October 18, 2019
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Head Down East for one of the greatest shows on Earth

Bob Duchesne | Bob Duchesne
Bob Duchesne | Bob Duchesne
East Quoddy Light

If you stretched out Maine’s rugged coastline, it would extend 3,478 miles. That bests California’s coastline by 51 miles.

Southern Maine has sandy beaches. The midcoast region shelters the windjammer fleet. Lobster boat races attract the Deer Isle-Stonington crowd. Acadia is a mecca for tourists. With all that awesomeness, is there one place that out-awesomes all the rest?

Submitted for your consideration: Head Harbor Passage.

The channel that separates Canada and the United States is uniquely irresistible. Blame the tides. Visitors are rightly impressed by tides of 10 to 13 feet in Bar Harbor, but they’re positively gob-smacked by the 19 to 23 footers in Lubec and Eastport. These communities lie at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, where tides will rise even higher by the time they reach the northern end of the bay in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, up to 55 feet.

The moon’s gravitational pull gets the tides moving as the Earth rotates. Beyond that, local differences are the result of geography. The Bay of Fundy happens to be just the right shape to produce an oscillating effect, like water sloshing back and forth in a bathtub. As Fundy narrows, the water piles up on itself, creating the biggest tides on the planet. More than 70 billion cubic feet of water sloshes back and forth every 12 hours.

Now, if that were all that were happening, it would still be very impressive. But throw a few islands into that oceanic stream, constraining the flow even further, and weird natural phenomena will emerge. One of them is the Old Sow, the largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere and the second-largest on Earth. It swirls between Maine’s Eastport and New Brunswick’s Deer Island. There are legends and fables of how this maelstrom has sucked down boats. In truth, a modern power boat can cut through it with ease, though all hands on deck will feel the circling eddies as the current grabs the keel.

The Old Sow is really nothing more than a parlor trick perpetrated by Mother Nature. The real show is the sea life. Huge tides carry fish and marine organisms along with the current. Tidal fluxes passing over ridges on an uneven ocean floor push that food source upward. It’s a banquet table for birds and marine mammals. To watch it in action, just wait for the mackerel to school close to shore.

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Mackerel are 12-to 18-inch-long fish that come into bays and estuaries to feed in summer. Mackerel are oily and strong-flavored but when prepared properly are a favorite for many anglers along the Maine coast. There are many places to fish for them, but none is more productive than Head Harbor Passage. It’s common to see fishermen standing on piers, casting lines with multiple hooks, then reeling in several wriggling fish at a time.

It’s easy to tell where the mackerel, herring and other fish are schooling. Just look for the harbor seals and porpoises chasing them. Expect to see whales. Minke whales gorge themselves on the abundance all summer, venturing nearly to dockside in Eastport. Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales, and several well-known individuals return each year. There’s “Gonzo,” so-named because he jumps more often than the others. There’s “Breadknife,” whose dorsal fin looks serrated due to something biting it long ago. There’s “Slice,” who doesn’t have a top fin at all.

Occasionally, one of the larger humpbacks or finbacks ventures deep into the passage.

Watch for big flocks of gulls feeding voraciously in the channel. The waters are so food-rich that one odd species of gull has chosen to make a permanent home there. At the upper end of the channel, White Horse Island is the southernmost nesting colony of black-legged kittiwakes in the world. Another gull — the Bonaparte’s gull — is a small, tern-like species that nests on freshwater in northern Canada. Tens of thousands swarm into Head Harbor Passage in late summer.

You don’t have to get on a boat to witness all of this natural spectacle. Much of it can be seen from shore in Lubec and Eastport. More can be viewed from Campobello. Nonetheless, several small boats offer inexpensive tours up the channel, and they are well worth taking. Favorites include the “Tarquin,” based in Lubec, and the “Pier Pressure” docked in Eastport.

Summer is for tourists. They’ll have a great time in Bar Harbor. Meanwhile, savvy Mainers will head Down East for one of the greatest shows on Earth.

This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s May 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.

 



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