New Brunswick

Machias Seal Island offers puffin-watchers paradise

Machias Seal Island, a remote bird sanctuary in the Bay of Fundy, provides birdwatchers, naturalists and photographers a rare glimpse into one of Canada's most popular seabirds.

Machias Seal Island, a remote bird sanctuary in the Bay of Fundy, provides birdwatchers, naturalists and photographers with a rare glimpse of one of Canada’s most popular seabirds.

The rocky island, located 18 kilometres southwest of Grand Manan, serves as a breeding site for thousands of birds each year, including Atlantic puffins.

Machias Seal Island is a famed breeding ground for puffins. (Bobbi-Jean MacKinnon/CBC)
About 1,300 pairs of puffins visit Machias Seal Island during the spring and summer to breed and nest.

Puffins, with their striking orange beaks, and matching orange webbed feet, lure bird enthusiasts to travel to great lengths to see them.

Only about eight hectares in area, Machias Seal Island is a designated migratory bird sanctuary, maintained by the Canadian Wildlife Service, so access is restricted.

Sea Watch Tours, out of Grand Manan, is the only Canadian company with permission to land. It offers tours six days a week between late June and early August, weather permitting.

However, it can only take 15 people a day, so reservations are required for anyone who wants to catch a glimpse of the puffins.

Other nesting birds that attract visitors to the island include razorbill auks and common murres.

The trip from Seal Cove Wharf takes about two hours and is not for the faint of stomach when the water is rough.

Occasional sightings of other birds, such as shearwaters, Wilson storm petrels, phalaropes, jeagers, northern gannet, black guillemots and eider ducks help pass the time. Passengers may also see seals, harbour porpoises, and whales en route.

Machias Seal Island lighthouse is the first signal to visitors that they’re approaching the island.

Stay on wooden walkway

There aren’t any docks on the island, so visitors must climb off of the boat, onto a skiff, and negotiate over slippery seaweed-covered rocks to get ashore.

Moments after stepping onto the island, visitors are surrounded by thousands of birds, flapping and squawking.

A warden with the Canadian Wildlife Service greets the guests and briefs them on the rules and regulations of the bird sanctuary, such as staying on the wooden walkway and watching out for any eggs that might be underfoot.

Then the warden escorts them to the wooden blinds, which allow visitors to get close to the birds without disturbing them. Each blind has room for four or five people and small openings on each side.

The warden reminds the visitors that it’s a privilege to be there and urges them to be respectful of the birds, which will come within a few feet of them.

Visitors have about one hour to observe the birds as they drop into their burrows, hop along the rocks and sun themselves. Then it’s time to leave.

Before long, a tour boat from the U.S. will arrive. Tours are offered by Norton of Jonesport, out of Jonesport, Maine, and Bold Coast Charter Company, out of Cutler, Maine.

Machias Seal Island is at the centre of an ongoing territorial dispute between Canada and the United States. Both countries claim ownership of the island, but Canada has maintained a light station there since 1832.