Penguins of the North

Shown above are Razorbills on New Brunswick’s Machias Seal Island.

A few weeks ago, I took to the Bay of Fundy, catching a boat from Grand Manan Island to our oceanic border with the United States. In these hotly contested waters can be found a small stretch of land, Machias Seal Island, protected by the Canadian Wildlife Service as a Migratory Bird Sanctuary for the pelagic seabirds which nest here part of the year.

What a privilege, to go ashore and cook in the small, windowed sheds separating us from fragile colonies of Atlantic puffin and Arctic tern. Later I took to sea, circling this island by skiff to admire its Common murres and eiders. Seals with heads like horses bobbed in and out of view, watching us with considerable curiosity.

Eventually we found a length of calm coastline with ample sunlight, sailing close until the rocky cliffs towered over our tiny persons. Standing atop were four birds I had not yet seen, tall with a compelling black-and-white figure, their bills thick and sharp, their wings transmuted by time into a sort of flipper, making them masters of air and water. These were Razorbills, a handsome species to see, but an unwelcome reminder that this island community is incomplete.

At one time the birds of Machias Seal Island were joined by another species altogether, standing just shy of a metre tall and sporting many of the same stately features as the Razorbill, except to a greater degree. Its proficiency in water was the stuff of legend, and so totally had evolution committed it to a life at sea that it was flightless, vulnerable on land, indomitable in water. We called it Penguin, the first species ever to carry the name, probably derived from the Latin penguis, meaning fat or grease. Nowadays we refer to it simply as the Great auk, its original name reapplied to the famous birds of Antarctica.

The Great auk was a magnificent species in its time, once spanning much of the North Atlantic Ocean, its remains found as far south as the Mediterranean coast of France, as far north as Greenland, and of course throughout eastern North America. Their colonies could be found encircling Newfoundland and its coastal islands, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on the remote islands of Nova Scotia and, probably, on Machias Seal Island. This bird and the peoples of Europe and North America go back thousands of years, a predator, prey relationship providing us with meat and eggs, through which the Great auk persevered admirably.

It wasn’t until the arrival of industry that the Great auk waned, first in Europe and then elsewhere, suddenly exploited for the oil which could be rendered from its fat (penguis), and for their feathers with which we stuffed mattresses. Against the insatiability of European markets their colonies stood no chance, raided during breeding season with complete disregard for the blossoming tenets of conservation. We slaughtered the adults by the thousands, stole their eggs, even snatched their young to use as fishing bait.

It’s remarkable to think that we found all of their colonies. One would expect a small group to have escaped our notice somewhere between Labrador and Cape Cod, but no such luck. Instead we drove them to extinction on June 3, 1844.

That day, by which time I imagine the North Atlantic was unnaturally quiet, three Icelandic fishermen took to Eldey Island in their national waters and discovered the last pair of Great auks ever to grace the written record. With predictable zeal, these fishermen gave chase, cornered and killed these birds, and returned to raid their nest of its single egg, which they found to be damaged and so discarded on surrounding stone, the last unborn child of a species undone.

Human endorsed extinction is a terrible thing, more so than people realize, each a mark against the global biodiversity on which all life depends, and here is one of Atlantic Canada’s earliest examples.

The Great Auk, the penguin of the north, was unique, an aspect of our natural heritage thoughtlessly destroyed so we might light lanterns and stuff pillows. Among the puffins, murres and eiders of Machias Seal Island, I should have seen the Great auk, posing for a photo before disappearing into the Bay of Fundy like a feathered torpedo. Instead I saw its humble cousin, the Razorbill, a proud if bitter reminder that our oceans were once a big and more beautiful place.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes.