An amazing visit with Atlantic Puffins
Tiny East Coast island home to more than 5,500 breeding pairs
The face of 10-year-old Taya Robillard beams with excitement when asked to describe the thousands of colourful Atlantic puffins that populate the barren landscape of Machias Seal Island — located in disputed waters off the coasts of New Brunswick and Maine.
“They were all very cute and they were everywhere,” she said with glee.
There are more than 5,500 breeding pairs of the comical birds on the tiny island, accessible by only one tour operator in New Brunswick and one in Maine.
Taya, her sister Josie, 7, and parents Eric and Holly Robillard of Cape Cod, Mass., had just emerged from wooden blinds constructed to allow tourists to get a close-up look at the various breeds of birds that inhabit the sanctuary.
“To see so many puffins right here, two or three feet away. It’s so cool. They’re so beautiful,” said Eric.
He and his wife are both marine biologists who believe it’s important for their children to visit such places.
“It’s more than I ever expected,” Holly said. “It was really amazing to see so many puffins and other birds in the same spot.”
Getting to the island is a bit of a challenge. First, you need to take a 90-minute ferry ride from Black’s Harbour, N.B., to Grand Manan Island. There are a number of hotels, bed-and-breakfasts and campgrounds for lodging on Grand Manan.
Early the next morning, you’ll drive to Seal Cove to meet Peter Wilcox, who runs Sea Watch Tours and is the captain of the vessel “Day’s Catch.” He and mate Durlan Ingersoll will be your guides for the next 5 ½ hours, starting with the 90minute trip from Grand Manan to Machias Seal Island. They will escort you ashore and ensure you understand the strict regulations in place to protect the birds.
“It’s a privilege to land here and that privilege can be revoked by the Canadian Wildlife Service,” Ingersoll said.
“Most people respect the rules and have a better respect for them when they’re done.”
Aside from puffins, the island is also a breeding ground for razorbills, common murres, Arctic terns, common terns and more.
Wilcox is allowed to take 15 people ashore, per day, six days a week.
“This is my 32nd year,” Wilcox said, adding that he never tires of visiting the island.
“It’s very unique when you think that you can sail for 15 miles and all of a sudden you come across 30,000 birds on an island about a kilometre long and 300 metres wide. I’ve heard it referred to as the ‘Little Galapagos,’” he said.
Once on the island, you’re led in small groups to wooden blinds near the shore. These boxlike huts have flat roofs and small openings to see out and use your camera or video camera without disrupting the birds.
The puffins, with their black backs, white bellies and orange webbed feet, waddle upright much like a penguin.
“They have this great, brightly coloured bill, a bit like a parrot’s beak, that is very spectacular,” said Tony Diamond, a recently retired research professor in wildlife ecology at the University of New Brunswick.
He said the puffins get all their food at sea, and only land on remote islands to breed.
The puffins come right up to the blinds and often land with a “thud” on the roof, and as they walk around it sounds like a group of children wearing swim flippers.
You have about an hour inside the blinds to take pictures and observe the variety of birds. You can hear the waves crashing onshore, the flapping of wings, and a sound the birds make that is much like the groaning of a heavy door with hinges in need of being oiled.
“Just being so close to nature is unreal. It was totally awesome,” said Linda Adams of Southampton, N.S.
Betty Brown of Riverview, N.B., said she isn’t an avid bird enthusiast, but fell in love with the puffins.
“They’re the cutest little birds you can ever imagine,” she said. Brown said her main reason for making the trip was because she had read that the island is in disputed waters.
Both Canada and the United States lay claim to an area known locally as the “grey zone,” which includes lucrative stocks of fish and lobster.
Wilcox, Ingersoll and Diamond all maintain the island is Canadian. They point to the Canadian flags flying on the island and the fact Canada operates and staffs the lighthouse there.
Luckily the puffins are oblivious to the dispute, and visitors are quick to simply agree it is a very special place.
Atlantic puffins on Machias Seal Island. The island is located in the lower Bay of Fundy, approximately 15 kilometres west of Grand Manan Island.
Seals bask near Machias Seal Island.
Visitors head to a blind view the birds on Machias Seal Island. The tiny island is home to the Atlantic puffin as well as Razorbill auk and Common and Arctic terns.