The Life of a Lighthouse Keeper in Eastern Canada

No 74

Machias Seal Island lies in a “gray zone” of the Atlantic Ocean, a disputed area of territory between Canada and Maine. Longitude: about 44 degrees North. Latitude: about 67 degrees West. Weather: often foggy (it’s a gray zone in that respect, too). Human population: One. The lighthouse keeper’s job in a lonely one.

There are, in fact, two Canadians keepers here. They swap out every 28 days, arriving and leaving by helicopter. In summer, they are joined by small groups of scientists and day-tripping birdwatchers, who arrive by boat. The scientists are there to study seabirds: their mating behavior, their flying habits, what kinds of fish they eat. Bird population: about 10,000.

But the scientists see less than the keepers do. Once, on a day without visitors, a huge number of migrating songbirds began to alight on the island. Doug Laugher, the keeper on duty, was a rare witness to a “migratory fallout,” which happens when birds flying long distances (from South America to Maine, for example) hit foul weather, get tired, and start to land all at once. Many of the descending birds were warblers: yellow-throated warblers, yellow-breasted warblers, Blackburnian warblers, Wilson’s warblers, Blackpoll warblers. They used the lighthouse’s wooden walkways, stairs, railings, and even its windowsills as a much-needed resting place.

Technically, the man who saw it all happen didn’t need to be there. The Machias Seal Island lighthouse, built in 1832 by the British, has been automated since the 1970s. Canada’s continued presence on the treeless, wave-splashed patch of rock bolsters its claim to ownership. The Canadian government has also designated the 20-acre island a migratory bird refuge. To the United States, neither of these claims is definitive. Machias Seal Island, officials point out, is less than ten miles from the coast of Maine.

No armies have gone to battle over the territory—only, on occasion, lobstermen from both sides of the border. And for years, one defiant tour boat operator from Maine made an annual pilgrimage to the island to plant an American flag. The Canadian lighthouse keeper would remove it when he got the chance. In the age of satellite navigation, that’s about as exciting as things get on Machias Seal Island—at least as far as human dramas go.


  • Director/Producer - Oliver Hartman
  • Cinematographer - Vadim Ayndbinder
  • Editor - Matthew James Thompson
  • Color - Carlos Flores
  • Sound Design - Josh Wilson
  • Text - Sally Helm

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