New Brunswick·Photos

A rare look at Saint John's mysterious Manawagonish Island

Bird life. Weird lichen. Tales of ghosts and buried treasure. Just 1.5 kkilometres of the coast off west Saint John, Manawagonish Island is more than meets the eye.

A wild, undeveloped bird sanctuary—with a peculiar history

Guides Jim Donahue, Walter Emrich, and Peter Lavigne (not pictured) moor their kayaks off Manawagonish Island's tiny counterpart, Thumb Cap Island, where a red algae bloom stains a pool of water pinkish-red, Both rocky islands — just 1.5 kilometres off the coast of the Irving Nature Park — are accessible only by boat and rarely visited except by scientific researchers.

When it comes to strange, uninhabited islands off the coast of west Saint John, Partridge Island tends to hog the spotlight. 

Few people know about its bigger, even-more-isolated neighbour, Manawagonish Island.

On a clear day, it is a dark smear visible on the horizon from Saint's Rest Beach, and from Route 1 heading into the city's west side.

Punctuated off its northeastern tip by a smaller islet, Thumb Cap Island, Manawagonish is a protected sea bird sanctuary of the Nature Trust of New Brunswick. It's also the subject of at least one legend involving buried treasure—and a ghost.

The island is just 1.5 kilometres from the mainland — but accessible only by boat, which means few people get a chance to visit. No access is allowed between May 15 and Aug. 15 because of the bird breeding season.

The CBC's Julia Wright kayaked there with the expert guides at River Bay Adventures and captured these photos.

Guides Pete Lavigne and Walter Emirch get ready to kayak to Manawagonish Island from the Irving Nature Park. 

Unlike Partridge Island, a few kilometres south, Manawagonish has never been a popular recreation spot. 

In 1786,  the island was granted to a group of men including William and Thomas Pagan, the Scottish dry goods importers, which Pagan Place in the city's south end is named after. 

"The great mass of pleasure seekers … know nothing of it," according to a Saint John newspaper in 1878 — which repeats a dubious tale that "[Captain] Kidd's treasure has been found on the island, and still there is more—piles and piles of doubloons in rust-eaten pots — only waiting the advent of daring and adventurous spirits to carry it off."

It remained in various private hands until 1991, when a local family, who wished to remain anonymous, donated it to the Nature Trust of New Brunswick. 

Gulls and double-crested cormorants hang out on the seaweed-covered rocks approaching the island. 

The bird population on the island has been tracked since the 1940s. Its proximity to the pulp mill, oil refinery, and other heavy industrial sites has made Manawagonish Island an important site for researchers who track pollution trends in the Bay of Fundy.

Since the 1990s, researchers at the New Brunswick Museum and Environment and Climate Change Canada have collected and tested sea bird eggs from Manawagonish​ Island for contaminants — providing a valuable sense of what's going into the water, and how it affects wildlife.

Getting there from the Irving Nature Park takes about 30 minutes in good weather.

The trip is best undertaken by skilled paddlers, or with an experienced guide like Peter Lavigne, pictured. 

The island's crescent-shaped main cove.

"The main beach, you can see, is pretty clean — hardly any debris that we have to clean off," said Emrich.

It also offers "a beautiful view of west Saint John that most people don't get to see unless they get out on the water."

Leading up from the main beach are rolling hills with no paths, thick vegetation and rocky cliffs — all of which present risks to the casual visitor.

An eagle takes flight from one of the dead trees on the island.

"This is one magnificent bird sanctuary," said Emrich. "Thousands of gulls, cormorants, [and] bald eagles."

"At one time we even had nesting peregrine falcons on the cliffs on the southwest side of the island."

"Unfortunately, we haven't seen them in a few years —but hopefully some peregrines will be back before long."

The southeastern side of the island, dominated by cliffs and small inlets. 

"It is within a comparatively short distance to the City," wrote a columnist in the Saint John Daily News in 1878.

"It has a beautiful beach for bathing; in some places it has rugged cliffs indented with rude caves worn out by the surges of restless ocean; it has quiet groves and fields of Arcadian beauty and simplicity."

Some 140 years later, none of that has changed much.

"It is so close to Saint John — but so isolated," Emrich said. 

At one time, Manawagonish was covered with a coastal forest of spruce and fir.

The bird population has slowly contributed to changes in the plant life.

"A lot of the trees have died because of all the bird guano that's been deposited on the island over the past many decades," said Walter Emrich, a steward with the Nature Trust.

Today, the island is covered in scrubby thickets of elder bushes, fireweed, wild roses, blackberries, raspberries, and tall grass.

In 2007, the Nature Trust and partners in the local community erected five poles with platforms, like this, on which the island's population of blue herons can roost.

These platforms, and the remains of a steel jetty, are among the only manmade structures on the island.

Pincushion sunburst lichen can be found on trees all over the Pacific Northwest. (Project Noah)

Lichen forms a major part of the plant life on the island. 

Bright-yellow Maritime sunburst lichen, pictured, normally grows on bark and wood and only rarely on rock. 

The droppings of thousands of sea birds provide the nutrients the lichen needs to grow on this boulder.

Fortunately for birds on the island, Emrich said, "there aren't too many predators other than the eagles, so a lot of them nest right on the ground."

The Nature Trust has planted some 500 trees in an attempt to reforest the island.

"Hopefully in another ten years the birds will be able to nest in those trees," Emrich said

Up until the past few years, the cliffs were a nesting site for peregrine falcons.

According to Saint John historian Harold Wright, people "used to take cattle over there and let them graze through the summer, and return in the fall," Emrich said.

"I'm not sure how the cattle made out," he said. "Hopefully none of them fell over the cliffs."

A baby gull eyes the unexpected visitors suspiciously. 

"We don't encourage people to go on the island during the nesting season," Emrich said.

While it's not possible to land on the island for most of the summer, paddlers can still get a great view of the site by kayaking around it  — provided they don't approach too closely and bother the birds.

An unsavoury reality of visiting a large bird colony: many bird carcasses, like this, can be found scattered across the island in various states of decomposition. 

The main beach is also littered with bird bones.

A barrier beach and a small pond on the western side of the island. 

During the storm tides, debris often washes in, then gets stuck in the pond behind the barrier beach.

Odd items on the beach included car tires, and an entire truck bed, pictured, as well as an old freezer and a lobster trap.

"All kinds of things there that we will get cleaned up one day when we can get a big enough boat out," Emrich said.

The Nature Trust of New Brunswick organizes regular coastal cleanups at 15 small islands in the Bay of Fundy, including Manawagonish Island. 

Emrich recovers a buoy that has washed ashore on the barrier beach.

"We pick up 'tons and 'tons of trash every year that is thrown off boats or washed from shore," Emrich said, "and drifts around in the currents and ends up on the shoreline."

The view from one tip of the island to the other, including remnants of bird nests on the ground.

At 20 hectares, or 48 acres, the island is more than double the size of neighbouring, Partridge Island.

The nineteenth century newspaper article mentions that the island was, at one time, the site of a eerie, abandoned house.

"It has an unoccupied house … thereby hangs a tale; the house is haunted," the article states.

It also describes a "dismal groan" that visitors allegedly heard coming from the cliffs, "not human in sound, but like the last wail of an expiring demon."

No haunted houses remain on the island today.

Despite the risks associated with getting there, Manawagonish is "an amazing island — so close to Saint John," said Emrich. "It's great to go and visit it."

The goal of the Nature Trust is to ensure the island is protected "in perpetuity," he said.

"Someone will be looking after it and making sure that it's protected forever."