Passamaquoddy Bay. Maine
On most house inspections, prospective owners are primarily concerned with the status of the furnace, whether the plumbing plumbs, and how sound the roof seems. When considering the purchase of a second home on Passamaquoddy Bay in Eastport, Maine, Jonathan Bird was more interested in meeting the neighbors. “It’s the only home inspection I know of that involved a dive,” he joked. “When the dive was finished, I was impressed enough to make an offer on the house. It was on that occasion that I met one of my oldest Eastport acquaintances, whom I came to know as Gene.”
Gene, incidentally, is a wolf fish.
Passamaquoddy Bay lies off the easternmost tip of land in the United States, forming a border between Maine and New Brunswick. Technically an inlet of the Bay of Fundy, it stretches north from Eastport to St. Andrews, New Brunswick, where the St. Croix River empties into the salt. The bay is buffeted from the open water by two islands to the east: Campobello (site of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famed summer retreat, now an international park) and Deer Island. The Bay of Fundy is renowned for some of the largest tides in the world, with a range of fifty-six feet between high and low. It’s these extreme tides that help make Passamaquoddy Bay a special place to dive. “The currents—which can reach twelve knots—force-feed nutrients into the surrounding environs,” Jonathan explained. “As a result, the invertebrate life is unlike anything else you’ll find on the East Coast. People who’ve been diving around New England all of their lives come up here and can’t believe they’re still on the East Coast. While there’s some of the same sea life you’ll find south of here, everything is much bigger and more prevalent. Some refer to Passamaquoddy Bay as the British Columbia of the east coast, and the two venues are quite similar in appearance.”
One of the highlights of diving in Passamaquoddy Bay is the opportunity to come upon tealia anemones in dizzying quantities. Tealias sustain themselves by capturing small fish and plankton with their tentacles and immobilizing their prey with venom; they take their name from the land flower they resemble. “Eastport is undoubtedly the tealia capital of the Atlantic,” Jonathan said. “When one is found in the waters off Massachusetts, photographers line up to take pictures. There are probably more tealias per square foot on the bottom of Passamaquoddy Bay than anywhere else in the Atlantic; on a typical dive you could count 500 of them if you wanted to. You can find tealias in every color, including purple, and sometimes even yellow.” Thanks to the region’s cold waters (“Never over 52 degrees!” Jonathan added), a number of arctic invertebrates can also be found, including the horse star and winged sea star.
Most of your diving around Passamaquoddy Bay can be done from the shore. The dropoffs are very pronounced, so one seldom needs to venture far into the bay to find worthwhile sites. The dive schedule is pretty relaxed in “downeast” Maine, as the pronounced currents only permit diving during slack tides—that is, twice a day. While visibility wouldn’t be characterized as superlative, it’s reliable enough to keep most divers happy. “Often, you’ll get a hurricane down south, and a few days later, visibility in the Atlantic off New England is zero—and I mean zero,” Jonathan continued. “Thanks to how Eastport is set up, conditions in the bay never deteriorate to this level. Because of the tremendous currents and the amount of plankton cycling through, visibility is never great. Where I am, Campobello Island is only a mile across, and there’s not enough fetch for wind to make a mess of things. It can be pouring rain, howling wind, there can be hurricanes down south, but visibility will always be fifteen feet; rarely good, rarely bad. The only time it’s untenable is during scallop season, when the dredgers are working. But that’s a small part of the year.”
In addition to reliable (if limited) visibility and acres of tealias, visitors to Passamaquoddy Bay can count on encounters with Anarhichas lupus, the Atlantic wolf fish. These eel-like animals—equipped with caninelike choppers for crunching through the crustaceans that make up most of their diet—reside in small “dens” among rock beds, and are fairly common off Eastport. Some wolf fish will remain in the same quarters for years, like Gene, whom Jonathan Bird has visited with for eleven years (as of this writing).
“Gene frequents a den that’s just off the beach from our cottage. A few other wolf fish have come and gone, but Gene’s been consistent. A few years back, he was joined in a den nearby by another much larger specimen that we called Jack. We decided that the big wolf fish must be a male and that Gene must be a she—so we began calling her Jean. Jack left after three or four years, and Jean was by herself. We took to feeding her so we could get her to linger longer outside of her den, and we could get better pictures. Jean will eat urchins, but prefers whelks (a kind of snail). We’d take them out of the shell for her, and she came to expect it. We’d hold them farther and farther outside of the den, and she’d swim out around us to get them. Whenever we had a guest come down with us, Jean would come out. The diver would be frightened to death; we’d reassure them that it was just Jean, and she wants to be fed.
“Last summer, we took a few groups of divers up to Passamaquoddy Bay to meet Jean. The first weekend, she came out on cue to eat and swim around us. The second weekend, she wouldn’t come out. Eventually, I peeked into the den. There was the wolf fish, standing guard over a huge nest of eggs. Male wolf fish protect eggs, and it was this way that we realized that Jean was in fact Gene after all!”
JONATHAN BIRD is an Emmy Award–winning underwater cinematographer with experience in all aspects of underwater wildlife cinematography and still photography. He has shot and produced films for television that have aired all over the world. A frequent contributor to several diving magazines, and author of several books—including Dolphins; Wildlife Monographs, Sharks; Wildlife Monographs, Dominica—Land of Water, and Adventures with Sharks. Jonathan is also widely published on marine-life subjects. As president of the nonprofit environmental organization Oceanic Research Group, Inc., he produces educational films about marine life for use in schools and libraries, as well as satellite learning. He is a former professor in the broadcasting department at New England Institute of Art and Communications, in Boston, Massachusetts. He is currently in postproduction on his new high-definition documentary Secrets of the Reef.
IF YOU GO TO PASSAMAQUODDY BAY
Getting There: Eastport is approximately 250 miles north of Portland, which is served by many major carriers, including Continental, Delta, and United Airlines. It’s about 125 miles from Bangor, which is served by American, Continental, and Delta.
Best Time to Visit: Visibility is acceptable except for scallop harvesting season, which is December through April. Considering the normally chilly climes, most visit from late spring to early fall.
Accommodations: Motel East (207-853-4747; firstname.lastname@example.org) is a popular lodging spot for visiting divers. Cabins are also available at Seaview Campground & Cabins (207-853-4471).
Dive Shops/Guides: Eastport is lacking in dive shops/dive amenities. The nearest spot to get tanks filled is in Calais, nearly an hour away. Bottom line: Bring lots of full tanks! As for guides, Jonathan Bird leads several trips a year to Passamaquoddy Bay; you can learn more at Jonathan Bird Productions (www.jonathanbird.net).
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