegetation to capture just the right memories to take home.
That night we saw our first icebergs, small ones, a vivid white against the distant bluish gray of what remains of Labrador. In the dark of night, we turned away, headed across the Labrador Sea toward Greenland, continuing on through the murky greyness of another full day. Occasionally the hollow mournful call of the ship’s foghorn would vibrate through the ship and, when I went to swim, I found the pool quite cold and waves surging back and forth in concert with the swells below.