Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Brier Island, Machias Seal Island, Southwest Harbor

The forecast for Monday was light wind, less than 1 meter waves, and sunny, so off we went departing Yarmouth at 7:00AM.  The original plan was to go to Grand Manan Island by way of Brier Island.  Grand Manan sits just a little off the coast of Eastport ME which is right at the Canadian border.  And Brier Island is right on the way and is the end of a peninsula/island chain near the southern end of Nova Scotia on the Fundy side.  We read that Brier was a good whale watching destination.

The seas were like glass, so we cranked up the speed and in a little under 2 hours were off Brier Island.  The center of the Bay of Fundy is very deep - 600'-700' - and there are very steep sides to the deep trough in the middle, with the side in the 100-200' range.  Those underwater cliffs are where the currents stir up all the food goodies and draw the mammals to feed.  In no time at all we spotted several Minke whales and a couple of Humpbacks.  Also lots of dolphins.

After an hour or so it was still only 11:00AM, so rather than going straight to Grand Manan, we decided instead to visit Machias Seal Island which is about 15nm south of Grand Manan.

As we crossed Fundy and approached the western edge of the deep trough, I spotted a whale breaching over and over again.  As we got closer, this playful guy (or gal) was flapping his fins.

Fin Flapping in Fundy
We stopped and drifted for a while with the engines off, and all you could hear off in the distance in all directions were whales blowing.

Although Machias Seal Island is in US waters (by only a mile or two), Canada still claims it.  It's home to the last remaining manned lighthouse in all of Canada, staffed by Canadians, just so they can continue to have a valid claim to it.  The good thing is that nobody really cares too much and people of both nationalities can come and go freely.

About 10 years ago we visited the island to see the Puffins.  It's one of the largest breeding colonies, and there are numerous blinds set up along the shore where you can get incredible close-up views of these amazing birds.  Going ashore requires a special permit so you can only go with an organized tours which is how we first saw them.

Machias Seal Island
This time our visit was by water only, but we were still treated to some great views.

Were were just bobbing around for a while when not too far away we saw a huge boiling in the water.  Through the binoculars we could see it was a school of probably 100 dolphins in a feeding frenzy, fish and dolphins jumping out of the water every which way.  Then to clean things up, a Minke whale plowed though too.

A look at the chart revealed a 100+ foot deep trough in the ocean floor just off the island, and apparently the dolphins had herded a bunch of fish down the trough to a dead end, then had a feast on the resulting pile-up.  For the next half hour, the Minke passed back and forth along the trench feeding away.

By now it was 1or 2 in the afternoon, with Grand Manan sitting 15 miles to the north, and Southwest Harbor, ME sitting about 45 miles south.  For two extra hours under way, we could be back in the US for dinner, so off we went.

Most of the trip was great, but as it got later, the typical SW afternoon wind started to kick up turning the glass ride we had enjoyed all day into a bit of a bumpy ride.  Worse yet, the lobster trap buoys were becoming denser and denser requiring more and more close attention, and allowing for much less assistance from Skippy the autopilot.  To make matters worse, the 1-2 foot chop that the wind kicked up was partly hiding the buoys.  You'd catch a glimpse (or think you did), only for them to disappear and reappear later right in front of you.  Oh, and then there was the sun starting to go down and creating glare off the water right where you are trying to see the darn buoys.  It's like driving a car in a torrential downpour where your eyes are glued to the road, but it lasts for two hours, or at least until you get tangled on one, which I did.

Crap!  I was dodging a couple, only to look up and find myself running smack over a tandem pair.  With an outboard, the trick is to put the boat in neutral so you don't get the rope wrapped up in the prop, so that's what I did, except I got the rope wrapped up in the prop.  To make a long story short, one of the whale watch captains called and said that if you just put it in gear and hit the gas it will usually just shred the rope and buoy and off you go.  I had been avoiding doing that for fear of making matters worse, but with his encouragement, shredded trap gear it was.  I fancy myself a pretty good boat handler, and a conservative and attentive captain, but I ran over 2 more before the day was over.  That's 3 in one day, and that's 3 more than I've run over in my whole life.  I'm all for lobstering, and I don't mind dodging traps, but there are parts of Maine where it's totally out of control.  The whole episode was quite the let-down from an otherwise outstanding day, but we got through it and safely into Southwest Harbor.  This winter I'm going to put spurs on the prop shafts, and use more throttle when cruising in Maine.

Arrival back in the US meant we had to check in the US customs on arrival.  Normally we would have called an hour or two before arrival, but we were busy cutting free from lobster traps, and dodging the others, so I called after we got tied up at the dock.  Customs used to have an office in Bar Harbor which is pretty close the Southwest Harbor, but when the high speed ferry to Yarmouth stopped running, they closed the office, so the poor guy had to drive down from Bangor.  In the mean time, we put up our quarantine flag and were confined to quarters until he showed up to clear us.  I figured they'd come the next day, but he drove down that night arriving at about 10:30 which is way past our bed time.  It was a painless process, but I did have to rustle Laurie out of bed so he could confirm she looked like the picture in her passport.

It's great to be back in the US!

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