Clowns of the Sea

Machias Seal Island has been on a list of destinations I have wanted to visit for several years. I was fortunate enough to take a trip there this month, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. You wouldn’t think there would be much to see with an area less than twenty acres, but like they say, big things can come in small packages. If you are nature photographer or birder this amazing bird sanctuary is a must see. It is home to a variety of seabirds such as Razorbills, Common Murres, Arctic Terns, Eiders and the stars of the show – Atlantic Puffins.

Machias Seal Island

Machias Seal Island

Seal island is located approximately 16 km (10 miles) southeast of Cutler Maine and approximately 19 km (12 miles) southwest Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy. Between late May and mid-August there are two companies that run boat tours to the island, one from Grand Manan and one out of Cutler Maine. My wife and I took the tour from Maine due to a conflict with the departure time for the ferry to Grand Manan. Either location requires an overnight stay the day before because the tours leave between 6:30 and 8:00am local time.

Left, Right and Centre

“Left, Right and Centre”

For those who have been whale watching or on other sightseeing tours there is always the fear of not seeing anything. That is not the case here unless it’s because of fog. Our boat launched about 7:30 am, and we were fortunate all aspects of the weather cooperated. The bay was smooth and the fog lifted before reaching the end of our 45 minute cruise. The anticipation was high as we all caught a glimpse of the manned lighthouse and saw puffins in flight over the water towards their sanctuary.

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin

Once in sight of the island it didn’t take long for the action to begin with seals sunbathing and bouncing on the rocks as well as the seabirds coming and going like bees from a hive. We taxied ashore and gathered by the lighthouse keepers and awaiting our instructions. We were split up into groups of four or five and taken to a blind to spend the next hour and a half. Normally I might be a little claustrophobic but that 90 minutes felt more like ten. The birds posed and played for the cameras like they were on stage. One other photographer said it was almost like it was cheating being so close to the action. You quickly see where their nickname comes from as their personality truly shines – clowns for sure.

Waddling Circus

“Waddling Circus”

Puffins are not an endangered species but their numbers are monitored closely now around the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy due to their popularity with hunters until the late 1800’s for their meat, eggs and feathers. With their smaller numbers in past years it left them exposed to other seabirds like gulls taking over their habitat. The decline of herring as a food source in recent years is also a concern, as is a reduced rate of reproduction. Puffins only lay one egg each year and don’t mate until about age five. Organizations like the Canadian Wildlife Service, University of New Brunswick and the Audubon Society are all studying and working to protect Puffins and the other native seabirds.

Feathers in a Flap

“Feathers in a Flap”

I’ve never been on a safari but I assume you would experience a similar affection for the animals you photograph there. Once you see firsthand how fragile an animal and their habitat are, it really changes the way you look at that particular creature and the actions we can have; both positive and negative.

 

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