Waiting for Tides at the Bay of Fundy | Nat Geo Traveller India

Waiting for Tides at the Bay of Fundy

The world’s largest tides—as high as a four-storey building—wash up at Canada’s Bay of Fundy. A writer discovers the drama.  
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The Flowerpot Rocks (right) on Hopewell Cape—eroded sandstone boulders can be visited during low tide;  A humpback whale (left) splashes about in the Passamaquoddy Bay. Photos by: KenCanning/istock/getty images (whale), bichiophotographs.com/moment/Getty Images (rock formation)

“Where are we?” asks a wee girl gazing in rapture at the reddish rockscape that surrounds us. I empathise with her question, for at this moment, standing dwarfed amidst cliffs, arches and urn-shaped stacks that look forged out of some deep subconscious, I too feel like Alice in an imaginary land. Only this is real, and these are the Hopewell or Flowerpot Rocks at the Bay of Fundy, which winds between the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Atlantic Canada.

Twice a day, the world’s most stupendous tides wash up at the Bay of Fundy. Waves as high as 50 feet (the height of a four-storey building), holding 160 billion tonnes of seawater, gush in and out of its dramatic cliffs and wild, rocky shoreline. Now the cold briny water swells, covering just my feet. In half an hour the water is up to my waist. In an hour, should I stand my ground, only bubbles would mark this spot. The free-standing stacks become islands twice a day—you can walk around them at one time of day, and kayak around them at another. The best way to see the change is to visit the rocks at high tide, and return to the same site six hours later at low tide. Taking me further down a path of whimsy is the colour of the water itself, a ruddy brown. Beth Johnston, my guide, proffers an explanation: “The motion of such a large volume of water mixing with silt from the mudflats makes it brown, creating the chocolate river effect.”

My base city for these adventures is Saint John, 176 kilometres southwest. Over the years it has morphed from gritty port to dynamic urban centre. Nineteenth-century architecture in red brick and sandstone carpets the streets of the historic core, now a theatrical backdrop to a vibrant art and music scene. From Saint John commences a litany of options for coach trips or private guided tours—though self-driving remains the most popular way—to the Bay of Fundy, the surrounding sea cliffs, fossils and natural aquaria.

 

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Natural wonders can be found all across the bay, be it purple sun stars and Northern red anemones (top left) on the ocean floor, or the Atlantic puffins (bottom left) at Machias Seal Island; Enjoy John Hooper’s inter-active public art sculpture (top right) and the many murals (bottom right) that punctuate the streets of Saint John. Photos by: Sonia Nazareth (mural & sculpture), Andrew J Martinez/Science Source/Dinodia Photo Library (starfish), Warren_Price/istock/Getty Images (puffin)

 

The more days I give the area, the clearer it becomes that the tides and the weather, not the clock or the calendar, determine an itinerary. The following morning, I drive 45 kilometers to St. Martins, a tiny village, typical of Atlantic Canada, and join a Zodiac (inflatable dinghy) tour of the Fundy Biosphere Reserve. Just as I get set to ooh and aah over mossy cliffs, coves, and the curious faces of porpoises and seals, the weather disposes. Thankfully the locals who talk optimistic and dress pessimistic—a good way to live in these parts—always have an alternative plan on hand.

It is thus that I find myself, just a few minutes away from St. Martins, on the Fundy Trail Parkway. There’s a possibility of exploring the area on a 30-kilometre road trip that showcases its mindboggling coastal features. I, however, opt for a two-kilometre one, from a host of trail options. In the pewter grey light, confronting the pearly grey of the sea, there’s the excitement born of catching this green oasis off guard. I grow to appreciate the fog, formed when the moist air from the land is chilled by cool bay water, an indispensable part of the local ecosystem. Beth and I hike for an hour—on suspension bridges and across small streams, without seeing a single soul, unless you count butterflies zigzagging through shrubs and birds perched precariously on trees.

Hike done, I’m back in the village of St. Martins. Visiting here and bypassing the sea caves and arches would be a little like pottering into Rome and missing the Vatican tour. The tidal charts become my Bible and I’m always consulting them to determine the best time to explore these caverns that would otherwise be filled with water. Seeing the sea caves before and after a visit to the nearby Fundy Trail Pathway, gives perspective on change—not only in water levels, but also in the atmosphere, that can go from grey to blue in a blink. My lust remains snagged on the sea-smoothed stones that look like colourful candy.

Like the caves and stones, people’s lives too are shaped by water here. Fishing boats, for instance, can only leave or dock at the wharf when the height of the tide permits. Dulse (seaweed) harvesters watch the tides too, waiting for that unique combination of warm weather and low tides. That’s the siren call for the collectors who head out to the rocky intertidal flats to harvest this edible red seaweed. Picked and sun-dried, dulse then makes it to the table as a crisp snack, tasting of the ocean.

 

Waiting for Tides at the Bay of Fundy

Saint John (left), the only urban centre on the Bay of Fundy, is as vibrant as its colourful walls; Head to the New River Beach Provincial Park (top right) to watch the shoreline redefined every hour under the clasp of stupendous tides; At dawn or dusk the seascape at Passamaquoddy Bay (bottom right) feels like it’s stepped out of an ornamental placemat. Photos by: Aurélien Pottier/Moment/Getty Images (boats), Sonia Nazareth (colourful wall & couple)

 

For many travellers, ziplining, kayaking, and coastal boat tours are good introduction to the landscape. For me however, long hikes are an irreplaceable way of deepening my relationship with an ecosystem. From St. Martins, I drive 100 kilometres to the Fundy National Park. An hour into my kilometre-long Dickson Falls Trail, on a well-maintained boardwalk, I have made several stops, not least because the park is a meeting place of two major environmental systems—the marine coastal environment and the highlands plateau. Here, where the ocean meets the forest, the stars of nature’s opera are clearly the waterfalls, secluded beaches and coastal cliffs. I am irresistibly drawn to the details and can’t seem to take more than a few pixie steps without ogling some little feature. There are over 400 species of lichen, for instance, some utterly psychedelic in appearance. I’m reminded yet again of how, when environments collide, diversity thrives. I wind up at Dickson Falls, an example of a unique microclimate that co-exists harmoniously alongside other ecosystems in the park. The damp cool here provides perfect conditions for moss, ferns and fungus—all conspicuously absent on the drier bit of this trail.

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Back that evening in Saint John, I realise how much this city has also been shaped by the water that cradles it. Here the New Brunswick museum serves up a superlative collection of great whale skeletons (in addition to its geology, art and fossils). On the seaside promenade is a waterfront mural of a doe-eyed damsel that disappears with the tide. Everywhere restaurants offer a nostril-humping collection of seafood so fresh it could have jumped from out of the ocean and onto my plate. One of them is East Coast Bistro, where the Atlantic salmon is broiled in cumin and black lime for a tangy zest. It is best had with whey-braised leeks, buttered peas and pea shoots—a true ode to the local and the seasonal. But no matter what activity you pursue, there’s no getting away from the matter of the tides. When the monstrous tides of the Bay of Fundy collide with the Saint John River to create whirlpools and rapids, the phenomenon—known as the Reversing Falls—can be viewed from Skywalk Saint John, a stainless steel-and-glass walkway in town.

I’m urged by lovers of the classic Bay of Fundy Road Trip to wend my way off the main highways, into sleepy hamlets and fishing villages along the coast for the reward of wild nature, stunning wildlife and local existence. The wisest advice was to spend a night in the seaside town of St. Andrews by-the-Sea. Just an hour’s drive away from Saint John, this handsome town, founded by United Empire Loyalists in 1784, is a haiku of stately homes, glorious gardens like Kingsbrae and the prospect of exhilarating whale-watching trips in the Passamaquoddy Bay, an inlet in the Bay of Fundy.

 

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Head to Kingsbrae Gardens to take in the glass and metal sculptures (bottom left) that interact with landscaped grounds, or meet the garden’s domestic goats (top right), rabbits, and alpacas; Gorge on fresh seafood (top left); Visit the New Brunswick Museum’s gigantic whale skeletons (bottom right). Photos by: Randy Duchaine /Alamy/indiapicture (whale skeleton), Sonia Nazareth (hand sculpture, goats & food)

 

Dressed in a warm lifesaving suit that serve as buffer against the icy wind, there’s something whimsically appealing about a jet-boat excursion in pursuit of marine wildlife here. The ocean tides push nutrient-rich water to the surface, creating an ideal feeding ground for the rich and diverse marine life that congregates. The seals are absurdly cute and the act of looking out for long-winged seabirds, and whales (humpback, North-Altantic right, minke, finback)—each the size of a small bus—adds precision to our eyesight, sharpness to our hearing. Soundscape ecologists are endlessly fascinated by the range of Humpback whale utterances—moans, cries and whistles, that form exotic songs and serve as a means of communication. We however maintain a respectful distance from them, pledging to report sightings of any injured creature to the coast guard. To make this journey without these new friends would be a less meaningful one.

From St. Andrews it’s a five-minute drive to Ministers Island—Canada’s largest tidal island. Accessible only at low tide by driving or walking one kilometre over the ocean floor. Beth consults the tidal charts—it is important that there’s no water on the sandbar when we’re crossing, as the tide is swift, and the water is frigid. On the island itself, there’s much to be admired, not least the larger-than-life Van Horne Estate, with its sprawling rooms and giant livestock barn. But standing on a knot of rocks jutting into the ocean, watching the shoreline get redefined hourly by the spectacular tides, I am forced to admit that while man has produced much that is marvellous, it is in nature that the sublime truly lies.

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Essentials

There are direct flights between Delhi/Mumbai and Toronto, and frequent, daily domestic flights between Toronto and Saint John. Saint John is the only city on the Bay of Fundy and a good place to base yourself for day trips exploring the Bay and its ecosystem.

The best time to visit is between June and August when the weather is at its best, the fog at its least, and the chance of whale and other marine wildlife (white-sided dolphins, harbour porpoises) sightings are high.

It is essential to consult tidal timetables before planning trips to the Bay of Fundy. The federal Fisheries and Oceans timetable can be found online on the site, www.tides.gc.ca.

  • Sonia Nazareth can be found brandishing pen and camera on various anthropology-based, literary, art and travel assignments across the world.

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