Away from the Backyard

This is a photo of some black guillemot. We saw guillemots recently and took this photograph at Acadia National Park in Maine, where we had gone for vacation. Guillemots nest in the cliffs on the coast of the mainland and islands along the coast of Maine. It’s not a great photograph. Four guillemots, black birds with red feet and white wing patches, are visible.


Our vacation was originally conceived as a bird-watching vacation but we took the opportunity to do some hiking and kayaking as well. Maine is a wonderful place to do all of those things, and more.

The guillemot is an alcid, a relative of the Atlantic puffin. We thought of taking a cruise out to one of the islands where puffins nest, but we decided against it. Puffins populations are at risk. Puffin chicks have starved and many adult puffins are underweight and weak because they can’t find enough of the fish that are a staple of their diet and that are small enough for their chicks to eat. Some scientists believe that the fish on which puffins feed are declining because of rising ocean temperatures.

If you search on the Web for the phrase “puffins at risk” you will find many stories about efforts to restore puffins to the islands off the coast of Maine. In the nineteenth century they were hunted to the point that they almost vanished from the U.S. The efforts at restoration have been successful but the puffins now face other dangers.

As I thought about this vacation, the puffin cruise, and the puffins themselves, I recalled the book by Douglas Adams entitled Last Chance to See, published in 1990. Adams wrote about traveling to places like the Yangtze River in China, Madagascar, and Komodo Island in Indonesia to see the Yangtze River Dolphin (now believed to be functionally extinct), the Aye-aye, and the Komodo Dragon respectively. While the effort to raise public awareness of endangered species is laudable, I wonder about the environmental impact of making the trip to see them up close and personal.

We burned approximately 50 gallons of gasoline taking this vacation and put 1,000 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere, not counting the fuel that was used by the cruise boat that we road one day, and the fuel used by the Boston transit system to move us from the Alewife station to the Park Street station. I don’t know how much fuel a cruise boat would use to travel to an island where puffins nest, or how much fuel a boat would use on a whale-watching cruise.

That said, I needed this vacation. I needed to disconnect and get away. I enjoyed every minute of our time in Maine except for some time stuck in traffic on the trip home.

I might be able to justify the consumption of 50 gallons of gasoline by reference to my use of public transportation for commuting to and from work. If I take the train instead of driving a car for approximately 250 trips to and from the office per year, that saves 400 gallons of gas and keeps approximately 8,000 pounds of carbon out of the atmosphere. This doesn’t take into the fuel used by the train but that’s a small fraction of the fuel that a private car would use with me as the only occupant.

Is that sufficient justification? I don’t know. Wouldn’t it be tragic if the act of visiting wildlife in its habitat actually contributed to the destruction of the wildlife itself?

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