Searching for the sea parrot

A puffin pilgrimage to New Brunswick's Machias Seal Island

T&C Eye Candy / Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick / Photo by Carol Patterson

By Carol Patterson

Even if you’ve never picked up a pair of binoculars, you can’t help but gush when you see a puffin in the wild.

As a nature loving photographer, I confess I’m beyond smitten with these expressive “parrots of the sea” and their charming mannerisms.

I’ve crawled to the edge of a rocky cliff in Iceland to survey puffins from high above.

I’ve drifted in a boat in Newfoundland and Labrador’s Witless Bay Ecological Reserve to observe North America’s largest Atlantic puffin colony.

And today, en route with Sea Watch Tours to New Brunswick’s Machias Seal Island — home to 5,000 breeding pairs of Atlantic puffins (which typically mate for life and live an average of 25 years) — I hope to get even closer.

After a 90 minute ocean ride from Grand Manan Island, our lobster boat turned birdwatching chariot slows in the heavy fog.

Steep rock faces start to reveal themselves and the sky above fills with seabirds swooping, streaking and screeching in all directions, as if they’re running important errands.

And maybe they are. After all, thousands of “pufflings,” or baby puffins, hungry for fish to fatten them up for a winter spent at sea, perch impatiently on the tiny tear drop-shaped island below.

Bobbing next to our boat in the water, I get an intimate view of several adult birds, their triangular carrot-orange beaks adding pops of colour to the cool blue sea.

Their beaks, scientists have discovered, are fluorescent, radiant with a glow humans can’t detect without a UV light. They also feature spiny protrusions which help the birds securely hold dozens of small fish at once.

In a flurry of feathers, one nearby puffin starts to pump its wings before lifting off the salty water and zipping away in a display more enthusiastic than graceful.

While they’re built to swim — diving up to 60 metres deep as they hunt small fish such as capelin and herring — puffins need to flap their wings 300 to 400 times per minute when they fly, battling gravity to lift their chunky, football-size bodies into the air.

They may not soar with the elegance of a raptor or lift off with the speed of a hummingbird, but they emote pluckiness.

My world will never have enough puffins in it.

When I watch them waddle over rocks, they look like cartoonish clowns sporting tuxedos and I feel a smile on my face that reaches all the way to my heart.


Professional travel writer and photographer Carol Patterson was hosted by Tourism New Brunswick, which did not review or approve her story before publication.


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