Whale of a rivalry comes to end, as Bay Bulls boat tours merge for summer season

There will be no more shoving or swearing for two seafaring families from Bay Bulls.

COVID-19 prompts boat tour operators to join forces

Members of the O'Brien and Gatherall families have merged for the summer, to form GO Tours and put to rest a longstanding rivalry. (O'Briens Whale and Bird Tours/Facebook)

There will be no more shoving or swearing between two seafaring families from Bay Bulls.

The O'Briens and Gatheralls are setting their histories aside for the summer, merging boat tours and ending a famous feud.

"It's sort of like McDonalds and Burger King," said Joseph O'Brien, owner of O'Brien's Boat Tours, of their history with Gatheralls Puffin and Whale Watch. "It's just business. It's what we do. Competition makes people stronger; it don't make people weaker."

It's a history that's seen both families start as next-door neighbours, before growing up fighting for their share of the tourism market in Bay Bulls and racing to keep up with each other.

They've gotten heated on more than one occasion, though Michael Gatherall laughs off stories about both sides coming to blows on the docks in Bay Bulls.

While some tales have been exaggerated over time, the competitive spirit of both families could never be understated.

"Lots of times we were like dogs with bones, and you know, we fought," said Gatherall. "It's a very short season, it's very competitive."

Michael Gatherall is the owner of Gatheralls Puffin and Whale Watch in Bay Bulls. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

With COVID-19 wreaking havoc on tourism operators throughout the province, the rival families decided to set history aside for the summer and team up to keep their boats in the water and their businesses afloat.

There will be no out-of-province visitors, so the families will have to tailor this season to Newfoundlanders and Labradorians looking for an adventure at home.

"We looked at it and we thought that we still have a local market that's very important to us," Gatherall said. "We were very comfortable with the offerings of the O'Briens, as we're both top-rated services. We thought it would be a good opportunity to enable us to provide the service for 2020 but at the same time not completely go in the hole because the startup and the operational costs are so significant in this industry."

Joe O'Brien says the rivalry between his family and the Gatheralls has prodded both companies to improve and attract tourists from around the world. (Cal Tobin/CBC)

The O'Briens own a 100-seat restaurant near the water, while the Gatheralls have a beachfront property suitable for outdoor events.

Combined, they hope to muster enough business to last beyond the pandemic.

As for the feud, O'Brien and Gatherall said things have been quieter in recent years as they've gotten older. While their rivalry has made for legendary stories, they also believe the competition fuelled each other to improve their businesses each year.

"We've fought to make ourselves known in the industry. And sometimes we got a little pushy or shovey, but that's part of growing up," O'Brien said. "We've matured."

Their partnership, titled GO Tours, will start up on July 1. Bookings can be made through either O'Briens or Gatheralls websites.

Gatherall said there won't be specific spaces where people must stay on the boat, but he's asking people to be mindful of spacing while aboard.

"We'd ask you to please remember physical distancing, please respect personal boundaries," he said. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador