Machias Seal Island, 14 acres of rock and turf in the sea off Cutler, Me., may well be the U.S.'s most inaccessible tourist attraction. One reason is that the island has been occupied for 135 years by a foreign power.
The U.S. Government believed it had acquired sovereignty over Machias Seal Island in 1814 by the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. It is not difficult to understand why the Americans never bothered to plant then new flag among the island's boulders. Winter's gales and summer's fogs led them to believe it was uninhabitable except by seabirds. Hut in 1832 the Canadians proved them wrong by building two lighthouses on the island. Some 80 years later they formally "expropriated" it, but somehow war never broke out. Even today, according to United States Hydrographic Office's List of Lights and Fog Signals, "The presence of these navigational stations on the island does not imply Canadian sovereignty."
The status of this little island in a sort of international limbo gives the place an extra fillip of charm, but its real attraction is the puffin, or "sea parrot," an ocean bird whose grotesque ridged bill, wagon-red and triangular, gives it the appearance of having stepped from the illuminated pages of some fanciful medieval bestiary.
To see Machias Island's puffins, the knowledgeable traveler will put himself in touch with Captain Purcell Corbett of Cutler. Captain Corbett is the island's sole tangible link with the U.S. Last summer we joined a party from the Maine Audubon Society which was bound for Machias for some puffin watching. for anyone who has seen puffins only at Matinicus Rock, a U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse station which is the only other nesting site off the Atlantic Coast, the scene at Machias Seal Island will prove a revelation. Only a few pairs nest on Matinicus. But here at Machias Seal, standing high on the rocks in sociable groups or coming in out of the fog on stubby, dark, rapidly beating wings, there were more than a thousand puffins.
October 8, 1967
The men of the Canadian Lighthouse Service often bring their families to the island, and there is a woman's touch about the small houses, which stand, freshly painted among carefully tended lawns, on its high ground. This feeling was intensified when Captain Corbett took us to the home of Harvie Cooke, one of the three resident lighthouse keepers. Mrs. Cooke had a steaming fish chowder, lemon meringue pie and hot coffee waiting for us. We could look out on the rocks where the puffins congregate during the day. There are few dining rooms on earth where a bird watcher can eat in such surroundings.
After lunch Captain Corbett turned us loose among the puffins. It is difficult not to think in anthropomorphic terms about these comical birds. Smaller than gulls, they lounge on the rocks like shiftless little men in formal dress, sometimes huddling in groups, at other times bustling over to investigate a minor commotion. Occasionally one waddles to an opening in the rocks, which is its nesting burrow, and disappears.
The flying birds, returning from the sea with food for their young, introduce a note of fantasy into the picture. Slender silver fish, drooping from both sides of the great bill like gleaming mustaches, pose the inevitable question: How does the puffin, with five little fishes in its bill, capture the sixth without losing all the rest? Nobody seems to know.
In addition to the puffins, the island is a summer home for the Arctic tern, that marvelous bird whose migration route of 12,000 miles to the Antarctic is the longest of any bird in the world. Terns were nearly wiped out along the Atlantic Coast late in the 19th century. Nesting on the ground on islands near the mainland, they were driven first to the most remote islands by dogs, cats, rats and other traveling companions of man. There they were almost finished off by gunners, who sold them for 30¢ apiece to milliners to be used as fancy decorations on ladies' hats.
Under protection, the Arctic terns have made something of a comeback (gulls are their chief enemies on the outer islands). There are 4,000 of them on Machias Seal Island today. Rightfully mistrustful of the human figure, they rise in a screaming aerial armada at its approach to their nesting grounds and try to drive it away. Their most effective tactic is a precipitous swoop at the human head. Those heads which are not covered by baseball helmets or similar armor are likely to receive a sharp rap from a tern's blood-red beak.
Captain Corbett charged each of us $10 for the round trip to Machias Seal Island. The hot lunch cost us $1.50, payable to the lighthouse keeper. For those insatiable birders who can't see enough puffins in a single day, there are overnight accommodations in the homes of the lighthouse keepers, where daily room and board came to $7.
Rain gear, rubber-soled shoes and stout headgear are necessities. The birder who is going to spend time in the blind, which stands amid the puffin colony on the rocks directly in front of the foghorn, is also advised to bring earplugs. As one of the lighthouse keepers said of the fog, "They make the stuff down here."