Machias Seal Island worthy of adding to your bucket list

Art Weber

        There’s one place you can stand that should be either the United States or Canada, yet it’s neither.
        It’s a No Man’s Land, a little island in the Atlantic Ocean lost in the language of all those agreements that so precisely define the United States-Canada border.
        Even though Machias Seal Island doesn’t look like much, for four months of every year, it transforms into an extraordinary place worthy of your bucket list.
        It’s a 20-acre treeless rock located 10 miles off the Maine coast and 12 miles southwest of New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.
        A lighthouse is the tiny island’s only striking permanent feature, a historic structure built in 1832.
        Machias Seal isn’t worthless, but the United States and Canada have a mostly friendly disagreement over which flag should fly there. Lobstermen covet the rich waters and shoals surrounding the island, some of them taking advantage of the dispute to over-harvest the resource.
        The only military occupation – and the only official U.S. presence ever on the island – was a contingent of Marines, who came under an agreement with Canada to stand guard against German U-boats during World War I.
        Most of the year, the population of the island is two – both Canadian lightkeepers holding station even though the lighthouse is automated. It’s the only staffed light on Canada’s Atlantic seaboard, Canada’s way of maintaining a sustained presence on the disputed island.
        Then comes April, when thousands of seabirds arrive and action explodes. Machias Seal becomes home to one of the Atlantic’s most important nesting colonies, managed as a migratory bird sanctuary by the Canadian Wildlife Service with a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
        The island may not look like much, but for seabirds, it’s a wonderfully isolated rock with a minimum number of predators, located in waters rich in the foods they need to raise their young. 
        Thousands of seabirds settle down to lay their eggs and raise their young in a four-month frenzy that ends with adults and young headed back out to sea. Count among them some 5,000 pairs of Atlantic puffins, 1,000 pairs of razorbill auks and 500 pairs of common murres. It is by far the largest puffin colony on the Maine coast, and the only nesting place for auks and murres. Common and Arctic terns are in the area along with Leach's storm-petrels, black guillemots, and common eiders.
        It’s not easy to get out to the island, even harder to get a ticket that gives you permission to land and view the birds from enclosed blinds located just a few feet from the birds.
        Only two tour operators – one from the Maine and the other from Grand Manan Island – have permits to land passengers on the island. Each is allowed to bring 15 people per day.
        It’s darn well worth the cost and effort to be one of those 30.
        For more information, visit or Reservations are a must.


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