The Wild & Wonderful Gannet Colony of Percé, Quebec

No 48

Every April, more than 100,000 northern gannets settle on Quebec's woodsy Bonaventure Island, on the Canadian province's eastern Gaspé peninsula. These migratory seabirds come together here, at the world's second-largest gannet colony, once a year in order to mate.

It is not a quiet get-together. The laugh-like calls of gannets fill the air, a mocking quack that—along with their blue eyes and white faces, black-lined as though with makeup—lends them a somewhat clownish aspect. (The French word for the bird, fou de Bassan, loosely translates as 'court jester.') After jostling for prime nesting space, cliff-side niches in particular, pairs of birds hatch chicks and prepare their offspring for the fall departure. In order to survive, young gannets generally must have learned to fly by October. Graceful landings will never be their forte.

Fishing is an important skill, and the act in which the bird truly comes into its own. The gannets of Bonaventure Island feast on herring, which swim just below the surface of Percé Bay in large, spherical clumps known as “bait balls." The birds circle above, aligning themselves for the perfect point of entry. They dive at speeds reaching between 60 and 75 mph, their body narrowing into a javelin right before impact. They hold their breath underwater for upwards of 30 seconds while snatching at fish with their beaks. The gannet has swallowed its catch by the time it returns to its nest on the rock, where it regurgitates a meal for its young.

Back when they were more plentiful, the fish around Percé attracted European settlers and native Mi'kmaqs. (Though it sounds French, Gaspé is in fact Mi'kmaq for “land's end.") Now, they are more of a draw to the gannets and reduced numbers of commercial fishermen. These locals sometimes resent the avian competition, especially in years when there are fewer fish running. That competition shows few signs of going away: the colony has been growing at a rate of 3% a year.

Credits

  • Director - Oliver Hartman
  • Cinematographers - Oliver Hartman and John Marton
  • Editor - Minka Farthing-Kohl
  • Colorist - Ashley Ayarza
  • Audio mix - Josh Wilson
  • Text - Darrell Hartman

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