Two Wildlife Boat Tours Down East
Whales and puffins have become unofficial symbols of the Maine coast. Boat tours give many vacationers a chance to see these creatures in their wild habitats.
A Maine vacation along the Downeast coast focuses on the water; tides and beaches create the character of this scenic area. Leaving the mainland and venturing out onto the ocean or bay waters not only gives visitors a new perspective of the coast but also introduces them to the world of life in and on the sea.
Whale Watching on the Sylvina Beal
Vacationers will find opportunities for whale watching cruises all along the coast from Bar Harbor to Canada. Crafts used for these tours can vary from lobster-style boats that carry only six passengers to large and luxurious catamarans, but choosing the Sylvina Beal out of Eastport adds the delight of sailing into the mystical Bay of Fundy on a historic wooden schooner.
George Ferguson’s article “The Marine Life” explains that the plentiful food supply in the Bay of Fundy attracts “a broad and diverse range of creatures”, among which are eight species of whales. Estimates are that during the summer months of July and August, over 300 whales feed and raise their young in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine.
The Sylvina Beal schooner leaves Eastport every afternoon on its search for whales, and passengers might even want to help hoist the famous red sails. Cruises run about three hours, sail past the famous East Quoddy Head Lighthouse with its red cross, and include sightings of porpoises, dolphins, seals, bald eagles, and an array of seabirds. Even on the warmest summer day, breezes on the bay are chilly. Take extra coats. Call ahead for reservations. (207-853-2500)
Puffins on Machias Seal Island
On Machias Seal Island, thousands of Atlantic puffins raise their young in the summer. This is Maine’s largest colony of the interesting little seabird, and once the pufflings hatch and leave, the puffins head out to sea and are rarely seen until they return the next year when it is time to hatch and raise one more chick. The island is also home to other seabirds; and for a birder, visiting the island is an exceptional and unique experience.
One good choice for this trip is The Bold Coast Charter Company, leaving from the Downeast lobstering village of Cutler. The island is quite a distance from the mainland, but this harbor is the nearest to the rocky island. A bonus of choosing this trip is the journey to Cutler itself, a scenic drive along Maine’s Bold Coast to a coastal fishing village with a beautiful harbor. And even though the trip’s purpose is puffin viewing, it’s possible whales, dolphins, and seabirds will also be spotted.
Some trips only go to the waters surrounding Machias Seal Island, although it’s still possible to observe the birds from the boat. There are a limited number of permits issued each season allowing birders to land and use observation blinds on the island.
This is a unique tour, and birders and travelers often plan for this trip in advance. Reservations are important. (207-259-4484)
Whale Watching or Puffins?
While a vacation in Downeast Maine may be quite economical, tours like these could be the most costly activity of the week. Several factors will influence the choice of a boat tour.
The obvious first question is interesting. Whales or birds? While the Atlantic puffin is a rare and fascinating bird, this trip would be long and boring for someone who has no interest.
Another consideration is how comfortable a person is on the water. If there’s a fear of seasickness, the Sylvina Beal would be a better choice. Machias Seal Island is nine miles into the Atlantic, and there is more chance that boats will meet rolling seas. The Sylvina Beal is also more accommodating for anyone who has trouble climbing in and out of boats.
A Bold Coast puffin trip will cost twice the Sylvina Beal cruise, but the experience of seeing these amazing birds is much more localized; that is, whale watching cruises leave many ports all along the New England coast, but puffins can only be found in a few spots and Machias Seal Island has thousands of these birds.
The time of year is also important. Both cruises run throughout the summer, but the best time to see the puffins is in June, July, and early August. By mid-August, many birds have already left the island. Whale watching cruises usually run into late September, but the whales also leave the Bay of Fundy and move south, so the best time for the Sylvina Beal trip is July or August.
Both the Sylvina Beal and Bold Coast Charters offer other sightseeing tours that give access to the spectacular scenery along Maine’s downeast coast, but whale watching in the Bay of Fundy and puffin watching on Machias Seal Island are incomparable encounters with Maine’s sea life.