O’Brien’s Boat Tours, having a whale of a time for 38 years

Posted on June 30, 2023 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments


An O’Brien’s boat tour group experiencing a whale in the water (photo credit: O’Brien’s Boat Tours)


Humpback whales, puffins, icebergs and picturesque views of Newfoundland and Labrador’s coastline — take it all in on an O’Brien’s Boat Tour. Soon approaching 40 years in business, what started as a single-boat operation between two brothers has grown to include a fleet of touring boats, restaurants, gift shops and event space.

Setting sail

The idea for a boat tour business came to Joseph and Loyola O’Brien in the ‘80s while working as fishermen. Noticing a decline in the fishery, the brothers decided a career change was in order and took inspiration from a friend studying sea birds at university. In 1985, O’Brien’s Boat Tours officially launched.

Situated in Bay Bulls, N.L., a fishing village just 30 miles south of St. John’s, O’Brien’s offers tourists a quick escape from the capital city to enjoy a day on the water. In the early days, the company hosted one tour a day on a 25-passenger boat, exploring whales and bird colonies along the province’s coast. As word spread, O’Brien’s began to expand.


Founders of O’Brien’s Boat Tours, brothers Joe and Loyola O’Brien, in the early days of the business (photo credit: O’Brien’s Boat Tours)


Breaching business

Throughout the ‘90s, O’Brien’s scaled operations to respond to customer demand. The 25-passenger boat was swapped for a proper touring vessel with a wrap-around deck and heated cabin. The brothers also slowly grew their fleet of boats and added to their daily tour schedule over the years. In 1997, their Sailors Galley restaurant opened its doors, as well as their first gift shop.

As technology evolved, O’Brien’s launched a website, which allowed for online bookings and the ability to showcase different tour options. This upgrade made it easier for groups to make specialized requests to customize their experience, which Joe O’Brien says was important for their operations. He commented: “We make tours very personalized … it’s how we’ve been running the business, listening to guests’ needs and concerns.”


A video showcasing what you can see on an O’Brien’s Boat Tour; birds, whales, icebergs and more (video credit: O’Brien’s Boat Tours on YouTube)


Rocky waters

With the vast majority of their business coming from tourists, the pandemic hit O’Brien’s hard. Travel restrictions and general uncertainty led to an interesting collaboration. In 2020, O’Brien’s Boat Tours and local competitor Gatherall’s Puffin and Whale Watch partnered for the summer season. The arrangement helped both organizations manage costs and stay above water.

With things getting back to normal, both businesses have resumed their individual operations. However, Joe mentioned that the partnership gave them a better working relationship.


A recent photo of Joe and Loyola O’Brien, founders of the business (photo credit: O’Brien’s Boat Tours)


All aboard

O’Brien’s Boat Tours is currently open for the 2023 season, which runs from May until the end of September each year. With four boats on the water, two restaurants, gift shops, event space and about five to seven tours daily, operations have come a long way.

Commenting on the experience of an O’Brien’s tour, Joe says: “We let people have a great ‘ole time. With knowledgeable tour guides and entertainment onboard, customers can ask questions in real time and enjoy a live musician singing a Celtic Irish sea shanty. It’s an engaging experience that feels like stepping back in time.”


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