asakiyume (asakiyume) wrote,

The Bird Island Boat Tour

We didn't set out with any plan do anything like a boat tour, and when we saw a brochure in a visitors' center somewhere, featuring a puffin wearing a captain's hat and a promise of seeing puffins, we thought it would be fun, but still it wasn't something we were actually planning on doing.

And then it turned out one of the places we were spending the night ran the tours! And it turned out we arrived 15 minutes before the last tour of the day. So we decided to go out on the Puffin Express, designed and partially built by the family themselves. The captain was Ian Van Schaick, with his younger brother Mark as the first mate. Ian and Mark are the third generation in their family to be giving their tours--it started with their grandfather, and their father still goes out too. (Their father looks like a sea captain of yore; he's also in the Coast Guard.)

Ian was a fountain of information not just on the various birds we were seeing, but also on things visible on shore (how there was only one working lighthouse left; boats now use GPS and radar as guides; how that over there was a clean-burning coal power plant, but ironically, it can't burn the local coal alone--and its power gets sent elsewhere; how those lovely wind turbines are a great alternative power source but each one produces only 1/200th of the power of the coal plant; how that island over there gets snowed in for days, so the houses you see are only for summer folks, etc.)

The first bird we saw was a northern gannet. "We don't get whales here much, but the only times we do see whales, it's after we've seen northern gannets. They follow the whales because they know the whales follow the krill, and they want the krill."

And sure enough, we did see a whale! A minke whale. "They're kind of boring whales," said Ian. "That's all you ever see--just the dorsal fin and a little bit of the back. They don't go in for spectacular breaches." All the same! It was great.

He also told us a legend about some deadly ferrymen who would kill the crews of treasure-laden ships.1 They couldn't use the ships, so they'd leave them floating, and these abandoned boats, with the crews all dead, were, Ian said, speculated to be at the roots of Flying Dutchman legends. According to local legend, the ferrymen hid the treasure in a sea cave 20 12 (Wakanomori reminded me it was actually only 12) miles long. At one point an expedition explored the cave, but there'd been a rockfall 3 miles in. So the treasure may still be in there, behind the rockfall. A little digging reveals that there are Mik'maq legends relating to the same cave.

Many of the brightly colored things we saw bobbing on the water were lobster buoys--each fisherman has his own uniquely patterned buoys--but soon enough we saw flocks of tiny puffins on the water too, and by then we were approaching the rocky/cliffy Bird Islands, and then Ian told us all sorts of nesting facts--that puffins nest in holes in the cliffs (unless razorbills get there first and take all the cliff holes, in which case they'll make holes in the earth on the tops of the cliffs) and that they have only one chick per year.

I got to talking to Mark, the younger brother. I asked him if he'd ever considered lobstering for a summer job. "No," he said, "Reason being, 'I'll meet you here at 4:30 in the morning'--no thanks!" Talking about running the tours, he said "It became part of who we are." When someone asked if it was lucrative, he said, "It's more of an expensive hobby--but it lets us live here." I love that everyone in the family really loves the **place**.

My attempts at photographing puffins, razorsbills, bald eagles, black guillmonts ("white wing patches, and sexy red legs" was how Ian taught us to recognize them), and cormorants hanging their wings to drain and dry were hopeless, so I'll post a couple of the Van Schaiks' own photos:



... and share my sketch of some seals instead. The scribbled note says "Mark said, when I said that they have dog faces, that his dad said the males have dog faces and the females have horse faces."

1 I can't find any corroboration for this legend elsewhere, and I may have mangled it--but anyway, it makes a good story. (The closest thing I find is the remarks of John MacGregor, published in 1828, remarking about fishermen on the other side of Cape Breton, that they
are Acadian French, who live by pursuing cod, herring, and seal fisheries, together with wrecking; at which last occupation, in consequence of the frequent shipwrecks about the entrance of the Gulf during the spring and fall, for several years, they are as expert as the Bermudians, or the people of the Bahamas.

This entry was originally posted at Comments are welcome at either location.
Tags: adventure, canada, legends, life on the wire, nova scotia, ocean, sea
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