Red Bay Basque Whaling Station
Red Bay Basque Whaling Station comprises the archaeological remains of the largest pre-industrial whaling site in north-eastern Canada.
The station was founded in the 1530s by Basque sailors, who made an annual transatlantic voyage to the site for summer whale hunting. They processed the whales in situ and took the oil home to Europe. The remains are mostly underwater or covered up. They include traces of buildings (including ovens for melting the whale blubber), whalebone deposits and shipwrecks.
Community Perspective: even when whaling is not your thing, you’ll enjoy the beautiful surroundings of this site. Take the boat out to Saddle Island (closed during the bird nesting season). Red Bay lies far from anywhere, but it is a relatively easy add-on to a trip to Newfoundland by ferry (see Randi’s review for the ‘difficult’ approach by gravel road).
Map of Red Bay Basque Whaling StationLoad map
Ok, I will admit. I absolutely love Newfoundland & Labrador, which may have resulted in me giving this site at least a 1/2 star more than had it existed in a less beautiful province.
Red Bay is located in the Labrador part of the Newfoundland & Labrador, which is even less populated and more remote than the rest of this rugged province. Red Bay has a small but well put-together interpretation centre. The highlight of the centre is a 16th century Basque chalupa (small boat), which was discovered in the waters of Red Bay and painstakingly restored.
From the village, you can get on a boat to visit the small islands in the bay, such as Saddle Island, which is within the UNESCO boundary. From anywhere in Red Bay, you can see the wreck of the ship Bernier. Parks Canada also offers guided walks, and I have always found their walks to be very informative.
You can get a very good sense of the place with a 2 hour visit. If you drive further north from Red Bay, you can visit Mary's Harbour. From there, you can take an once-a-day ferry to Battle Harbour, which is a restored ghost fishing village. Battle Harbour is not an UNESCO World Heritage site, but it would not shock me if it does become one in the future.
If you are spending time and money to visit remote Labrador, it makes no sense not to also visit the other (relatively) nearby UNESCO World Heritage sites, i.e., Gros Morne National Park and L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Both of these sites are in western Newfoundland or (the Labrador side of Newfoundland).
A word of a warning. Newfoundland & Labrador is very difficult to explore without a vehicle, and the province has very limited supply of rental cars in the summer. If you are visiting during the short, high tourist season, please make sure you reserve your vehicle weeks, if not months, ahead of your trip.
I visited Red Bay in July 2023 on a family camping trip to Newfoundland and Labrador. We began our visit at the interpretive center right on the waterside. The history of the Basques and their whaling in this area is well presented and documented. Many interesting artifacts are on display (including clothing, boat parts and crockery) and contribute to the exhibition. It's worth noting that most of the archaeological remains of Red Bay's economic activity are at the bottom of the bay, having been carefully returned there after discovery, inventory, and study.
A shuttle boat runs (now for free) every hour between the interpretation center and Saddle Island. A well-marked trail dotted with information panels circles the island. It's possible to visit it independently or with a Park Canada guide-interpreter. Since my mother doesn't understand English, we opted for the first option. It takes about an hour to walk the entire trail, taking the time to read all the signs and take photos, which allows you to return just in time to catch the next shuttle. It's nice to walk around the island and tread the ground where the Basques processed whale blubber, but there's very little evidence of this activity. We can only guess at the shape of ancient furnaces in the grass of the island. It's instructive, but not very impressive. A much more recent wreck catches the eye.
It should be noted that the most interesting archaeological piece preserved out of the water, a small chalupa over 400 years old found under the wreck preserved in Red Bay, is in the other interpretation centre, located up the hill near the church. At the time of our visit, it was closed, but it is possible to ask a Parks Canada guide to open the building for visitors to see the ship. All the exhibitions and services should be moved to this newly renovated building in the next few years.
We rounded off the visit with a hike on the Tracey Hill trail, on the west side of the bay. It's a long climb on boardwalks and steps. The hill offers an exceptional view of the bay, the island, the village, and the icebergs in the distance (even on 30 July!). A fork in the path leads to Boney Shore, where the Basques left an extraordinary quantity of whale bones. However, according to the Park Canada guide, shortly before the site was protected by UNESCO, all the local artists, sculptors, jewellers and looters would have rushed to the beach to collect the bones. So now only a handful remain, scattered in the tall grass.
On a final note, Red Bay is a very interesting site, with a rich history and many artefacts, but very few of which can be seen in situ. The bucolic landscape and the hike up Tracey Hill are the highlights. And I can confirm what Els said: the fish and chips and bakeapple tartlets in the restaurant just outside the interpretation centre are a treat!
I did not ‘engineer’ my 800th visited World Heritage Site: my Canadian itinerary was already set before I decided to go to Tunisia first. With no ‘misses’ in between, the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station became my #800. The place does not sound as exciting as Okavango and Uluru for example, which were my #700 and #400 respectively. But in the end, I was happy with it as I found it an enjoyable site in a rather remote location.
If you look up on a map where this is located, you will see how remote and isolated it is. Labrador's first "big" town - with the beautiful name Happy Valley Goose Bay - has only 8,000 inhabitants and is 550 km away. Fortunately, Labrador is part of the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, so the province subsidizes a ferry that runs daily between the tip of Newfoundland (near L'Anse aux Meadows) and Blanc Sablon (an hour south of Red Bay). Ideal for the WH traveller.
I was a bit concerned about this ferry beforehand: it gets very bad reviews, the company has a terrible website and you can only reserve by phone. On the spot, it turned out not to be too bad and both trips were right on time on a spacious ship. There was also a lot of freight traffic and a single tour bus on this 1.5-hour crossing.
The drive along the Labrador coast the next morning was beautiful. You see mountains, endless coniferous forests and fast-flowing rivers. There was even more snow here than in Newfoundland, also bordering the road (this was June 22!). The villages looked tough to live in, they reminded me of those in Greenland. On the Town of Red Bay Facebook page, an interesting glimpse into what it means to live there is given: volunteers are needed to shovel snow / professional snow blowing equipment is for rent. And remove your boats from the dock when the cruise ships are there! Surprisingly, Red Bay is on the itinerary of some of the large cruise lines. Their summer schedule for example shows the HAL Nieuw Statendam arriving, with 2666 passengers on board. Seven other cruise ships are expected between July and September 2022.
In town, the Visitor Center was closed but the Exhibition Center at the bottom of the street wasn’t: it features exhibits on the life of the Basque whalers here, who arrived with about a thousand men during the summer season. It was the start of whaling on an industrial scale and in 70 years the Basques depleted the waters.
I quickly moved on to the quay, where I joined the boat that brings tourists to Saddle Island every hour. There were only 3 other passengers. On Saddle Island you can take a one-hour walk along the archaeological sites. Because of the bird breeding season, part of the island was closed and we had to return via the same path. Fortunately the sites have signs with numbers next to them, otherwise, you would have walked right past them. The Basque remains mainly consist of ovens. There is also a cemetery. After being excavated, they have been covered with earth again. So at best you see an elevation in the ground. Even worse is the situation with the underwater finds: from the coast, you can stare at the water, where a few meters deeper (invisible) must lie a complete ship.
A few minute's drive outside the town of Red Bay (but still included in the core zone) lies the Boney Shore Walking Trail, a trail focused on whalebones. It lies high enough to have beautiful views over the bay again: there is an inland harbor and a seaside part. Islands protect the entrance, and the remains of buildings and ships can still be seen, but people haven’t lived there for a long time. The whalebones were a bit difficult to find at first – they are not on the beach and not on the path, but just in between. They look like stones, but their shapes still betray them.
Along the coast here you will also see many interesting water birds that are typical of this northern climate. I'm not good at recognizing them, but I think I've seen Common loon, Common eider, and Red-breasted merganser, among others.
To celebrate my 800th milestone, I ended my visit at the Whalers restaurant in Red Bay (the only restaurant in town). They have good Fish & Chips here, and I finished it off with a piece of Bakeapple (= cloudberry) Crumble pie!
Read more from Els Slots here.
We visited this northern outpost in June 2018. This world heritage site is not the greatest, but our effort getting there, and the coastal surroundings made it one of the most memorable places on our Canada trip. We drove the inland route from Quebec along the St Lawrence Bay up to Baie Comeau and then route 389 some 590 km to Labrador. Further on the Trans Labrador Highway back to the eastern coast. It’s about 1600 km through desolate land, mostly paved but about 600 km is still gravel. At the most there are about 4oo km between settlements and gas. The isolated settlements or towns were fun to visit. We stayed overnight in Wabush close to Labrador city and in Happy Valley Goose Bay on the way.
We arrived in Red Bay with cloudy weather and 8-10 degrees. A reservation at Red Bay Whaling station turned out to be a cabin – a small strand house with view to Saddle island, within the core zone of the world heritage site. During dinner at the only restaurant in town, the whaling station, the weather cleared, and the view became just fantastic. It greatly reminds us of the nature and small communities of northern Norway, except for the icebergs passing by😊
The next morning the wonderful weather continued, blue sky, no wind, perfect for exploring the site. The morning views from our cabin to the Saddle island was amazing.
From the whaling station there is a boat service out to Saddle island every hour, 2 CAD, and we took the 9 am boat. As the only passengers we had the whole island to ourselves. Around the island there’s a self-guiding tour with information at every stop or “sight” and we had a map from the visitor center. Really there is not much to see, if you don’t know what you are looking for. There are remnants of rendering stations, support buildings, wharf and a cemetery. It was a nice and quiet morning stroll on the island. There are lots of birds nesting on the island. After an hour, the boat came and took us back. Still no other tourists in sight.
The visitor center is small, but informative. It was interesting to learn how they discovered the history of the Basques whaling operations. They were searching the coast for remnants. On Saddle Island they found pieces of tiles that is typical on houses in Spain. There are also several wrecks in the harbor. The visitor center costs 8 CAD. It is part of the Canada national sites and we bought an annual pass. This turned out to be a good deal for us.
In the beginning in of the 1500’s, for a period of 70-80 years, the Basque whalers used Red Harbor as a seasonal base for producing whale oil for sale in the European markets (used for lamp oil, cosmetics etc.). Each spring as many as 2000 men came to this coast to and set up their operations and to hunt Right and Bowhead whales. They had several bases along the coast, but Red Bay was the busiest because of the natural sheltered bay. By the 1580’s the number of whales had declined and the Basque whaling slowly ended.
We took an afternoon drive to the other side of the bay and hiked up to the lookout of Tracy Hill, Amazing views of the bay and some icebergs. Then a short trip down to the Boney Shore with remnant of whale bones. Both trails are in the core zone and well worth the effort.
A great stay in Red Bay, it is worth spending a night. Vi spent two nights and took the ferry to Newfoundland early next morning.
### Randi & Svein
Visited 13JUL 2018
Getting to Labrador requires a very long drive (8-10 hours) from the east coast to the west. Another option would be a flight into Deer Lake, but check on whether any rental cars are available first as this was an issue for us as were the drop off charges that were exorbitant?
Enroute to the Ferry that goes to Red Bay, take the Viking Trail (route 430) which goes through gorgeous Gros Morne National Park, also UNESCO, which we planned to do on the way back.
Also, consider a brief halt at The Arches Provincial Park along the way. It features a very photogenic Rock formation!
Our GPS didn’t recognize tiny St. Barbe, the ferry town to Labrador, but just keep on the Viking trail and you will get there. Check out the ferry schedule carefully; we found that Friday had boats that allowed us to do a return day trip, unlike other days. The ferry is a pleasant two-hour trip. From the ferry dock in Blanc Sablon (actually in Quebec), it is a daunting one hour drive to Red Bay. The road is mostly potholes. A local quipped that we would wish it was a gravel road. In mid-July, we could see patches of snow near the highway. The weather was sunny but winds ranged from brisk to near gale force.
The charming town of Red Bay is situated on a sheltered sea, which made it ideal for whaling in days of yore. The visitor’s centre is a museum dedicated to the story of the Basque whalers who travelled here to ply their trade. Clothes, astrolabes and other sea tools and ruined ships were found to document the Basque presence in this area.
The Museum does a fine job of detailing the whaling life, but the piece de resistance is a 5 minute (weather permitting) $2 boat ride to Saddle Island. This isle has a fairly easy to walk trail with artefacts of the whaling industry including ovens, an old house and a large rusting wrecked ship and indications of where Basque finds had been made. The trail has lovely views and is well signed, making it a very fine one hour walk just in time for the boat pick up. Whalers is a restaurant with nice folks and great fish and chips just across from the Museum.
This very enjoyable site was enhanced by the uniqueness of Labrador and its People!
Red Bay Basque Whaling Station is a quite new World Heritage Site (2013), but definitely worth it's UNESCO-status. It is an amazing place to visit, both the history and the stunning surroundings make this a very nice experience.
The history of the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station is told at the Visitor Centre, which is informative and well-organized, but not very big. The main sight, Saddle Island, was closed on our visit due to birds nesting (mid-June). A boat will normally take you out to Saddle Island where one can stroll around and look at the remains of the whaling station, including the old cemetery.
The many shipwrecks in and around the bay are an important part of the UNESCO-status. At the Visitor Centre one can see one of the smaller basque vessels, the chalupa.
We were truly amazed by the beautiful surroundings of Red Bay, including the magnificent icebergs drifting past. We drove up from Blanc Sablon, where one can arrive by ferry from Newfoundland, and the hour-long drive was stunning. If you visit Newfoundland and the wonderful UNESCO-sights Gros Morne and L'Anse aux Meadows, be sure to take the detour to Labrador and Red Bay.
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