Machias Seal Island

Photo: Sea Watch Tours
Photo: Sea Watch Tours

Canada and the United States are at odds with each other. The neighboring countries, which share the longest international border in the world, are known for their friendly relationship. They amicably share borders along the Pacific and the Arctic, eight provinces and 13 states, and the Great Lakes. But there’s a lingering problem in the Atlantic: Machias Seal Island.

Machias Seal Island sits 10 miles southeast of Cutler, Maine and 12 miles southwest of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. Along with North Rock, it’s part of the “gray zone,” a disputed territory that covers 277 square miles in the Gulf of Maine. The Passamaquoddy people used the 20-acre island as a spear-fishing post for centuries before the Europeans arrived. The French, the British, and, eventually, the Americans largely ignored the barren island up through the Revolutionary War. It wasn’t until the war ended, with the Treaty of Paris, that Machias Seal Island became disputed land.

During World War I, the U.S. Marines occupied the island to prevent German U-boats from attacking North America through the Bay of Fundy. The Canadians, on the other hand, built a lighthouse on the island in 1832. Despite being automated years ago, the lighthouse is still manned. Today, the island is also a migratory bird sanctuary, while lobster boats bob through the chilly water just offshore.

You decide to see this disputed territory for yourself. On Grand Manan Island, join Sea Watch Tours’ boat heading to Machias Seal Island. The boat runs six days a week from June to September. Warm clothing—think jackets, hats, and gloves—are needed even though it’s summer. It’s hard to see the island, or passing whales, through the dense fog. While the tours are small, only 30 people (15 brought over from each country) are allowed on the island each day.

Follow your guide over the slippery, seaweed-covered footpath when you disembark. A white lighthouse stands in front of you. The wind whips through your hair and thin jacket. While the sounds and the smells are intense. The island is full of birds. Thousands of Atlantic puffins, with their bright orange legs, nest in burrows. Hundreds of pairs of black-and-white razorbills sit over their eggs in crevices between the rocks. Plus common murres incubate their eggs at the edges of small cliffs. Arctic terns, Leach’s storm petrels, and phalaropes fly overhead. While greater and sooty shearwaters stand along the rocky coast. So much for an international dispute. The birds clearly own this speck of land.

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