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Bonaventure Island and my love of the sea

The sea is the wind, the cold that flays the senses.
Credit: Espace pour la vie (Daniel Sauvageau)
La mer c’est le vent, le froid qui fouette les sens.
  • La mer c’est le vent, le froid qui fouette les sens.
  • Le fou de Bassan, ce grand prince blanc de l’Atlantique Nord.
  • Les fous de Bassan que l’on retrouve par milliers au-dessus des falaises de l’île Bonaventure.
  • Une marche de deux kilomètres à travers les sapins rabougris.
  • Des falaises bordées d’épilobes en fleurs.
  • La spectaculaire fête de la vie dans toute son abondance.
Bonaventure Island and my love of the sea

On May 15, 1982, I arrived in the village of Percé. The years that followed would define the intense passion that I have for the sea. I’d like to share with you the way I lived those years on Bonaventure Island, an experience that deeply pervaded my flesh and my spirit, igniting the flame that to this day makes my heart throb.

Winds and spray

For me the sea is the wind, the cold that flays the senses and the spray that coats your face with fine droplets of ocean water tasting of kelp and iodine. It’s the tall rocky walls from which you can contemplate the dizzying infinity where seagulls glide, elated by their own aerobatics. That’s the sea that I love and that haunts me, the power of the elements that fill me with dreams of adventure and treasure, the treasures of the sea.

The ghosts and winged subjects of Bonaventure Island

One of those treasures is a prince, the great white prince of the North Atlantic found by the thousand above the cliffs of Bonaventure Island. An island anchored off the tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, inhabited by the ghosts of a long-ago past. Once a fishermen’s village, then a peaceful holiday destination, all that’s left are some neglected dwellings, old surviving gardens and trailways dating from another era. It’s up to us to follow in their footsteps, to create for ourselves a world inhabited by improbabilities. I had the good fortune of walking the island’s trails at night, alone in its spectral forest. It’s hard to rid oneself of its ghosts and its fears in that great silent void, with no inhabitants and cut off from the world. In fact, this island is the domain of the northern gannet and peopled by common murre, razorbills and black-legged kittiwakes.

Northern gannets and onshore wind

For six years I had the privilege of sharing in the life of these seabirds. I watched the adults set up their nests, lay their single egg, then alternately incubate, hatch and feed the chicks. Gannets are excellent ocean fliers, capable of using the power of the wind with exceptional efficiency. They can cover hundreds of kilometers if necessary to find the fish stocks needed to feed their little ball of down, their little one waiting in the nest.

Through the stunted fir trees

Gannets are well worth the journey. A two-kilometer walk through the stunted firs separates us from them. But the island reveals its most beautiful secrets to those who know how to get lost and choose the little winding paths. Result: cliffs edged with flowering fireweed, far from the din of the gannet colony. Here we’re rocked by the plaints of the kittiwakes that nest in thousands below us on the sheer rocky walls, the “rah-rah rah” of a gannet on the way to its nest, and sometimes the breathing of an invisible whale skirting the vertiginous cliffside.

Swarms of small seabirds

To the whiteness of the prince of this property, the hordes of common murres and razorbills contrast slate grey and jet black. This multitude nests in compact groups in the cracks of the cliff. Flocks of these small seabirds fly around the boats taking us to see the spectacular celebration of life in all its abundance.

There’s the secret: abundance. A summertime abundance of plankton and fish that makes it possible to feed a multitude, a prime location for ensuring new generations, the spectacle of life.

Epilogue: Daniel Sauvageau was a naturalist and interpreter on Bonaventure Island for six years. That island is one of the gems in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

In memoriam: Gilbert Bourget 1949-2019, naturalist at Bonaventure Island from 1984 to 2017.

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