Sea life and seabirds describe a little island

The docks at Brier Island’s harbor are on stilts to accommodate the changing tides in the Gulf of Maine. Fishermen store their catch in the small warehouses. Tourists out on a whale watch contribute to the island’s economy, but fishing is the mainstay. The docks at Brier Island’s harbor are on stilts to accommodate the changing tides in the Gulf of Maine. Fishermen store their catch in the small warehouses. Tourists out on a whale watch contribute to the island’s economy, but fishing is the mainstay. (Sandra Macgregor for The Boston Globe (Above); Nova Scotia Tourism Bureau)
By Sandra MacGregor
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2010

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BRIER ISLAND, Nova Scotia — “Are you here for the whales or the birds?’’ says Penny Graham, our guide from Mariner Cruises, as she hands out muffins and hot chocolate to the eight of us gathered on her boat. Most of us yell out “both,’’ but the truth is we are all here to see a whale, and though we would be happy to see a humpback, the elusive blue is the true prize.

Though we are here early in the season (June to September is the best time for spotting whales), Graham assures us she has never had a trip without a sighting. Three hours later, we’ve seen dozens of dolphins, porpoises, and puffins, but not a single whale. It’s not until the boat turns back that two humpbacks appear and give us a bit of a show before they head out deep into the Bay of Fundy. “There you go,’’ says Graham, “no one ever leaves Brier Island without seeing a whale.’’

Brier Island, at the Atlantic province’s westerly tip, is no more than 1 1/2 miles wide and 4 miles long. As an island destination, it’s got daunting competition. On the opposite end of Nova Scotia lies Cape Breton with its famous Cabot Trail, one of the world’s most scenic drives. Despite Brier Island’s legitimate claim to some of the Canadian Maritimes’ best whale- and bird-watching, the tourists are rarely so numerous as to swell the area’s scant accommodations beyond capacity (the island has one hotel, a hostel, and a handful of bed-and-breakfasts).

Then there is its somewhat challenging accessibility: It is at the least populated end of the province, and it takes two ferry rides (though no more than 15 minutes each) to reach the island. And though tourism contributes to Brier Island’s economy, the fishing boats that line the shore are the main source of income for the approximately 300 inhabitants. Boats far outnumber cars here and the din of seabirds rarely ceases.

As the ferry pulls into Westport, the island’s only village, we are greeted by a boisterous group of seabirds; cormorants, seagulls, and greater shearwaters demand fish. A couple from Toronto, on their third visit to the island, still my hand as I try to take photos. “Don’t worry honey,’’ says the woman, “just walk along any of the hiking trails, you’ll see enough birds to last a lifetime.’’

But before I can confirm her claim, I am off to settle in at the island’s only hotel, the Brier Island Lodge, which also operates one of only two restaurants here. Check-in is a casual affair and rather than being asked for a credit card, I’m invited on a tour of the farm that abuts the hotel’s grounds. I’m cheerfully handed a bucket of feed and before I know it I’m surrounded by at least a dozen sheep, some chickens, and a pot-bellied pig — all happy to make my acquaintance for a handful of pellets.

But it’s the undomesticated wildlife I’m here to see, and though whales can occasionally be spotted from the shore, on land it’s the birds that own the spotlight. With its pristine forest and coastline, the island, over the course of a year, will host tens of thousands of migratory birds. Two couples from Cleveland, amateur ornithologists, invite me to accompany them on a hike through the forest toward the coast. They have come to experience what they describe as “some of the best birding in North America.’’ Less than 10 minutes into our hike, they have already spotted a pair of blue herons, a bald eagle, and a turkey vulture flying overhead.

Just as I’m getting the hang of negotiating the uneven, rocky paths while scanning the skyline, I am abandoned when one of the group believes he has spotted a Western kingbird. The foursome excitedly take off deep into the forest in an effort to track their elusive prey.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a birder to enjoy Brier Island’s bucolic hikes. It is at once a terrain of rolling hills and mighty spruce only to become rocky and moor-like as I near the coast. A light fog has begun rolling in as I come across a bog complete with gnarled, stunted trees and I feel like I’ve stumbled into an 18th-century Gothic novel.

Fog is a frequent visitor to the island, and is responsible for some of the over 50 recorded shipwrecks offshore, which explains why such a small island has three lighthouses. No doubt many a fisherman’s wife must have stood along these same cliffs scanning the horizon for sight of a lost ship.

My melancholic musings are suddenly interrupted by strange barking noises and I realize I’ve come upon the aptly named Seal Cove. As the cliffs begin to melt into lower, rocky outcrops I’m greeted by several playful seals bobbing in and out of the water while more than a dozen sun on the shore. I keep my distance and my presence provokes no more than a few curious glances.

Seal Cove is just one of the breathtaking vistas on the island, all of which seem ready-made for a picnic — but come prepared. There is no liquor store on the island and the only place to buy food is at the local convenience store. Be sure to go early to buy any prepared foods. I made the mistake of going after the lunch rush and found the store had been cleaned out of fresh sandwiches and soups by a long line of hungry fishermen.

With so few dining options tourists and locals often bump elbows at dinner time. If you didn’t know fishing was the main industry on the island you would after a glance at the menu: lobster, clams, chowder, and scallops are the main attractions. Brier Island is located at the epicenter of Nova Scotia’s prime fishing spots; 90 minutes away lies Digby with its coveted scallops, and just a little to the south is Yarmouth, which offers up what is considered to be the best lobster in Canada.

Along with the fresh seafood, dinner also consists of some friendly scorekeeping. As the sun sets over the ocean and the locals cheer us on, fellow guests and I recite what whales and birds we’ve seen. I learn that on this beautiful, secluded island a puffin beats a porpoise, a humpback outdoes a bald eagle, but the giant blue whale trumps them all.

Sandra MacGregor can be reached at

If You Go

What to do

Mariner Cruises



Whale and seabird tours June-October; adults $49, seniors $41, children $27.

Hooking by the Sea 161 Water St.


Birding, hiking, and local history tours; some packages include accommodations; prices vary.

Where to stay

Brier Island Lodge Water Street


Comfortable rooms, most with an ocean view. May-October (or longer depending on demand); $89-$149.

Brier Island Hostel Water Street


Clean rooms with a large shared kitchen, year-round, $20 per night.

Where to eat

Brier Island Lodge Water Street


Nova Scotian regional dishes and fresh local seafood; breakfast and dinner only; entrees $12-$17.

Lighthouse Cafe Water Street


Casual, $5-$13; high season only (June to mid-September).