Canada’s tiny disputed island

By Robin Levinson-King
28 September 2017


It’s not the puffins of Machias Seal that have the US and Canada fighting- it is what lurks in the oceans just beyond the island.

To the lighthouse
On Christmas morning, Anthony Ross woke up on an island at the point where the Gulf of Maine meets the Bay of Fundy. Outside, the wind whipped across the frozen brown grass, blowing snow in drifts against the lighthouse while waves lapped the rocky shore. In the next room, his older brother Russell was already awake and keeping a watchful eye on the sea.

It was not exactly how one pictures a family holiday, but for the lighthouse keepers of Machias Seal Island, it would have to make do. Once the helicopter lands on this 18-acre hunk of rock between the US and Canada, there is no going home until the end of the month.

“You are away from home for 28 days at a time; that is the hardest part. But you get used to that,” said Russell, who has been a lighthouse keeper for about 20 years.

Luckily, Russell and Anthony came prepared with turkey, presents and beer – all anyone needs for a nice Christmas day. After decorating the tree and calling their families back home in Nova Scotia, the brothers tucked into a roast dinner.

“It was a pretty good Christmas, all around,” Russell recalled.


Contested land
Located smack-dab between the Canadian province of New Brunswick and the US state of Maine, Machias Seal Island is the only contested territory between Canada and the US on the East Coast. During the War of 1812, Great Britain (now Canada) and the US each laid claim to the land and the waters that surrounded it. Although the island is far too small and remote to be permanently settled, it was strategically located in the middle of a valuable shipping route, near Grand Manan Island (pictured), and neither country wanted to give it away.

In 1832, Britain built a lighthouse on the island to physically stake its claim. Since then, Canadians have been living there, helping keep sailors away from its rocky coastline and protecting the land from both human and natural foes.

The last lighthouse keepers

That is where Russell and Anthony come in. As lighthouse keepers on the island, they are part of a long line of watchmen manning Canada’s frontier in the Atlantic Ocean. While most of the lighthouses in Atlantic Canada have closed, the government has kept this one open – in part to keep its claim on the rock.

“The opportunity we have to be here, to stay on here and man the island, it is important,” Anthony said. “There are not many light-keepers left.”

Neither brother works full-time – union rules say that part-time keepers can only work three month-long shifts a year. But one full-time position may be opening up, and both Russell and Anthony want to go for it.

“May the best man win,” Anthony said with a smile.

Island rhythms

Both brothers have been doing this long enough to know the island’s rhythms: the way it fades from emerald green to dusty brown with the seasons; how the puffins swoop and cackle when they spot a fish in the water; and how the lobster boats emerge from the horizon just after sunrise.

“The boats are fishing right in the cove there – you can see all the fishermen,” Russell said. “I have been here long enough that they know my name now, they know my voice on the [radio], and they know me too.”

Russell and Anthony also play a role as unofficial ambassadors for the island, greeting American and Canadian tour boats that dock during the summer, when the island turns into a seabird sanctuary. They treat everyone the same, no matter their nationality, offering the birdwatchers a hand onto the slippery, seaweed-covered boardwalk.

“The birds do not care; they do not know the difference,” said Russell of the US-Canada border dispute


Getting there

As island guardians, Russell and Anthony play an important role in protecting the thousands of seabirds – Atlantic puffins, common murres, Arctic turns and razorbill auks – that nest here during the summer.

They help deter gulls that would prey on the young chicks, and also fend off one of nature’s biggest homewreckers: man.

As one of the largest seabird colonies on the East Coast – and the most diverse – the island is protected by Canadian Wildlife Services, which limits the number of tourists allowed on the island at any one time.

Limits to tourism

Only two tour boats, one from Maine and one from New Brunswick, are allowed to land each day on the island’s dock. With just 15 passengers per load, spots fill up fast. By early April, both boats have usually sold out for the entire birdwatching season, which runs from June to the first week of August.

Those lucky enough to score a spot must make their way to either the island of Grand Manan in New Brunswick or to Jonesport, Maine, where the boats are docked. It can be tricky for the vessels to land on the narrow and rocky shores of Machias, and bad weather can easily cancel a long-awaited trip. But if the seas are fair, adventure-seekers may see a pack of seals sunning themselves on a rock during the boat ride (which is two hours from Maine and 1.5 hours from Grand Manan), or even spot a whale.


Careful bird watching

Once on the island, tourists are restricted to boardwalks to keep them from stepping on a puffin burrow. The skittish birds like to avoid the human interlopers, so people crowd into wooden sheds called blinds, where they can observe the pigeon-sized, tuxedo-wearing birds undetected.

The hassle is worth it, according to Dr Tony Diamond, who has been running the University of New Brunswick’s Atlantic Laboratory for Avian Research (ALAR) since 1995.

“It is the only seabird colony in the whole of the East Coast where the general public can actually come on shore and get a close-up look of the birds,” he said. “It is unmatched.”


Birds everywhere

In May, thousands of puffins flock to the island to dig their burrows and lay their eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, mama and papa puffin take turns guarding the chicks and going out into the sea to bring back dinner.

This process, which can last until about August, attracts birdwatchers, scientists and wildlife photographers from around the world.

During the summer, three researchers from ALAR live on the island full-time to track and monitor the birds’ breeding season. It is a unique experience that helps scientists like Mark Dodds get a sense of not only the individual species, but how the ocean as a whole is doing.

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