Every birder should visit Machias Seal Island at least once. (The author has been eight times.).
This is one of the very few breeding colonies where visitors are allowed to land on the island and get close to the birds.
What Do You See?
You can observe at very close range breeding: Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Tern, and Arctic Tern. Common Murres while not nesting or nesting in small numbers on the island are often seen sitting on the rocks. Leach’s Storm-petrel breeds on the island, but is not usually seen because they enter and leave the nesting burrow at night. A few pairs of Common Eiders breed on the island.
As the boat approaches the island, you will all these birds on the water and flying into the island. You may also see Manx, Sooty, and Greater Shearwater, Black Guillemot, Northern Gannet on the boat trip to the island.
Machias Seal Island is a 15-acre island in the Bay of Fundy off the coast of Maine and just south of Grand Manan. See the map. (large graphic loads slowly). Visitors can stay in Maine at Machias. Machias is about an hour’s drive north of Ellsworth, Maine.
When to Visit
The best time to visit is between the middle of June and the middle of July. The Puffins can be on the island from early June and immature Puffins are seen in the water around the island until mid-August.
A visit takes about half a day. There is plenty of other birding in the area to fill the rest of the day or you can drive back to Boston after the trip. The trip is appropriate for children old enough to remain quiet in a blind for 20 minutes and non-birding adults.
A visit requires a 45 minutes to 2 hour boat trip depending on port of departure. . The boat trip can cause motion sickness in the unprepared. If any trip is worth enduring seasickness, it is this one. If you suffer from sea sickness consider taking the shortest trip from Cutler, ME.
Trips are sometimes cancelled because of weather conditions and landing on the island is dependent on conditions as well.
Landing On The Island
Landings and actual visits to Machias Seal Island during the nesting season are restricted, as the island is designated a migratory bird sanctuary and is managed by US and Canadian authorities.
In order to protect the nesting seabird colony from excessive disturbance, visits on the island are limited to a selected number of days during the season, and only a limited number of visitors are permitted ashore on any day. Visitors must stay in designated areas and spend no more than three hours in a day.
Three tour operators are licensed to conduct landing tours to the island, an access schedule is issued every year which allocates the dates on which island landings will be permitted. The tour operators then book their landing tours based on that schedule.
Tours to the island are conducted daily (weather permitting) throughout the nesting season . These tours bring visitors to the waters surrounding the island where all the nesting species can be easily observed from the deck, and close range viewing of hundreds, if not thousands, of puffins can be enjoyed.
Special landing tours are offered on the selected dates, with the limited spaces filling up on a first come first served basis. Advance reservations for landing tours are generally necessary and recomended for all tours. A full boat load of passengers participant in landing tours, with one group going ashore while the rest participate in a tour on the waters close by the island.
It is not necessary to go ashore to see the many birds as on most days the viewing is just as good if not better on the water as it is on land.
Landing is always dependant on calm seas and is not appropriate for all visitors because of the potentially hazardous conditions at the landing area on the shoreline. Many visitors are much more comfortable enjoying the birding out on the water and leaving the landing experience to the more adventurous.
Photographers will want to land on the island and spend time in one or two of the blinds. Thousands if not millions of photographs have been taken of these Puffins. If you are an amateur photographer or if this is your first trip, consider leaving the camera at home and just enjoying the birds.
Landing on the island is not feasible for those in wheelchairs. As with the whale watching boats in the Boston area, wheelchairs cannot just roll onto the boat. According to Captain Andrew Patterson, wheelchairs have been accommodated on past trips using “Yankee Ingenuity.” Ask the individual captain about accommodations for wheelchairs on the boat.
Three captains provide boat service to the island. Two leave from Maine and one from Grand Manan. Reservations are required. Cost is from $50 – $ 60 per person depending upon whether you land on the island or just take the boat. There are no customs officials on either end.
Departure times vary with the tide so be sure to call the captain 1-2 days ahead and check on the departure time.
Jonesport, ME 04640
Departs from Jonesport, ME
Capt. Andrew Patterson
Bold Coast Charter Co.
Cutler, ME 04626
Departs from Cutler, Maine (45 minutes to the island)
Capt Peter Wilcox
Grand Manan, NB, Canada
Departs from Seal Cove, Grand Manan
Where to Stay
The following information provided by Captain Andrew Patterson and times are to drive to Cutler Departure Point. The Jonesport Departure point is closer to the town of Machias, but further from the island.
Bed & Breakfasts
Riverside Inn (East Machias) 207-255-4134 Beautifully designed B&B on the E. Machias River 15-20 minute drive
Captain Cates Bed & Breakfast www.captaincates.com (Machiasport) 207-255-8812 Lovely B&B on the Machias River 30 minute drive
Micmac Farm Guesthouses & Gardner House www.micmacfarm.com (Machiasport) 207-255-3008 Secluded cabins and B&B style guestroom on Machias River 30 minute drive
Peacock House (Lubec) 207-733-2403 Attractive quiet B&B;Located east of Cutler – near Campobello Is. 30 minute drive
Home Port Inn (Lubec) 207-733-2077 Comfortable B&B and restaurant
Little River Lodge (Cutler) 207-259-4437 B&B overlooking the harbor- 5 minute walk to boat ramp- only lodging in Cutler (seasonal – opens late May)
Bluebird Motel (Machias) 207-255-3332 Clean and comfortable local motel 25-30 minute drive
Margaretta Motel (Machias) 207-255-6671 Reasonably priced – located just east of town
Machias Motor Inn (Machias) 207-255-4861 In town located on Machias River – next to Helens Restaurant
Eastland Motel (Lubec) 207-733-5501 Located on Rt. 189 on the outskirts of Lubec 20 minute drive
Blueberry Patch Motel & Cabins (Jonesboro) 207-434-5411 Located on Route One – restaurant next door 45 minute drive
Cobscook Bay State Park (Edmunds) 207-726-4412 45 minute drive
Sunset Point Campground (Lubec) 207-733-2150 30 minute drive
South Bay Campground (Lubec) 877-733-1037 (toll free) 207-733-1037 http://www.nemaine.com/southbay/ 30 minute drive
Sunkhaze Campground (Jonesboro) 207-434-2542 45 minute drive
Herring Cove Provincial Park (Campobello) 506-752-7010 Located on Campobello Island, New Brunswick 45 minute drive
A Birders Guide To Maine by Elizabeth C. Pierson, Jan Erik Pierson, and Peter D. Vickery Down East Books Camden, Maine