Looking out at Petit Manan Island, the captain recalled that he once spent part of a summer there with his uncle when he was a young boy.
“It was exciting when you are little and you spend time on an island,” he said as he steered Robertson Sea Tours’ Elisabeth Rose toward the island 12 miles off Milbridge.
At the time, Jim Parker’s uncle was in the U.S. Coast Guard and would sometimes relieve the lightkeeper on Petit Manan before the beacon on the remote isle was automated in 1972. The Petit Manan Light still serves as a navigational aid.
“When he was young he went out and stayed at the light and I would go and spend time with him,” Parker said.
Parker has led an interesting life. He was born and raised in Milbridge and grew up “over the hill,” as he refers to it.
He attended the University of Maine and later founded a civil engineering firm — CES, Inc. — one of the largest in Maine. He also spent three years in the state legislature, serving the 18th District.
Although he is now retired, Parker serves on Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection, a seven-member citizen advisory board, when he is not lobster fishing or captaining cruises for sightseers.
Parker started working for Robertson Sea Tours proprietor Jamie Robertson seven years ago, introducing visitors to the Maine islands and taking them to see puffins and whales too.
“I’ve been on the water all of my life — since I was 9 years old,” Parker said.
Robertson also grew up on the water in Maine. Born in Ellsworth and raised in the Downeast region, he and his wife, Kandi Robertson, started their tour boat enterprise in 2001. Their other vessel is the Kandi Leigh.
In addition to puffin and whale watches, they also offer an island lobster bake cruise, a “Maine cruise” and private charters. During the winter, he dives for scallops and sea urchins.
For Robertson, this puffin watch cruise is just another day at the office — his office being the vast Atlantic Ocean.
“Every day is usually different,” Robertson explained. “Even going on the same cruise every day, you see something different and you get to meet a lot of very nice people.
“It’s not a bad office to be in.”
Both Kandi Leigh and Elisabeth Rose seat six people, making each cruise intimate and relaxed.
“I wanted to be more personal,” Robertson said while readying the boats to leave the marina. “I have never wanted to be a person who mans a cruise ship of 40 to 50 people.”
The 12-mile trek from the marina into the Gulf of Maine to Petit Manan offers diverse sights. Cruise-goers can scrutinize the natural bridge at Jordan’s Delight. Harbor seals sunbathe on rocks. The outline of Cadillac Mountain can be seen in the distance.
Petit Manan Island boasts the second largest lighthouse in Maine. It towers 123 feet above the water, guiding cruise ships and other vessels. It also functions as a wildlife refuge for Atlantic puffins. The island is closed to the public from April through August so that the nesting birds are not disturbed.
As the Kandi Leigh and the Elisabeth Rose move closer toward Petit Manan, the seabirds — with their brightly colored beaks — calmly bob near the rocks. The puffins seem altogether unaffected by the visitors who snap their pictures and gaze in wonder.
In the late 1800s, the puffins on coastal Maine islands were hunted for their feathers and as a source of food.
Stephen Kress is the National Audubon Society’s vice president for bird conservation and director of the organization’s Project Puffin. The project’s aim is to restore and protect puffins on the Maine islands.
“By 1901, we believe there was one pair left on U.S. islands,” Kress said. “The Maine population of puffins has greatly increased over the last 40 years and I think we have about 1,000 pairs.”
In recent years, however, the puffins have had poor nesting seasons. The diminiative birds, which are on average 10 inches tall, have been short on food during the breeding season.
“I hope that moving forward people would see the benefits of having puffins along the coast,” Kress said. “Not just because of the economics because they attract a lot of tourists to Maine, but also because they enhance the quality of life among the Maine coast.”
Gone Puffin Watching
Outfitter: Robertson Sea Tours and Adventures
Contact: Kandi and Jamie Robertson, 483-6110, [email protected]