A Day With "The Clown Of The Sea"
One of my most cherished experiences occurred on a summer road trip with my father when I was eleven years old (I actually don't recall how old I was. I'm ball parking). We spent a lot of time camping in Northern Minnesota, but occasionally he would pack up the car for a long road trip and throw my brother and I in the back seat to test our ability to get along with one another. This particular summer, the three of us and his now nearly halfalifelong partner, spent a month driving from Minnesota north through Eastern Canada and then down through Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont on the return trip. Essentially, we made a giant loop around Northeastern North America.
I was at an age when I was obsessed with keeping a brand new pair of white velcro shoes white. Don't judge. That s*** is important! Despite my quirks, I found every mile we traveled as fascinating as the last. From Montreal to Quebec City to Prince Edward Island to Nova Scotia, it was all amazing. There was one experience we had that, thirty-five years later, plays in my mind as though it happened yesterday.
Machias Seal Island
We were eating dinner one evening at a family restaurant located along the fisherman's wharf in St. John, New Brunswick and I noticed a poster on the wall advertising an excursion out to a tiny rock in the Bay of Fundy called Machias Seal Island. I don't recall what I may have said, but at some point during the dinner my dad got up and left the table for a little while.
The next morning, my brother and I were awakened at some ungodly hour and told to get ready, and quickly. We were heading to Grand Manan. The next thing I remember is standing on a dock shivering, waiting to board a fishing boat. Turns out, my dad had seen something in my face that prompted him to book an excursion out to the very rock that had captured my attention the previous night. I was going to get to see my beloved Atlantic Puffins up close and personal.
I recall fog so thick that the dingy being pulled behind the boat was barely visible for most of the journey. About 70 minutes into the 90 minute boat ride, we saw a shape flit from one puff of moisture to another. Then we saw another and another. Puffins! Their colorful beaks and orange feet instantly recognizable against the dark grey of the morning.
The cacophony of noise emanating from the island grew louder and louder the closer we got. The clouds lifted, the sun came out, and the ocean swells became more pronounced. Machias was directly ahead, iconic lighthouse plainly visible. Seals lounged on rocks along the shoreline. And all around us, thousands upon thousands of sea birds: Atlantic puffins, razorbills, common murres, arctic terns, leach's storm-petrels, and common eiders. 30,000 birds on an island about a kilometer long and 300 meters wide.
Machias Seal Island is a protected sanctuary under the watchful eyes of the Canadian Wildlife Service and is a critical habitat for nesting birds on the Eastern seaboard. It is literally a lonely rock. During nesting season, the island is open to visit. Access is tightly controlled and only a handful of people are allowed to visit each day, weather and seas permitting.
By the time we were clambering over rocks after being disgorged from a tiny boat on a shoreline being battered by "normal" seas, I was so excited I could scarcely believe my eyes. We were warned to watch our every step to avoid eggs that were deposited in the middle of the narrow path that lead up to the viewing blinds. Above our heads, the sky was so thick with activity it was almost a solid mass. Birds were zipping by within feet of my head. And there were puffins. Thousands of puffins.
Photo Credit: Thomas O'Neil
Standing behind the viewing blinds, I vividly remember watching puffins and their brightly colored bills go about their daily routines within an arms reach. Puffins nesting in every nook and cranny, hopping from one rock to another, and waddle-motoring up to gather speed for their notably ungainly take off. They were everywhere. We could even hear them stomping about on the roof of the blind, feet slapping around like fly swatters. Puffins are social creatures and it was plainly obvious from the heads bobbing among grouped gatherings that a lot of greetings were taking place. More amazing still was the fact that puffins only made up a portion of the incredible menagerie I was witnessing.
It was an experience of a lifetime.
Fast forward a quarter century ... Due to rising ocean temperatures and rapidly declining fish stocks, puffin populations along the Northeastern seaboard have taken a huge hit since 2013, by as much as one third. These magnificent birds were reintroduced to Machias Seal Island in 1973 (barely ten years before my visit), after being nearly wiped out by hunters who prized their feathers, meat, and eggs. Now they face an even bigger danger: Global climate change.