‘You see one puffin, you’ve seen ‘em all’

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 5:00pm

Friday, June 25 was a perfect day for a cruise on the ocean.

At 10 a.m. 119 passengers boarded the Island Lady in Boothbay Harbor in hopes of seeing some Atlantic puffins. Most had never seen one.

Cap'n Fish's puffin cruises take off from Pier 1 four days a week to make the approximately three hour cruise out to Eastern Egg Rock and back. A seven-acre treeless island in outer Muscongus Bay, Eastern Egg Rock is the southernmost colony of puffins in North America.

Along with the puffin sightseers, the puffin cruise sports a captain and a crew of two, along with one or two Audubon experts.

According to Sarah Daniels, who was on board as a representative of the National Audubon Society's Project Puffin, the project on Eastern Egg Rock was started in 1973 by Steve Kress.

“He was a young biologist who wanted to bring puffins back to Maine,” she said.

Puffins, prolific in Iceland and Newfoundland, are rare in Maine. Daniels said that after being nearly wiped out in the early 1900s, 1,000 puffin chicks around 10 days old were brought to Eastern Egg Rock between 1973 and 1986, where Kress hoped they would nest and raise their chicks.

Leg bands were placed on the puffins when they were ready to leave the nest so they could be identified in the future, according to the Audubon Project Puffin website. The hope was that they would return to Eastern Egg Rock after spending two or three years at sea to establish a new colony there.

“After eight years of waiting, five chicks were hatched in 1981,” Daniels said. “There are 113 pairs on the island now.”

The smallest of four species of puffins, the Atlantic puffin stands only around 10 inches tall, and they do stand upright like penguins. They are monogamous, usually mating for life, and lay only one egg annually. At the end of August the puffins migrate, heading out to sea until they come back to land the next May. Young chicks will head to sea by themselves and stay away for two years before they come back to nest, hopefully on Eastern Egg Rock.

Five researchers from the National Audubon Society camp out on Eastern Egg Rock each summer from mid-May to mid-August to observe the puffins and try to learn more about their habits.

Passengers on the puffin cruise on July 25 were from all over the U.S. There were people from Rhode Island, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. Most had never seen a puffin.

Matt Holmes and Lital Shahar from Boston said they went to Iceland last year in hopes of seeing some puffins.

“We never saw one,” Holmes said. So they came to Boothbay Harbor — and saw plenty.

Brent Bilis and Cristina Ramunda came up from New Jersey two years ago to take the puffin cruise at the end of August. 

“We found out they had already migrated,” Bilis said. This time they weren't disappointed.

Heidi Piccerelli from Rhode Island was on the cruise, along with family members and in-laws. She got on board early and was lucky enough to get the coveted spot at the bow of the boat, with her state-of-the-art camera.

It wouldn't be easy to distinguish one puffin from another, as they all have identical markings. As passengers were disembarking after the cruise, Piccerelli's father-in-law, Bill Piccerelli, was overheard joking, “Ah, you see one puffin, you've seen 'em all.”

But he, along with most other passengers on the puffin cruise, were clearly happy to have “seen ‘em all” that day at Eastern Egg Rock.