Not only are birds good travelers, but they remind us that we have traveled as well. In a modern world of familiarity and placelessness, the natural habitat and migration of birds continues to distinguish one destination from another. I had to travel to Antarctica to see penguins and I’ve traveled to Iceland just to see puffins. Likewise, if you love gannets, you have to come to Gaspésie.
Rocher Percé is the postcard picture of Gaspésie, the curious hole-in-the-rock limestone formation that epitomizes the Gaspé peninsula. Right of the coast lies Île Bonaventure, a rocky island of reddish-gray cliffs, spruce forests and fields of elegant pink fireweed. There is a whole history out here–of fortunes made from cod and the saltfish industry. Historic homes remain on the island, ghosts of a long-gone episode for the North Atlantic.
Today, instead of endless schools of codfish, this island swarms with beautiful gannets–over 120,000 of them. Northern gannets (Morus bassanus) live throughout the North Atlantic region, from France to Norway to Iceland and Canada, however, the colony at Île Bonaventure stands out as the largest and most accessible–meaning you can actually walk to the edge of a veritable bird metropolis.
In French, the word for Gannett is Fou de Bassan. Now, Bassan is a very old town in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France, whereas “fou” is the old French term for court jesters, or “fools.” To early French sailors, the gannet’s blue eyes and black markings were reminiscent of the black eye masks worn by court jesters. Once again, I found this little remnant of France on the coast of Québec–a medieval reference carried across the sea from France.
Jacques Cartier likely recognized the gannet from his native Brittany, part of the gannet’s native breeding range. The French explorer arrived in Percé in 1534 and mentioned the impressive bird life in the area. I was equally impressed on the ferry to the island itself. All around, hundreds of gannet were dive-bombing into the sea, plucking fish from ten feet deep. I loved watching them throw their bodies down like daredevil pilots, ending with a splash and then leaving a fast trail of green bubbles beneath the water.
On land, the northern gannet is even more elegant, with a graceful neck and a head tinted lemon yellow. Their wingspan ranges up to 183 cm long–for the non-metric folks out there, I am 193 cm tall (6′ 4″), so a gannet’s spread wings are almost as big as me. Now imagine such big birds multiplied by the tens of thousands and all of them just a few yards away. The noise is wonderfully chaotic–like a Hong Kong rush hour underneath a million deflating balloons.
To be surrounded by such abundant rich wildlife was a rare surprise for me and a highlight of my journey through Québec so far. Not only is Île Bonaventure is the best place to see gannets in North America, but I would venture so far as to say this is the best place in the world. Gannets normally stick to difficult cliffs or rocky islets well off shore and best seen through binoculars or bird scopes. Not so here in Québec, where I was able to stand next to the birds and take their portrait with my phone (see above).
I’d call that accessible.