|A Family Business - Wednesday, August 6
We spent the day doing chores and errands in preparation for our ferry trip tomorrow, all the time hoping the weather would clear up enough for the Bird Island Boat Tour to go out as scheduled in the evening. We wanted to see puffins, and they seemed like the best bet. After all, their logo is a puffin - and he’s even wearing a little navy captain’s hat.
Their two earlier tours had been cancelled, but they told us to call about 4:00 to see if the 5:15 tour was going out. We did - and it was - so we headed out to an area called Big Bras d’Or and found them at a small, family run campground on St. Andrews Channel.
The recent weather still had the sea stirred up, and when we bought our tickets they warned us the ride out would be ‘choppy’. Madolyn said, “Choppy doesn’t mean too rough, does it?” The man said, “That’s what it does mean!” He hastened to add that they provided free bracelets to anyone worried about seasickness.
I thought “Bracelets? What are they going to do? It’s not your wrists that get sick.” But Madolyn took two and put them on, and we headed for the dock. They need six people to do the tour and ten of us showed up, so they loaded us aboard their boat, East Wind lll, an odd man named Captain Vince showed up with his teenaged son and another boy, and we shoved off and went chugging out to sea.
East Wind lll is a wooden boat built in the ‘70’s, and ‘chugging’ is what it does. Sort of a ‘pucketa- pucketa- pucketa’ that echoes off the rocks and makes you think a helicopter is hovering somewhere overhead. East Wind lll also puts out a lot of blue exhaust smoke, so you try and stay upwind of it if you can.
The ride was not too bad going out Saint Andrews Channel, but when we crossed the sandbar and entered the Atlantic Ocean it got bumpy. The swell was erratic, without the rhythm of a normal sea, and we had a good half hour crossing to get to the offshore islands where the birds were. The teenager was driving the boat so Captain Vince could use his microphone, and listening to his jokes and I found myself longing for the puffin with the little hat.
But as Captain Vince said, “This is a family run business” and for all it’s occasional resemblance to Gilligan’s Island the family performed pretty well. The kid knew how to steer, Captain Vince knew a lot about the islands and the birds, and East Wind lll proved to be a seaworthy old tub that handled the ‘chop’ well.
As we approached the rocky cliffs Captain Vince took the helm, and steered East Wind into the lee of the islands. For the next hour and a half he kept her there, chugging back and forth just offshore so we could see the birds as he talked about them. We saw guillemots, kittiwakes, and several varieties of gulls and cormorants. We even saw several bald eagles, razorbills and one great blue heron. And finally we saw puffins, lots and lots of little Atlantic puffins roosting, fishing, flying and just floating on the water.
They are the smallest of the birds on the islands, but they hold their own and not only survive but thrive. The puffin is a pelagic bird, meaning it only comes on land to nest. The rest of the time they live at sea and never see land at all. They are utterly at home in and on the water, and they like the cold and the isolation from civilization.
We took several hundred pictures, and before the evening was over we took photos of every species we saw. But our main focus was on these quick, tough and colorful little birds. They are hard to photograph because they fly away as soon as a boat gets near them. They are small and hard to focus on, and they flap their wings so fast that even if you’re lucky enough to get one in your viewfinder they are often out of focus. Still it was worth the try and the pictures on this page have some fairly good images of puffins.
On the way back we saw several gray seals in the water off the rocks. The ride back was ‘downhill’ in a following sea. The wind had died and the sea was much calmer than on the ride out. It was dusk by the time we docked, and dark by the time we got back to our campground. Tomorrow is a big day, but thanks to the birds today was no slouch either.