Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Seal Island lies 7 or 8 miles south of Isle au Haut, off on its own, but in the same general neighborhood as Criehaven and Matinicus. That is to say, it’s out there. Mention Seal Island to someone who knows about it, and they’re likely to mention the puffins. The island is one of the few Maine nesting grounds for the Atlantic Puffin, as well as Arctic and common terns, guillemots, eiders, great cormorants and razorbills. To me, that translates to a lot of cool birds that I’ve never seen before out on a wild island far from anything. And all of this is maybe twenty miles from Stonington.
It’s an unlikely destination for most kayakers. A former Navy bombing target, the 65 acre island is closed to public access due to the possibility of unexploded ordinance; one might land there in a pinch, but you might risk more than gelcoat damage. From the southern tip of Isle au Haut, one has to cross at least seven miles of open ocean at the mouth of Penobscot Bay. The seas are likely to be rough, and there’s always that chance of encountering a supertanker or container ship. So of course, Todd lies awake at night thinking about doing it.
We decided to take a short cut. Enlisting the help of Old Quarry Ocean Adventures, we strapped our kayaks onto the stern of the Nigh Duck and joined their birdwatching trip to Seal Island. The trip began at high tide, in scattered fog. Our captain, Eric Johnson took us close to the islands in the archipelago, occasionally pointing out a porpoise or an osprey nest, and we chatted with the other passengers. Some were paddlers staying at Old Quarry, and it seemed obvious that they would have liked to have had their kayaks along as well. But this was a first: a chance to try out the motorized-paddling Seal Island excursion for Old Quarry. If it works, it could become a regular event.
As we motored up the west side of Isle au Haut, the swell picked up and some passengers broke-out the dramamine. Todd and I watched the swell and waves. He wanted to do the crossing back. I was less enthusiastic, but was ready to go for it if the conditions were right. Unfortunately, the fog thickened as we ventured beyond Isle au Haut, and we only knew we were approaching Seal Island because the GPS told us so.
We pulled into a calm area on the north side of the island and Eric cut the motor. The birds squawked and shrieked, filling the air around us as they dove and circled. There were the puffins, near-mythological creatures suddenly everywhere we looked, just as clownish and weird-looking as promised by the guidebooks. We quickly unloaded the kayaks and just like that, were paddling along the shore of Seal Island.
On shore were a small cabin and a few tents for a few people who spend summer on the island, monitoring the birds. We paddled along the shoreline taking pictures, while the Nigh Duck hovered further offshore. Clearly, if you want to take photos of the birds, the kayak greatly expands the opportunities. We were torn though, between paddling and the birds. We didn’t have a lot of time.
We paddled around to the southern side where the swell increased. The island monitors looked up briefly from their work. A group of puffins let us venture briefly among them before taking off, circling around to land somewhere else. Ahead, the shoreline turned more vertical, cliffs rising in the fog, and we paddled on into a steep swell and confused seas where the waves rebounded from the cliffs. We paddled only far enough to get a taste of the wild southern side and turned back. The Nigh Duck would not follow us here, and the birds were concentrated on the eastern end, where we returned for a few more photos.
In the dense fog with bumpy following seas, the crossing back to Isle au Haut would have been more challenge than we wanted, so we climbed back aboard the Nigh Duck, strapped on the kayaks and headed back. This gave us the opportunity to be dropped off at Duck Harbor and venture into Isle au Haut’s rocky headlands after relatively little paddling.
But that’s another story. To be continued...