The coming and going of ocean tides has always played a role in my life. I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood on a narrow peninsula surrounded by the sea. As a kid, I would park my bike at one of the public shore access points and go scurrying along the rocks for hours. I’d fish and explore, the extent of my travels dictated by the level of the water. Down the street from our house was a shallow, mud bottom harbour, and on warm summer nights the sulfurous odours of low tide would filter in through my open bedroom window.
Later on in Maine, working on a lobster boat and learning to surf, I grew an even deeper adoration for the way tides impact ocean conditions and coastal ecosystems. Only the most skilled lobstermen can place their traps on the ocean bottom with accuracy, by calculating where to make the drop based on the direction and speed of the tidal current. I’ve seen the force of an outgoing tide organise large, and totally erratic wind swells into long A-frame peaks within the span of an hour. And I’m fascinated by the transformation of the landscape at low water. So when I first learned about the Bay of Fundy possessing the largest tidal range in the world, I knew I had to go see that.
The Bay of Fundy extends from the Northeast end of the Gulf of Maine, splitting the Canadian maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. An average of 115 billion tonnes of water move in and back out of the bay every twelve hours. The upper part is divided into Chignecto Bay and Minas Basin, the world’s largest vertical tide ever recorded being in the latter body at 17 meters (55.8ft). These numbers are truly astounding on paper, but they still didn’t prepare me for the experience of seeing this phenomenon in real time.
I finally got a chance to visit Nova Scotia last spring, with my wife and two young daughters, on an artist and family residency program. We were granted a two week stay in a well positioned house on a rocky bluff overlooking St. Mary’s Bay, known as Baie Sainte Marie to the French speaking Acadian Coast locals. St. Mary’s Bay is an offshoot of Fundy Bay, the two bodies being separated by a long thin finger of land named Digby Neck. It’s the kind of place where eagles perch in coastal pines, seals lounge on sun-warmed rocks and the wind is unrelenting. Fog banks lurk around lush green headlands, creeping into coves and sweeping across the vast tidal flats.
“For someone who has always been enamoured by tidal fluctuations and coastal landscapes, it was a trip to paradise.”
The first thing I noticed was that there is little to no slack time between the ebb and flow. Unlike other coasts where maximum high and low tides last a while before reversing, in Fundy Bay the water changes direction almost immediately. Flowing so swiftly that it feels as if the whole ocean is breathing in and out deeply, in a semi-diurnal cadence. As the water recedes, huge expanses of sand and mud are exposed, elaborate rock formations unveiled and boats stranded aground seemingly impossible distances from the sea. Fishermen must live and work in unison with The Bay’s extreme phases.
This was a unique trip, being part photography adventure and part family getaway. The first few days we mixed the two facets; exploring the immediate area together while I scouted locations for subject matter and vantage points. Then taking some longer day trips together to hike and discover more of Nova Scotia’s western shore. But we soon realised that generally the less time the kids spent in the car the happier they were. So for much of our stay we laid low as a family, and I concentrated my image making on the area I could cover in half hour up to half-day excursions. Roughly from Wolfville in the east to Yarmouth in the west, along the scenic byway known as The Evangeline Trail. The route itself being named after the epic 1847 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, titled Evangeline: A Tale of Acadia.
The area was first colonised by the French in the early 1600s, and was known as Acadia. In an event later immortalised by Longfellow, British forces took over the region and expelled the Acadians to southern territories. Eventually they were allowed to return, and descendants of those original settlers still populate the region – farming and fishing in much the same way as their earliest ancestors. Being that I’m part of a large French Canadian family by marriage only intensified my captivation. Clauses from Longfellow’s literary depiction of the place, such as “Sea-fogs pitched their tents…” and “Dykes, that the hands of the farmers had raised with labour incessant, shut out the turbulent tides…” echoed in my mind while I wandered along the modern day Evangeline Trail. When the water was low I relived my childhood scurrying along the exposed sea floor. Only with a tripod and camera over my shoulder instead of a fishing rod. There were days when fierce winds moved heavy clouds across the sky at break neck speed, making it difficult to photograph. Then days when the air was so clean and still that the morning light shined with unparalleled clarity.
The constant motion of the tides kept the scenery changing rapidly. An empty cove I passed by at dawn might be completely flooded with placid seawater when heading home an hour later. Likewise, the fog and mist could engulf or reveal a spectacular view within minutes. These were natural dynamics on a scale I never dreamed of in my childhood suburban neighborhood over a thousand kilometers to the southwest. And similar, but much more extreme than conditions in my current home state of Maine. For someone who has always been enamoured by tidal fluctuations and coastal landscapes, it was a trip to paradise. Coming home from a local scallop dinner on our last night at the house, we spotted an eagle taking off from a tall pine tree, into the sunset over Saint Mary’s Bay. Then we walked down the road in the twilight to bid farewell to the seals who were relaxing in their usual spots. I packed the car in the crisp, late spring air the next morning, and then took one more leisurely bike ride along the cliff to soak up the scenery one last time. The tide was high, but heading out – rushing into the Gulf of Maine, pointing out our direction home.