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No-one ever gets tired of this global phenomenon

Story and photography by Janet Wallace

Thoughts of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn fill my head as I look around the cave. It’s larger than my house and features a great view of glistening waves in the distance. After hiking in the sun, the cool air is refreshing.

“This would be a great place to camp!” I say to my friend.

She laughs and points up. On the roof of the cave, about 10 feet above my head, seaweed hangs. Where we stand, she explains, will be underwater in six hours. Not only that, but the entire cave will be filled with water. This is my introduction to the Bay of Fundy.

Later I sit on a tall rock a few feet away from the water’s edge. Mesmerized, I watch row upon row of waves, a bit like a waterfall on its side. Each splash of a wave crash against the land is followed by a muffled drumroll as cobblestones tumble in the undertow. A few minutes later, I realize my perch is surrounded by water more than a foot deep. In the Bay of Fundy, the tide comes in quickly.

Having the world’s highest tides isn’t just an issue of bragging rights—it’s an incredible natural event. But you may miss it if you just drive along the coast, stopping only long enough to take selfies at scenic spots.

You can better appreciate the tides by staying still. I love, for example, having picnics with friends on rocky shorelines. We consider the tide before laying out our goodies. If the tide is going out, we sit wherever we want. If the tide is coming in, we unpack the food far from the water’s edge. (Hint: Fundy lobster makes a great picnic lunch.)

When I have guests from away, they often want to sit right next to the water regardless of which way the tide is going. I suggest they pick out a rocky outcrop several feet from the water’s edge and keep an eye on it. A minute or two later, they express amazement as the rock disappears under water. In inlets and pathways between rocks, the water can come in as fast as 10 metres (33 feet) a minute.

Nailing down the numbers

When planning an excursion by the Bay of Fundy, the following information might help make your trip more enjoyable and safe.

Always check the tide before going out. You can find tide tables at many tourist venues and online at www.waterlevels.gc.ca.

It takes about 6 hours and 13 minutes for the Fundy tide to come in or out; this is the difference between high and low tide.

The magnitude of the tides increases the further you go up the bay and into the tidal rivers. So around Saint Andrews, NB, near the mouth of the bay, the tides are 6 to 8 metres (20-27 feet). At the upper Bay of Fundy, near Hopewell Cape, NB, the tides are 10-15 m (35-49 feet). In Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin, where the tide is squeezed into the inlet, the tides can reach 16 metres
(53 feet). That’s the height of a five-storey building!

The tidal phenomenon creates whirlpools and rip tides. For this reason, kayaking on your own can be challenging. Kayak tours are available along the coastline. The operators know when it’s safe to venture out and where to go.

Be sure to keep track of time and your exit route. When walking on a sandbar or among rock formations, you can suddenly find your route to the high tide mark has been cut off by water. Every year, beach walkers either take an unplanned swim to safety or need to be rescued from sandbars or cliffs.

Lobster boats at low tide in Alma. They can only enter the harbour for an hour or two before and after high tide.

The coastline of the Bay of Fundy is incredibly dynamic. The speed of the tide is just one element of this. Every time I go to the shore, I see something new. Even during one walk, the scenery can change drastically. Miles of rippled sand at low tide can be replaced by whitecaps crashing against the dunes a few hours later.

The waves bring treasures. One day you might walk on a sandy beach. The day after, again at low tide, you might find the beach covered in cobblestones, driftwood or shells. Even more remarkable are the huge boulders that appear and then disappear with the tide: proof that we are dealing with a powerful force of nature.

People along the coast learn to heed the tides. In Alma, for example, lobster boats can only enter the harbour for an hour or two before and after high tide. If you visit at high tide in lobster season, you’ll see lots of activity. While the boats are floating and water splashing against the top of the wharf, the fishermen have just a short window of time to unload their precious, delicious cargo. Six hours later, you can witness the classic Fundy image of fishing boats sitting in their wooden “cradles” on the muddy seafloor.

The Hopewell Rocks also provides a backdrop for the dramatic show. At low tide, you can meander among the base of the “flowerpot rocks.” The rock formations look a bit like potted plants given the few trees on the top of the terracotta-coloured pillars. They are actually tiny islands about the square footage of a small house but four to seven stories high. At high tide, you can kayak among the tops of the rocks at eye level with the pebble-encrusted sandstone that was far above your head several hours before.

Humans aren’t the only creatures to appreciate the massive tidal swings. Hundreds of thousands of shorebirds take advantage of the huge expanse of mudflats exposed at low tide to devour invertebrates. After a feeding frenzy of two to three weeks in late summer, they acquire the energy reserves to fly south, many going non-stop to South America. From observation decks at Dorchester and Mary’s Point, NB, you can watch massive flocks of birds showing off their synchronized flying routines.

We hear so much about the high tides of the Bay of Fundy that we might neglect the wonder of the low tides. At low tide, you can walk for miles on sandy beaches that will be under water a few hours later. On rocky beaches, in areas only exposed for an hour or two each day, spiny sculpins dart for cover in tidepools, while hermit crabs seem to frolic in shallow water.

One time when I was hiking at Fundy National Park, I met a woman rushing down the trail. She asked me when high tide was. When I explained it was 10 minutes earlier, she wailed. 

“I can’t believe I missed it!” She came to a complete stop. “Guess there’s no point of going there now.”

She had thought that the tide came in as a tsunami-like wave, a wall of water four stories high, at the precise moment of high tide. I think she confused the tidal magnitude with the tidal bore—the leading wave of the tide as it enters estuaries and rivers. I explained that the tide was in, but it was still beautiful.

All along the coast of the Bay of Fundy, there are magnificent sights, from cobblestone beaches to sea caves, long stretches of sandy beaches to majestic red sandstone cliffs. The tidal phenomenon is certainly remarkable but, even without that, the area possesses natural beauty well worth exploring. It’s a great place for a quick visit even if you can’t stay for both high and low tides. However, to fully appreciate the tides, put in some time. Pick a beach and return there often to see how it changes. In between visits, you can explore the coastal communities, such as Alma and St. Martins, see the waterfalls at Fundy National Park, and stroll along the shoreline.

When planning your trip, check out the list of “50 Amazing Places” at www.fundy-biosphere.ca of the Fundy Biosphere Reserve. The New Brunswick portion of the upper Bay of Fundy has been recognized as a World UNESCO Biosphere site.

It has been 25 years since I first entered the sea cave on an isolated cobblestone beach. That was my introduction to the Bay of Fundy and the start of a lifelong love affair with the Fundy coast. 

Intro caption: Kayaking at Hopewell Rocks.
Header caption: Low tide along the Fundy shoreline.

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