Eastern Egg Rock, a tiny, seemingly nondescript, barren atoll located in outer Muscongus Bay, is one of a handful of locations along the Maine coast where Atlantic puffins come to nest. But it hasn’t always been that way.
The colorful seabirds stopped returning to the rock around 1890. A variety of circumstances had driven them from their natural roosting habitat. Until 1973, there was no reason to believe they would ever return.
That summer, a team led by Stephen Kress began a painstaking effort to bring puffins back to the rock. Members of Project Puffin traveled to a large puffin colony on Great Island in Newfoundland where team members removed chicks from their burrows and brought them back to Maine.
For more than a decade, Project Puffin relocated chicks from Newfoundland and raised them on Eastern Egg Rock. The goal was to instill an instinctive desire to return to breed. Despite their diligent efforts, 12 years passed before puffin pairs returned. Today, around 150 puffin parents raise their chicks on the rock each year.
I started visiting the puffins on Eastern Egg by sea kayak about 20 years ago. My first journey there was an illuminating experience. I found the short, stocky, exceptionally intelligent little birds captivating. They’re only on the rock a few weeks each year. Once their chicks are strong enough, they leave for the open ocean before returning to breed the following season. The months of June and July are prime time.
Several years ago, I began organizing annual Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society sea kayak trips to Eastern Egg Rock. When the club trip schedule is formulated early in the year, I list a trip for late June. Then I wait to see if the puffins return.
In mid-June, I emailed a friend who is an Audubon Society volunteer on the island to inquire if the glamorous ocean clowns had returned. Her response was precisely what I wanted to hear, “The puffins are here, around 250 of them!”
Planning a sea kayak trip to Eastern Egg Rock requires considering several important factors. Since it’s a long paddle with substantial exposure, weather is the most significant issue. My requirements are light winds, gentle seas and an absence of fog.
Deciding where to launch and whether to complete the journey in one day, or take two and camp, are additional factors to examine. I decided to depart from Friendship, a 17-mile round trip. My choice was to camp and enjoy two shorter paddling days. That plan also allows for two chances to accomplish the open-water sprint to the rock and provides an opportunity for further Muscongus Bay exploration.
When I identified an acceptable weather day, only six “Chowderheads” were able to arrange their schedules to participate. The weather was perfect when we met at the landing, but there was a fly in the ointment: a last-minute forecast for patchy fog. With no fog at that moment, we decided to kayak four miles to Black Island, our intended campsite, and then make a decision on a quest for the rock or wait another day.
Departing in shallow water shortly after low tide, we navigated a circuitous route through exposed sand bars into bustling Friendship Harbor. Our cruise along Friendship Long Island and past Cranberry Island to Black Island went smoothly. Although there were fog banks to our west and east, the route to Eastern Egg appeared clear. Two in the group decided to return to Friendship, but for four of us it was puffins or bust!
We paddled into a light headwind and cruised through a channel between Harbor and Hall islands out into open water. Distinctive Franklin Island Light was on our left as we took a compass bearing for tiny Eastern Egg, approximately three miles south.
Although there was about a mile of minor turbulence, our traverse to the rock was otherwise problem-free. As we approached the rugged island, six floating puffins were seemingly waiting for us. Shortly after passing them, we entered an enchanting world of puffins swimming along the shore and flying to and from their nests, their beaks usually filled with fish.
After completing a circumnavigation of the rock, we began our journey back to Black Island. Mission accomplished, our conversation turned to what new adventures awaited us during the remainder of our outing.