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The fog was so thick we might have been in a Herman Melville novel, on the hunt for Moby Dick among noiseless waves and unforgiving circumstances. Except this was the Bay of Fundy and not the Pacific Ocean; our captain was an amiable Peter Wilcox and not a pathological Ahab; and we were after something far smaller, though no less beautiful, than the great white whale of literature. This was summer of 2019, when wanderlust was a virtue.

An hour and a half on the water, sailing southwest from New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island, and finally I saw it, a feathered bullet dashing from one cloud to the next, the frantic beating of its wings momentarily breaking the ocean’s eerie silence. The few people who saw it shouted with excitement, and when another raced by, the process was repeated.

All at once the fog broke and we were surrounded by crashing shoreline, its waters filled with flotillas of moaning birds, their bodies small, flat black, and their faces sporting an iconic bill of orange, red and yellow. Here was the realm of the Atlantic puffin.

Machias (pronounced: MATCH-EYE-US) Seal Island is best known for its disputed ownership, claimed by both Canada and the United States as a consequence of sloppy paperwork following the War of 1812. We gave them the regions known today as Eastport and Lubec, and they gave us Grand Manan with all its accompanying islands. The islands, however, were never specified in the exchange, and so we’ve had two centuries of posturing over these humble 20 acres.

For students of nature, the jurisdiction of Machias Seal Island comes second to its wildlife, supporting on these remote rocks one of the world’s most southerly colonies of Atlantic puffins, alongside razorbill auks, common murres, Arctic terns and myriad others, all congregating here when the realities of reproduction force them ashore, taking no notice at all of our political yawps.

The first of this island’s lighthouses was built by the Canadian Coast Guard in 1832 and replaced twice, the present structure built in 1914, its reds and whites immediately visible from where we anchored. It is the only manned lighthouse left in the Maritimes, its two keepers not only maintaining it, but occupying the island for “sovereignty purposes,” deciding with careful judgment who may, and may not, come ashore.

Not only is this island watched over by the Canadian Coast Guard, but also the Canadian Wildlife Service, declaring it a migratory bird sanctuary in 1944 with accompanying conservation safeguards. The island has rules, and visiting was a trick, even then.

Sea Watch Tours is the only Canadian company with access to Machias Seal Island, taking a maximum of 15 people ashore each day for about five weeks a summer. These precious few seats sell out with alarming speed, and if the weather is not favourable, the ship’s crew will not risk landing. Of the 33 trips they took in 2018 with tourists in tow, only 17 were able to make landfall. The following year was more fortunate with 27 landings, one of which was mine. So besides a scarcity of seats, one must also be lucky to set foot on Machias Seal Island.

In a dory the crew shuttled visitors ashore, depositing us on a concrete ramp which climbed to a gate, beyond which was a boardwalk keeping us well above the long grass covering the island’s centre. It led us to the lighthouse and through a chorus of birdsong, each squawk a warning, the odd tern diving for our heads when we got too close. From the lighthouse, we were broken into groups of four, each led to a small wooden blind (a tiny shed) on the coastline in which we were confined, our chauffeurs promising to come back for us in an hour. The doors were then closed, leaving four adults in congested darkness, bending our heads to accommodate a low roof, and developing fast friendships to forgive our inevitable jostling. And then, I opened a window.

"The puffins most most bizarre practice was the bringing together of their faces followed by the rapid shaking of their heads, their bills slapping together in a ritual that could be aggressive, affectionate or something else entirely."

Each blind has eight such windows, just large enough to fit a camera lens through, and when I slid the first open, we were met with a rush of fresh ocean air, inexplicable sunlight and a view which took my breath away. We found ourselves in the midst of a puffin colony, its denizens boisterous, curious, charming and plentiful. They hopped among the rocks and weeds, disappearing into unseen burrows or congregating in small parties.

The Atlantic puffin is a delightfully awkward creature, compelled by evolution to swim as well as fly, a blend of skills which turned out lopsided. Their wings serve as fins, enabling nimble dives of 200 feet underwater in search of food. But when it comes to flying, they need a running start, or else high ground from which to leap in order to become airborne. It became apparent as we watched that puffins don’t so much land as they do crash, sometimes managing a dignified stumble, sometimes tumbling right over, their mouths nevertheless overflowing with hard-earned fish.

Some puffins were intrigued by us, climbing onto rocks very near our open windows and staring, one eye turned in our direction as the sunlight shone luminously through their bills. As well, they were social, gathering to brush or nip each other. Their most bizarre practice was the bringing together of their faces followed by the rapid shaking of their heads, their bills slapping together in a ritual that could be aggressive, affectionate or something else entirely.

Puffins lay one egg a year, which takes 42 days to hatch. Photo by Zack Metcalfe

We spent our hour in the blind easily, rotating through the available windows so everyone could enjoy each angle, forgetting about the heat and cramped conditions in our eagerness to take in the experience. The pitter-patter of puffin feet could be heard on the roof, a high point from which they launched themselves into precarious flight. Having seen this colony, I’m grateful its integrity is so carefully maintained, going so far as to keep us humans in the cage, and not the other way around. You cannot reach outside the windows of your blind, and while on the boardwalk, you’re not allowed to stop moving, even to take a photo, lest you become distracted and lose your footing, stepping into the grass and killing a bird or crushing a nest. It’s how ecotourism ought to be — cautious.

A careful arrangement

I returned to Machias Seal Island the day after next, sailing the same ship through much the same fog, caused by the conflict between cold ocean water and warm summer air. As before, most visitors were shuttled ashore, but I wasn’t, this time taking advantage of a secondary experience offered by Sea Watch Tours. Only 15 people from their ship can go ashore per day, but the waters surrounding the island can take more, so I climbed into the dory with Capt. Wilcox and together we approached the flotillas of puffins at sea.

Wilcox has sailed the waters of this island 35 years now, and has mastered the art of speaking to puffins, mimicking their call with such accuracy that all within earshot swim toward him, visibly confused. In short order, dozens of puffins were approaching our starboard, veering away when our ruse became apparent. Wilcox, who makes these calls at the cost of a sore throat, told me there have been puffins that have jumped aboard in the past.

We circled the island then, trading the oppressive fog of its east for the crisp and clear summer’s day of its west, a transformation that is jarring and illustrative of the peculiarities of ocean weather. Here I could see every detail of this granite isle, including the blinds I occupied two days earlier. Only four were available to tourists such as us. Further afield, there were six or seven others, used by researchers to monitor the island’s Arctic terns.

This island’s ecosystem is a delicate thing, built on complex partnerships, which we’ve hindered over the past few decades. Anyone who’s approached a tern colony on foot — and I’ve approached several — knows the vigour and indignation with which they protect their home. Every available adult takes to the skies in an organized flurry of squawks and dive-bombs, beating away predators of every sort, particularly great black-backed gulls that make a meal of chicks and adults, puffins and terns alike. The Atlantic puffins of Machias Seal Island depend on Arctic terns to protect them from marauding gulls. In exchange, the deep-diving puffins chase schools of fish to the ocean surface where they can be more easily caught by terns. Partnerships such as these are called symbiosis, the heartening concept that life depends more on co-operation than it does on brute competition.

Predatory gulls, however, are more numerous than they used to be, enjoying a population boom from eating our food waste and outmatching the tern colonies of Atlantic Canada. As a result of this, and possibly competition for food with the fishing industry, the Arctic terns of Machias Seal Island have suffered significant declines, failing to nest on the island altogether for several years following 2006. Efforts to control these excess gulls on nearby islands seem to have helped, Wilcox told me, as the terns nested successfully last year.

The puffins themselves have done very well, numbering approximately 3,000 pairs when Wilcox first visited this island as a young man, and now numbering 5,000 to 6,000. They lay one egg a year, which takes 42 days to hatch. The rest of the year, this species spends at sea, shedding its fantastic beak and trading a white face for a black one, a difference in appearance so dramatic that breeding and non-breeding puffins were originally thought to be two different species. The flotillas we visited on the dory were growing larger as this colony slowly abandoned the island, preparing themselves for a winter at sea.

​​​​As we fast approach the breeding season of the Atlantic puffin and their return to Machias Seal Island, I can’t help but reminisce. Photo by Zack Metcalfe

​​​​​Wilcox eventually steered our small dory into a narrow inlet, walls of rock rising on either side and in front of us, absolutely covered with the dignified razorbill auks, common murres, Arctic terns and, of course, Atlantic puffins. While the force of water colliding with rock kept pushing us back, Wilcox motored us in place with practiced precision. Here, he said, was the ideal place for puffins to launch themselves into flight. For 20 minutes we watched as many dozens flung themselves from these rocks and soared down toward us, flapping their wings madly and gaining just enough air to arc over the water, firing overhead with spectacular effort.

End of a season

When we returned to the foggy east, concluding our time at Machias Seal Island, there was another ship, bound from Maine and waiting its turn on land. The 15-people-a-day limit imposed by the Canadian Wildlife Service was extended to American citizens as well, for a grand total of 30 people per day from both nations.

While I’m firmly on team Canada with regard to Machias Seal Island’s ownership — in fact, I’m still a little sore over the Alaska boundary dispute of 1903 — my priority will always be the integrity of this island’s ecology, and the respectful treatment of its seabirds. This, for the most part, is being achieved for the time being, in spite of political rivalry, such that citizens of both nations may enjoy these birds with minimal impact, and without talk of passports.

All talk of travel is somewhat morbid right now, but as we fast approach the breeding season of the Atlantic puffin and their return to Machias Seal Island, I can’t help but reminisce, and take some comfort knowing that, while our world is unrecognizable with closed borders and locked doors, theirs will be much the same, lacking only in the clicking of camera shutters, and the obscured admiration of caged primates, now more caged than ever.

Great piece Zack. I never heard of Machias Island before. will have to check it out. You are a great photographer and writer - thank you.

Other articles on Puffins lament the lack of forage fish that is slowly starving the oceanic life column. Can we not incorporate into our ocean preserves the waters necessary to our seabirds and the fish that feed them and myriad others?