Daily Archives: September 25, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #256: Red Bay Basque Whaling Station

Posted by on September 25, 2013

UNESCO World Heritage Site #256: Red Bay Basque Whaling Station

UNESCO World Heritage Site #256: Red Bay Basque Whaling Station

From the World Heritage inscription:

Situated in Labrador, in north-eastern Canada, on the shores of the Strait of Belle Isle, Red Bay was an Arctic maritime base for Basque mariners in the 16th century. It is the earliest, most comprehensive and best preserved archaeological testimony of a pre-industrial whaling station. It was used for coastal whale hunting in the summer, the butchery of the whales, and the rendering of the oil and its storage. The whale oil was sold in Europe primarily for lighting purposes. The property includes the remains of rendering ovens, cooperages, a wharf, living quarters and a cemetery, together with the underwater wrecks of vessels and whale bone deposits.

As of my visit in September 2013, Red Bay was Canada’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was added to the list at the meeting in Cambodia in June.

The Red Bay site commemorates the whaling station which was established by Basque whalers in the 1530’s, which if you do the math is only a few decades after Columbus arrived in the Americas. There have been rumors that Basque maybe have visited North American several decades before Columbus but kept it a secret so no one else would fish in their cod waters.

Red Bay is the oldest confirmed Basque settlement in the Americas. The evidence of human habitation is obvious if you walk around nearby Saddle Island. Harpoons, clay tiles, graves and other items have been found and dated to the 16th century. Researches have identified areas where the blubber was boiled in large cauldrons, barrel making sites and other parts of the whale oil manufacturing process.

The greatest treasures, however, were found under the water. Several sunken ships have been found in the area which have shed insight into how the Basques lived and worked.

Despite Red Bay being a very small community, there are 3 different buildings with displays and interpretative. There is a Parks Canada building near the entrance to the city, the community center, and an interpretive center which is on the water.

Any visit should include a trip to nearby Saddle Island. It is only a 3-minute boat ride from the interpretative center and it costs $2. A reasonable visit including a walk around Saddle Island and visiting the interpretative center should be 90-120 minutes.

As Red Bay is one of the more difficult world heritage sites to visit in Canada, it is worth bundling it with a trip to the L’Anse aux Meadows in the north of Newfoundland. You can either travel between the two sites by car ferry, or there are short flights from St. Anthony, Newfoundland and Blanc Sablon, Quebec, which is on the border with Labrador.

Both L’Anse aux Meadows and Red Bay have thematic similarities of early European settlements in North America.