Puffins on Grand Manan
Updated: Feb 11
Our trip to Grand Manan, Canada, came about by lucky accident. During the summer of 2010 my wife, Barbara, and I were planning a return trip to Nova Scotia and wanted to catch the ferry from Maine. However, at the time, that ferry had been discontinued.
But on the map we spotted a small dot off the coast of the U.S./ Canadian border and discovered it was Grand Manan. After doing some research, we found that there is a Puffin colony on the island at certain times of the summer. I had heard of the bird but had never seen one, and it sounded fascinating. We changed our plans and decided to make the 18-hour drive from our house, up the coast of Maine to Canada, to Blacks Harbour, NB, where the Grand Manan ferry takes passengers to the island.
When we arrived at Canadian Customs, the officer asked us to state our intentions to cross into Canada, and we told her we were going to Grand Manan for a week. She then asked Barbara what her occupation was, and Barbara told her she was a book editor. The officer asked me about my job and I told her that I worked with adults with developmental disabilities. She stamped the passports, handed them back, and said with a smile, "Sir, you deserve a vacation, get out of here." In the car Barbara laughed and said, "Hey, what about me? I have all those deadlines to meet."
We stayed at a lovely B&B named the Compass Rose, which overlooked the Bay of Fundy. From there it was a short drive to the dock where we boarded the Day’s Catch, which is the boat belonging to Sea Watch Tours, the only company allowed to land on Machias Seal Island where the puffins nest. After about an hour out on the water, we approached Machias Island and then needed to transfer to a 16-foot boat that would take us the short distance to the dock. It takes a bit of physical fitness to transfer from the larger boat to the skiff in open water. Captain Wilcox’s first mate, Durlan, was very careful, though, and made sure transfers were safe. When we tied up at the island we had to be careful of slippery surfaces on the dock. Sturdy shoes with slip-proof soles are imperative.
Our orientation prior to going out to the blinds was very important and thorough. Only 15 people per day are allowed to be on the island, and Sea Watch Tours makes only one trip per day. Durlan made it very clear that it was a privilege to be there. We were assigned a blind, along with two other photographers, and the time limit to be inside was one hour. We had to be quiet and respectful to the birds and to each other for the duration. If a person wanted to leave the blind before the allotted hour, they could not go back in; they would have to return to the dock. We made sure we used the facilities beforehand and made damn sure we were not going anywhere! To reduce danger to the puffins, only windows on one side of the blind could be opened at a time. This helped to prevent a fly-through incident.
The best lens to use was a small telephoto because the action is not very far from blind. Also, no equipment was allowed to extend beyond the opening of the blinds, and forget about using a tripod because there is no room, especially if there are three other people inside. If you go, make sure you have charged batteries and plenty of cards because you will be shooting a lot.
The puffins are amazing birds. They have black backs and white bellies. They also have odd looking beaks that are banded in bright orange and yellow stripes that brighten during mating. Puffin size is between the a robin and a crow. They spend all their life at sea except when they come to the island once a year between April through August, for breeding. The puffins mate for life, and there is an estimated 5,500 pairs that come to the island.
There was no down time when our clock started. Puffins are active and very animated in behavior, and it didn't matter where you looked—there was something to watch and much to hear. The Cornell Lab describes their sounds as “piglike grunts” and in their breeding burrows, they make a sound like “a muted toy chainsaw.”
Another bird that uses the island for nesting are razorbill auks. They have their own boisterous sets of behaviors and characteristics. They are about the size of a crow and look like they are wearing a tux. On their bills are very characteristic white lines that seem to pin stripe their beaks.
After we left the puffins and transferred back to the Day’s Catch, the captain took us to see Seal Island, which was loaded with huge blubbery seals. Watching these animals squirm around on the rocky island made my back hurt. In the water though, they moved so gracefully.
Back at Grand Manan, after a satisfying trip and full SD cards, we bought tickets for Sea Watch Tour’s whale watch—another adventure!
(For more photos of Grand Manan, the puffins, and the razorbill auks, see our Photo Gallery,
Grand Manan Island)