Canadian Sailing Directions note that “Machias Seal Island is home to five species of breeding seabirds: Puffins, Razorbills, Petrels, Arctic and Common Terns. It is one of the largest known colonies of Arctic terns on the east coast of North American and the largest Razorbill and Puffin colony south of Newfoundland.” I had last seen Puffins in Fair Isle, Scotland, and couldn’t miss a chance to see them again.
To do so would require a detour of ten miles off our course from Little Cranberry Island to Grand Manan. We weighed anchor at dawn to make miles east in hopes of making it most of the way to Grand Manan in one day. The lure of Puffin sighting was strong, so we decided the detour was in order. It didn’t hurt that the detour kept us on a perfect beam reach as the promised 15-knot southerlies finally filled in.
Surely the Puffin is one of the world’s most endearing creatures. Seen up close, this is a small chunky bird that walks as though wearing galoshes. Its cheeks are puffy and its eyes marked like the tuft of a sofa; it flies like a buzz bomb, with rapidly beating wings. Part of a puffin’s charm is the contrast between its sober black morning coast and earnest expression with its orange feet and brilliantly colored beak. It looks rather like a clergyman on a binge.
Our pilot book informs us that “a century ago, puffins nested on six of the outlying islands of the coast of Maine, as far west as Muscongus Bay. But harvesting of eggs by farmers and fishermen, ad the killing of adult birds for their feathers, destroyed their populations, and by 1900 they were gone from all the islands except Matinicus Rock.
“Then, in the mid-1970’s, Steven Kress, director of Audubon’s Ecology Camp on Hog Island, launched an imaginative program to reintroduce the puffins to their old nesting sight. Burrows were dug by hand in the tuff of Eastern Egg Rock, in Muscongus Bay, and young birds were brought from Newfoundland, home of hundreds of thousands of puffins.
“Maine is at the southern end of the puffin breeding range, which extends north to Iceland and soth to the British Isles,” where we had last seen them.
We had enjoyed a brilliant sustained beam reach under warm blue skies with 16-knot winds, a “cracking good sail” as my Irish friend John O’Riordan would say, and were less than ten minutes from Machias Seal Island when a thick sea fog suddenly set in. Visibility reduced to less than 100 meters. I shortened sail and decided to abort the mission of anchoring near the island and going ashore, resolving to save the attempt at puffin sighting for another day. We altered course just short of the island, turning north toward safe harbor at Cutler, a small fishing village on the mainland.
Just as we were about to leave the island behind, a group of about 30 puffins appeared through the fog to starboard, swimming and fluttering not 50 meters from the boat. They behaved as advertised, paddling along in orderly manner oblivious of the foggy weather. We rejoiced that our trip to Machias Seal Island was not a total loss. A puffin sighting had been recorded!