By KARLA KELLY
The Digby Courier
With the downturn in the economy this year and a difficult lobster season, the local economy on Digby Neck and the Islands has been getting a boost from the whale watching industry.
Capt. Craig Theriault, skipper of Passage Provider for Petit Passage Whale Watch, is happy with how the season has gone.
“By the time people stop booking whale watching tours with us in the next week or so, we should top the numbers in the last five years,” said Theriault. “2004 was an exceptional year for the whale watching industry but I think most of us involved in this aspect of tourism will agree that 2009 has been a good year.”
The season didn’t start that well.
“With poor weather in June and July, there were some cancellations and rain checks, but we went anyway, in spite of the weather,” he said. “The season really started to pick up in August, so even though it was a poor start we had a good finish.”
Theriault said he tried hard this year to make the season successful and gas prices had a direct impact on whale watching.
“Last year, the gas prices were so high we only managed one trip a day,” he said. “With more reasonable fuel costs, we put a little more push into getting the boat out twice a day this season.”
Brenda Leeman and Patty Ross work at Theriault’s Petit Passage Café and Whale Watch in East Ferry and both agree this has been a good tourist season.
“The numbers have been up this summer with mid-August to the end of September being the best,” Leeman said.
From near and far
There have been tourists from Germany, Trinidad, England, Italy, Australia and California, but also there have been many Canadians traveling within the Maritimes.
“The biggest percentage of tourists going whale watching this year have been from southern Ontario,” said Theriault. “There have also been a fair number from our own province with a good mixture from Europe.”
Theriault credits the influx of German tourists to Sue Kopp, their whale watching tour guide who came to Canada from Germany four years ago.
Kopp said she came to East Ferry by chance and stepped into the whale-watching job the following year.
“I love the whales, always did, and this job is the best way to help make people aware of how important it is to preserve the whales and their habitat,” Kopp said. “People are amazed when they see the whales close up, especially the humpbacks.”
Whales are unpredictable and both Theriault and Kopp said tourists never know what they are going to see.
“On a recent trip there were over a dozen whales with one about 45 to 50 feet long that came up close to the boat,” said Kopp. “The whales seem as curious about us as we are of them.”
On board a cruise last week was a couple from Chicago who were vacationing for the first time in Nova Scotia. Mary Hendrickson and Alex Gibson said the tourist bureau in Digby was incredibly helpful and made the phone call for them to book the trip only an hour before the sailing.
“Everyone around here is helpful and friendly,” said Gibson. “This is our first time to the province and whale watching, but won’t be our last.”
After the three-hour tour both Gibson and Hendrickson said the trip was more exciting that they thought it would be.
“It exceeded our expectations,” said Hendrickson.
The whale watching business is not new to the area, says Theriault.
“Whale watching off Digby Neck began over 20 years ago with Tom Goodwin and the Zodiac tours,” he said. “Tom and Harold Graham were the pioneers in whale watching and our family started offering tours in 1994.”
For several years there were many tour operators, but that number has dropped to a half dozen in the last few years, Theriault said.
“It’s a positive spin for the local economy and draws people from all over the world to our area,” he explained “But you’ve got to love the water and I do.”