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Harrington captain offers close look at puffins, Down East wildlife

Posted June 14, 2012, at 11:36 a.m.

Kandi Leigh idled by the dock, bobbing in the gray waters of the Narraguagus River on a chilly June morning. Aboard the 28-foot lobster boat, Capt. James Robertson greeted the passengers joining him to scope out the region’s various seabirds.

Robertson was just about to depart from Milbridge Marina when a 4-year-old boy in a pirate hat — his son McKade — toddled down the boat ramp wielding a plastic sword. Not far behind, Robertson’s wife, Kandi, descended, holding the hand of their 2-year-old, Brody.

“We call them our two little water boys,” James Robertson said. “They’re very excited about the new boat.”

Brody and McKade clambered aboard their father’s boat and took turns sitting in the captain’s seat and “swabbing the deck” with a broom. When it was time for the tour to start, McKade whispered to his mom, his eyebrows furrowed with worry.

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“He wants to know where you’re going and when you’ll be back,” she relayed to her husband.

“It’ll only be a few hours,” he assured his son. “We’re just going out to see the puffins.”

For the past 10 summers, James Robertson has motored people to Maine isles, gifting them with a variety of memories, from lobster bakes on Flint Island to watching humpbacks rise out of the water 20 miles offshore. And so far, Robertson Sea Tours — a family business providing intimate 6-passenger cruises — has been a success.

Slowly navigating around buoys, James Robertson — a registered Maine guide and licensed U.S. Coast Guard Captain — made his way out to the bay.

Right away he pointed out cormorants perched on the remains of an old wooden dock, then steered to a harbor seal hangout. Two seal pups sunned on the rocks with their mother, who raised her head and slapped her tail against their bed of seaweed as Robertson inched closer. A fat, spotted seal with a clouded left eye sprawled nearby.

An osprey and bald eagle later, the boat was riding the calm waters around Petit Manan Island, a national wildlife refuge and the home of Maine’s second tallest lighthouse.

Robertson carefully navigated through groups of floating puffins, which intermingled with razorbills, murres and guillemots. Terns stirred from their grass nests and swooped overhead in mesmerizing patterns, singing out in alarm.

“When I started the business, I never realized we had the seabirds that we have, and I also didn’t realize there was such a big market for people to go see them,” he said. “I knew the basics, the puffins and sea ducks, but I quickly realized that I had to bone up on this. When I started, I had avid birders on the boat, and I asked them to help me out. I also did some studying on my own.”

Born in Ellsworth, Robertson grew up listening to the tales of local lobster fishermen and working on his father’s boat. He attended Narraguagus High School, where he spent much of his energy on the baseball diamond. Meanwhile, he scuba dived for scallops to help fund college. He met his wife, Kandi, while studying secondary education at the University of Maine at Machias.

The ocean continued to call to him after college, so he decided to set aside his teaching aspirations to pursue commercial fishing for scallops, urchins and lobsters. In 2001, he started Robertson Sea Tours, offering a variety of cruises out of Milbridge.

“Jamie has always wanted to be on the water,” said Kandi Robertson. “He grew up on the water. I’m just so proud of him. He really took a leap and built what we have from the ground up.”

A practicing clinical social worker, Kandi Robertson plans to devote more of her time to helping with the touring business this summer from their home in Harrington. Midsummer, they sometimes manage to book four or five trips a day, and each trip lasts 1.5-3 hours.

“I think on my busiest day, I ran from 8 in the morning to 8 at night,” he said.

“Surprisingly, as far as the number of people, every year I’ve had a steady climb, even when the economy started to head south,” he said. “What happened is I get a different variety of travelers because people are sticking closer to home … I think the biggest thing that has affected me is fuel prices.”

Close to the shore of Petit Manan, he steered Kandi Leigh closer to a group of puffins. They begin swimming away, but as the boat drew too close for comfort, they took off, flapping their stubby wings vigorously in an effort to carry their plump bodies, better built for floating and swimming.

“Puffins tend to stay offshore and don’t go to just any island, everything has to be right for them,” Robertson said. That’s why so many Maine residents have never seen a puffin in person.

Robertson never leaves the ocean. When tourism dies out in the winter, he dives into the icy Atlantic in search for urchins, a delicacy in many cultures. His catch goes straight to the Japanese fish market to be made into sushi rolls.

“You get a high off fishing, especially when it’s going well,” he said. “The tourism is cool, too, but it’s a little bit more like going to work in the office — it’s not a bad office to be in.”

On the way back, two porpoises showed their fins above water and another bald eagle watched the boat from his roost. Robertson passed uncountable guillemots nesting on the cliffs of Jordan’s Delight, their long, dark necks rising out of beds of sticks and grass.

“I’ve seen a lot of different things,” he said. “We’ve watched eagles take osprey chicks out of the nest and literally battle in the air. It was kind of scary, actually. I’ve come across a deer swimming before, and the whales are always impressive.”

“I think he gets most excited about the experiences he sees people having out on the water,” Kandi Robertson said. “He just loves to share his knowledge. He just lights up and really becomes a different person.”

Through tours, Robertson has met people from all over the world, some of whom plan their entire vacation around seeing the puffins and whales of Narraguagus Bay.

“We get a lot of Maine folks, and we’d love to have more,” Kandi Robertson said. “What we would love is for people to explore the Down East region and realize there’s a lot of things going on down here and really a lot of opportunities to get out on the water.”

To learn about the tours, visit robertsonseatours.com.

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