Whales, Puffins & Moose, Oh My! Maine’s Wondrous Watchable Wildlife

By Carey Kish

A bull moose grazes under the splendor of Mount Katahdin. PHOTO: Chris Lawrence, Courtesy of Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau

A bull moose grazes under the splendor of Mount Katahdin. PHOTO: Chris Lawrence, Courtesy of Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau

Maine’s incredible geography features 3,500 miles of ocean coastline, more than 2,500 hills and mountains, some 2,200 lakes and ponds and over 5,000 miles of rivers and streams. This amazing diversity of land and seascapes provides bountiful habitat for a wealth of animal, bird and aquatic life.

Among the most recognizable of Maine’s wild denizens are the great whales, colorful Atlantic puffins, the majestic moose and the American lobster, all popular with visitors and residents alike, who seek them out each spring, summer and fall with cameras and binoculars on organized wildlife watching tours.

OUT TO SEA IN SEARCH OF THE GREAT WHALES

A finback whale surfaces for air while feeding in Casco Bay. PHOTO: Michael Davis, Courtesy of Odyssey Whale Watch

A finback whale surfaces for air while feeding in Casco Bay. PHOTO: Michael Davis, Courtesy of Odyssey Whale Watch

The Gulf of Maine is an exceptional habitat for whales—the world’s largest mammals, some of which can weigh 120 tons or more and reach lengths of 80 to 100 feet. Whales feed from late spring into early fall in the nutrient-rich waters 20 miles offshore. Three of the great whales—the humpback, finback and minke—are commonly found here, as is the smaller pilot whale. There are also occasional sightings of the rare right whale and sometimes even killer whales.

Whale watching tours are an exciting and educational experience for the whole family that bring you right to where the whales are for an up-close look and a chance to see them breach the ocean surface, spout water and nurse their young. Narrated by trained naturalists, you’ll learn to identify the big creatures and discover some interesting facts about each, as well as the efforts involved in their conservation.

Besides whales, plenty of other wildlife can be seen on these tours, like harbor seals, porpoises, dolphins, sharks, eagles and ospreys, plus a range of sea birds, all amid the amazing coastal scenery of islands and bays, lighthouses and old forts.

A humpback shows off its tail while feeding in Casco Bay. PHOTO: Michael Davis, Courtesy of Odyssey Whale Watch

A humpback shows off its tail while feeding in Casco Bay. PHOTO: Michael Davis, Courtesy of Odyssey Whale Watch

Whale watch tour boats are well-equipped with big outside decks for viewing, heated indoor cabins, restrooms, and a galley with food and beverage service. Even in summertime, the weather on the ocean off the Maine coast can be cool and wet, so a sweater and jacket, hat and gloves are recommended, as are sunglasses and sunscreen and your camera and binoculars. Tours are offered between May and October.

From Bar Harbor, the gateway to Acadia National Park, hop on board the Atlanticat of the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. (barharborwhales.com, 207-288-2386), or cruise with Bar Harbor Tours (barharbortours.net, 800-741-6142). Cap’n Fish’s Whale Watch, based in Boothbay Harbor on the MidCoast, runs trips on the Pink Lady and the Island Lady (mainewhales.com, 207-633-3244). From Portland Harbor in Casco Bay, cruise with Odyssey Whale Watch on the Odyssey, which departs from Long Wharf in the heart of the city’s historic Old Port (odysseywhalewatch.com, 207-775-0727). Set off from scenic Kennebunkport with First Chance Whalewatch (firstchancewhalewatch.com, 207-967-5507).

ISLAND HOPPING FOR THE COLORFUL PUFFIN

The Atlantic puffin is one of Maine’s most popular birds. Often called “sea parrots,” puffins have a bit of a clownish look, sporting a black head and back, white belly and face, orange legs and feet and a thick beak outlined in orange. Weighing about a pound, and 10-12 inches tall, these members of the auk family are related to razorbills, guillemots, murres and dovekies.

A pair of puffins on Eastern Egg Rock. PHOTO: Stephen Kress

A pair of puffins on Eastern Egg Rock.
PHOTO: Stephen Kress

Atlantic puffins are well-adapted to life far out in the North Atlantic, returning to land only long enough to breed, generally between mid-April and mid-August. Once nearly extinct from overhunting for their eggs and feathers, the Atlantic puffin is making a carefully-monitored comeback. Project Puffin was established in 1973 to protect and restore critical breeding and feeding habitat, and today some 4,000 puffins make their summer home in five locations along the Maine coast, all of which are visited by puffin watch tour boats from May through August.

Eastern Egg Rock is a 7-acre island in Muscongus Bay, 6 miles east of New Harbor and the Pemaquid Peninsula. Due to its southerly location and close proximity to shore, this tiny island is one of the most visited by puffin watchers.

Two puffin tours to Eastern Egg Rock have National Audubon Project Puffin guides on board to explain the history and biology of the puffins and other sea birds. Hardy Boat Cruises leaves from New Harbor aboard the Hardy III (hardyboat.com, 800-278-3346), while Cap’n Fish’s Audubon Puffin & Scenic Cruises departs from Boothbay Harbor (mainepuffin.com, 207-633-3244). A third operator, Monhegan Boat Lines, offers trips to Eastern Egg Rock from Port Clyde on the Laura B and the Elizabeth Ann (monheganboat.com, 207-372-8848).

Matinicus Rock, 23 miles southeast of Rockland, is home to Maine’s most remote puffin colony. In addition to puffins, the 22-acre island is the only known nesting site for Manx Shearwaters in the U.S. While there are no regularly scheduled commercial tours to Matinicus Rock, Matinicus Excursions operates charter trips from Rockland aboard the Robin R (matinicusexcursions.com, 207-691-9030) and Maine Audubon conducts an annual excursion each summer (maineaudubon.org, 207-781-2330).

Eight miles northeast of Matinicus Rock and 22 miles south of Isle au Haut is the 65-acre Seal Island, where Great Cormorants are also found in abundance. Isle au Haut Boat Services of Stonington on Deer Isle makes a handful of trips to this puffin outpost every summer, each accompanied by a naturalist (isleauhaut.com, 207-367-5193). Captain Bill Baker of Old Quarry Ocean Adventures on nearby Buckmaster Neck pilots the Nigh Duck on regular summer trips to Seal Island (oldquarry.com, 207-367-8977).

Petit Manan Island is part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a sprawling conservation complex of some 50 islands and four mainland parcels totaling 8,100 acres. The 119-foot lighthouse adorning the 16-acre Petit Manan Island is the second highest in Maine.

Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. makes morning trips to the island as part of their whale watches (barharborwhales.com, 207-288-2386). Bar Harbor Boat Tours offers trips aboard the M/V Islander (barharborboattours.com, 207-801-2300), while Robertson Sea Tours operates the Kandi Leigh, a retrofitted lobster boat (robertsonseatours.com, 207-483-6110).

The largest puffin colony in Maine lies on Machias Seal Island. One mile long, a few hundred feet wide and encompassing 20 acres, this is the only puffin colony where visitors can land and go ashore to view the birds up-close from specially erected blinds. Bold Coast Charters out of Cutler Harbor makes visits to the island (boldcoast.com, 207-259-4484).

ON THE TRAIL OF THE MAJESTIC MOOSE

A moose tour is one way to get up close and personal with one of Maine’s most majestic animals. PHOTO: Michael Boutin, Courtesy of Northwoods Outfitters

A moose tour is one way to get up close and personal with one of Maine’s most majestic animals.
PHOTO: Michael Boutin, Courtesy of Northwoods Outfitters

Maine is home to a healthy population of 75,000 moose, the most of any state outside of Alaska, according to state biologists. The largest members of the deer family, moose can weigh well over 1,000 pounds. Ranging in color from light brown to almost black, the rather ungainly-looking moose can stand over six feet at the shoulder. Antlers on male moose can reach more than five feet across. Given its impressive physical stature, it’s no wonder the moose is Maine’s official state animal and that moose watching has become such a popular pastime.

Around the time of sunrise and sunset are the most active times for moose, and thus your best bet to see them. In springtime and early summer, moose can often found along the sides of roads, eating newly green vegetation and licking salt from the surface of the pavement. Come summer, the moose retreat into the deeper woods and waters where they feast mainly on aquatic vegetation and lichen.

In addition to the majestic moose there’s plenty of other wildlife to be on the lookout for, like loons, ducks, eagles, hawks, osprey, owls, deer, fox, beavers, otters, chipmunks, squirrels and bears.

Watching for a Maine moose is a family-fun adventure you can do all on your own, but the best way to ensure a moose sighting or two (or more) is on a moose safari in the company of an experienced Maine guide — masters of the Maine woods who know the best moose watching locations by heart.

Moose-watching operators offer tours via a variety of transportation modes: on foot, by canoe or kayak, by air-conditioned van and by pontoon boat. Participants should bring a camera and binoculars and dress appropriately with a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, sturdy footwear, hat, sunglasses, rain jacket, sunscreen and bug spray. Moose safaris are offered May through October and usually go rain or shine.

Based in Greenville on Moosehead Lake are Maine Moose Watching Tours (mainemoosewatching.com, 888-484-3317), Northwoods Outfitters (maineoutfitter.com, 866-223-1380), and Young’s Guide Service (youngsguideservice.com, 207-695-2661). In tiny Kokadjo, 18 miles north of Greenville, “where the pavement ends and moose outnumber people,” Kokadjo Cabins & Trading Post offers expert advice (but not tours) on where to spot the elusive moose (kokadjo.com, 207-695-3993). In Rockwood near Mt. Kineo, go moose touring with The Birches Resort (birches.com, 800-825-9453).

In the Millinocket area, close to Baxter State Park and majestic Katahdin, is the New England Outdoor Center on Millinocket Lake (neoc.com, 800-634-7238) and Maine Quest Adventures in Medway (mainequestadventures.com, 207-447-5011). North Country Rivers on the Bingham offers guided safaris in the moose-rich Kennebec River Valley region (northcountryrivers.com, 800-348-8871). Based in Sangerville is Ed Mathieu of Moose Country Safaris & Eco Tours (moosecountrysafaris.com, 207-876-4907).

More wildlife viewing opportunities

THE MAINE WILDLIFE PARK
For a chance to see a variety of wild creatures all in one spot, a visit to the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray is a must. The facility is the permanent home for wildlife that cannot survive on its own out in the wild because they have been injured or orphaned or have become human-dependent. From bald eagles and bobcats to opossum and porcupines to wild turkeys and wood turtles, you’ll see more than 30 species of Maine wildlife in the park, which features a visitor center, fish hatchery, tree and wetland trails, warden museum, gardens and nature store. Open April to October (maine.gov/ifw/education/wildlifepark, 207-657-4977).

ALONG THE MAINE BIRDING TRAIL
Avian enthusiasts—novice to expert—will enjoy discovering the Maine Birding Trail, the official state trail and guide to more than 260 of the best birding sites in the state, from the Maine Beaches to Downeast and Acadia, the MidCoast Region to Aroostook County. This wonderful self-guiding resource comes complete with maps and tips for birding year round. A free abridged version is available for download online or in paper format at visitor information centers around Maine (mainebirdingtrail.com).

A lobsterman pulling traps in Casco Bay. PHOTO: Cynthia Farr-Winfield, Courtesy of Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau

A lobsterman pulling traps in Casco Bay.
PHOTO: Cynthia Farr-Winfield, Courtesy of Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau

LOBSTER BOAT TOURS
Maine’s varied wildlife picture would not be complete without an ode to the American lobster, which thrives in the cold waters and rocky bottom habitat along the Maine coast. The tasty crustacean is harvested by a hearty contingent of independent fishermen who make daily trips out amid the islands and bays to tend their traps, marked by colorful bobbing buoys. The Maine lobster industry plays a significant role in Maine’s economy, with an annual catch of over 100 million pounds valued at $300 million. Climb aboard a real working lobster boat with captain and crew for a hands-on look at how lobsters are caught and how this important fishery is managed and conserved. Fifteen lobster tour boats depart ports ranging from Kennebunkport to Camden to Addison (lobsterfrommaine.com, 207-541-9310).

 

CareyKish_headshotCarey Kish of Bowdoin, Maine is a freelance outdoors and travel writer. A Registered Maine Guide and all-around adventurer, Kish is editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and writes a regular hiking column for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. He is currently working on a new book about classic hikes along the Maine coast from Kittery to Eastport.

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