Perce, Bonaventure and the Largest Gannet Colony in the World
To the "Rock"
Sitting at the breakfast table in Forillon International hostel, I was browsing a small map the B&B owner gave me with a command: Go to Perce!
It had to be Forillon, Perce and Bonaventure Island, in that order. He mostly talked about the rock itself, but I understood there was also a national park on the island, and a boat trip to get there.
Luckily for me, once again I got great info on the go without advance preparation. In retrospect, it’s painful to think how close I was to missing Bonaventure Island… This was one of the peaks of my trip, and would have been a shame to miss it.. Maybe next time I should get one of those expensive “Rough Guides” after all…
The Overloaded Boat
It was a good 45 minutes wait on the dock. I was alternately looking at the beautiful sea-life unfolding in the clear water beneath, and at the increasing number of people arriving for the trip. I could not fathom how all of us would accomodate in that little boat…
But – we all got in, no pushing nor fighting, very civil, and the boat did not sink…
Nonetheless, I got a very bad impression. It seemed to me that the company did not care about legalities and passenger quotas. It was Sunday and they knew there would be more people than usual. That kind of overcrowding would most probably not have been allowed in other parts of Canada, in the States or even in Israel for that matter… It was simply unsafe. The memory of the Concordia somehow came to mind…
To make things worse, service on Sundays doesn’t run all day. Being unaware of that, I took my morning a bit leisurely. That was a huge mistake. The boat took off at 10, but we were told to be back by 1, or we’d get stuck on the island. That did not leave us enough time to actually be there.
The trip around the rocks and seal colonies was awesome. The first part was the Big Rock itself. We circled around it to get the views from various sides. Then we sailed along islands and inaccessible beaches, where seals were perched on the rocks, posing for the cameras. For finale – we headed to Bonaventure and the colonies.
The Boat Tour - Rocks, Seals and Birds
It is one of those situations in which the tourist instincts take over. I, like everybody else, was running around from one side of the boat to the other, trying to photograph it all – the amazing seals in the water, on the rocks, the birds on the ledges, the colors of the geology. Ah… Never gets old. Even as I say to myself: Orit, you already have a million seal pictures, the fingers keep clicking on their own…
Seals are some of my favorite animals. They are more accessible than whales and live an amphibian life, so they are relatively easy to observe. It is fun to see them trying to get on rocks, splash in the water, follow you as you walk along the beach with their snouts up … I always get the feel that they single me out from everybody on the beach, as they keep swimming just a few meters away, peeking at me once in a while, disappearing, reappearing…
"The Colonies", Bonaventure Island
But then we reached Bonaventure Island. We were told we had only two hours to be there before the last boat left! If I had taken the 9 o’clock boat I wouldn’t be in that predicament, but, alas, even these two hours were not ours to enjoy freely… We had to listen to a long speech in pure French about the preserve, followed by a short talk in English only for the non-French speakers, a small minority in the crowd. That lingering made us, non-locals, reach the ticket office even later than the rest. I was getting very indignant and impatient. Instead of setting us off on the walk, we had to wait another ten minutes in line to get the stupid park tickets. Why could we not buy them, pressure-free, on shore along with the ferry tickets ?
By the time we were actually set loose on the trail (only one trail out of four was open for the public that day), I was running like a madwoman.
The walk was boring and tedious and felt longer than it should. There were many signs and interpretive panels explaining things on the road, which I normally read at leisure and find interest in, but now I did not even bother.
Given the best of conditions, I could have watched the birds for hours. I would have sat there for half a day and just observe, take pictures, perhaps write notes. I would have savored my time, getting a deeper feel for this natural wonder. Instead, I spent about 15 minutes altogether at the site, being nervous all the time, trying to get as many photos and video clips as possible, and grunting inside about the familiar downsides of our Mediterranean cultures.
Nonetheless, reaching the so-called Colonies was a top life experience, comparable only with my Galapagos trip. Where else would you have thousands of birds, and the glorious gannets at that, right next to you acting all natural, making no case for you? Stone walls and ropes separated us from them, but we were almost on level with these huge cackling crowds.
When you first arrive at “The Colonies” you just hear the sound. Then you see the masses, the incredible density. You run from one concentration to another, mouth agape, finger clicking. Later, you start spotting little scenes to zoom on. Parents feeding, couples preening, attacks, submissions. You are amazed with mates seemingly swallowing each other’s bills… You start to distinguish between the adults, who are white and gorgeous, and the fledglings with their ruffled grey plumage. Most were fairly large at this point in the season.
I took pictures of the explanatory panels (luckily they were also in English) to read later on, then rushed frantically back to get to the boat on time…
At the colony I re-met the nice Quebecker lady from the Land’s End whale watch. Obviously, we were attracted to the same kind of places. But unfortunately for her, I was very irritated at that moment because of the time pressure, and she was there to be on the receiving end of my complaints. Apologies.
So this is what I learned from the panels:
Pleasure for Pleasure's Sake and Amorous Feet Shuffling
Only mates preen each other’s necks, throats and heads with their bills. Apparently they do that for the pleasurable feeling it gives the mate and not as a means of removing parasites.
(Progress!!!…Biologists are finally acknowledging there is pleasure for pleasure’s sake in the animal world. Not everything in “nature” is Darwinistic. As evolution moves on, higher levels emerge. “We” did not invent refinement. “We” belong to a long chain of creation.)
Northern gannets return to the same nesting site from year to year. Both partners help build the nest (yep!).
When an adult returns to its nest, it usually places itself directly in front of its partner.
(Isn’t that nice of them? They could just stay on their chairs playing computer games and not bother…).
Both birds extend their necks and cry while rubbing their bills together. Apparently this behavior reinforces the ties that bind the couple and soothes the excessive aggressiveness of these birds
(Sound like good practice. Nobody can beat our species on aggressiveness, so we might as well learn from our feathered relatives how to tone it down…).
They live in a dense colony and occupy only a tiny territory.
(Density breeds aggression. We, Israelis, were much nicer to each other when there were only 2 million of us on this tiny piece of real estate and very few cars on the roads).
To protect its territory, the Northern Gannet often threatens its neighbors. This leads to frequent quarrels, accompanied by strident cries (carra carra).
(Dear men, pleases don’t shuffle your feet …)
After copulation the male points his head skyward (oy, vey) and dismounts. This ritual lasts 24 second on average (Oy vey), and is repeated several times during the summer.
(24 seconds X 5= 2 minutes per season. Oh, well…Let’s not take example from gannets on that one…)
Greatest Divers on Earth
So there’s a lot to envy about the gannets and learn from them otherwise, but the real thrill is watching these birds hunt their prey. When Olympic skaters or skiers take off their goggles and suits, they look like you and me. The excitement is to see them in action.
I already mentioned I saw the little guided missiles shoot through the air and into the ocean on my way to Gaspe. I tried in vain to film the critters from the dock once we got back to shore, but a thick tall fence blocked the way and the view for all of us not “crew”. Well, luckily for me and for other tourists, the city built a watch tower.
Recently, some research was carried out to explain how the gannets “do it”. In the movie “Concussion”, Will Smith compares American footballers to gannets, woodpeckers and rams. His notorious conclusion: “God did not create us to play football…”. Reserach shows that even gannets have “work injuries”, but unlike us they have physiological and anatomical adaptations.
At any rate, I happily climbed up the stairs of the watch tower, and took some videos. Even then, it wasn’t that easy. You had to make sure you “hunted” them right before they were going to crush. Birds look so much more majestic when they fly, and that applies especially for gannets…
Onwards - Leaving Gaspe
Eventually hunger overtook me and I sat down for a seafood pie and a salad at a fast food restaurant nearby (the waiters at the better restaurant nearby were way too busy). I was still hungry, though, so I went back for some fish and chips, the ultimate filler. That did the trick, being eaten on the drive.
Continuing on the 132 to Campbelton, New Brunswick, another awesome sunset unfolded, “forcing” me to get off the car and take pictures:
When I approached Campbelton, it felt as if I crossed a national border. It would be a lie to say I did not breathe a sigh of relief when English once again was the dominant language of the land….