The puffins on Machias Seal Island, which lies just 18 kilometers offshore, are normally only visited by a select few each year.
Now, for the first time in a long time, most visitors to the island are New Brunswickers.
It’s because of the pandemic.
The island is claimed by both Canada and the United States, located in the famous “grey zone”, an area of the Bay of Fundy where the border between the two counties is somewhat blurred and ill-defined.
A friendly agreement between the two countries allows a privileged few to visit Machias Seal Island.
In addition to Canadian lighthouse keepers who are stationed on the island year-round and some seasonal seabird researchers, 30 visitors a day are allowed to view the approximately 5,000 mating pairs of puffins. The 30 visitors are normally made up of 15 people from Canada and 15 from the United States
“In a normal year, it would be Americans and a lot of people from Ontario,” said Durlan Ingersoll, tour guide with Sea Watch Tours, the only Canadian company licensed on the island.
Out-of-province birdwatchers buy the majority of tickets immediately after they go on sale each winter.
But with travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic, New Brunswickers suddenly found themselves able to enjoy a world-class seabird excursion.
This has been special for Ingersoll who, in his 27 years of bringing people to the remote island, has never served New Brunswickers exclusively.
“You can listen to people say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this was here’ or ‘Why did I wait so long? ‘” Ingersoll said.
Ingersoll said the past year has been a little tough to fill tours, simply because many New Brunswickers don’t know the island exists. But the word got out and the locals left.
“Not just New Brunswickers, but the Grand Mananers,” Ingersoll said. “They don’t get to see what’s in their garden.”
Although she’s lived in Fredericton all her life, Madison Astles said she didn’t even know the island existed until last year.
“It’s like a hidden gem in New Brunswick that we need to find,” Astles said. “I was so excited about it all summer. I’m so glad I got to come.”
Astles said the hour spent on the island, sitting in a small wooden awning, watching puffins, razorbills and common guillemots was a highlight of her summer.
“There were so many cute little puffins flying around. There are probably a thousand of them. I felt like a little kid in a zoo, but this was much better.”
With travel restrictions lifted and tourists from across Canada able to come to the province, even a few former New Brunswickers can visit.
“I absolutely loved it,” said Linden Davidson, who traveled from Perth, Ont. He was able to travel to Machias Seal Island with his wife, Suzanne Forget, thanks to a last-minute cancellation.
Davidson lived and worked in Blacks Harbor in the 1970s as an auxiliary police officer, but never had the chance to visit Grand Manan, let alone Machias Seal Island.
“I knew there were puffins, and I wanted to see puffins,” Davidson said. “We have great photos, great images.”
With even more relaxed restrictions and fully vaccinated Americans allowed to cross the border later this month, Ingersoll predicts next season will mean more out-of-province visitors coming to the island.
But now that New Brunswickers have had a chance to be exposed to the island, he said, word of mouth could mean more locals will enjoy the world-class seabird sanctuary.
“It’s like the Galapagos of the Maritimes,” Ingersoll said.