- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

ILE BONAVENTURE, Quebec — The seasonal inhabitants of this island are noisy. And smelly. And they come by the thousands, with their offspring and their strange customs.

They are gannets — downy, cream-colored seabirds. Each year between April and October, 100,000 of them take up residence on Ile Bonaventure, a tiny picture-perfect island in northeastern Quebec’s Gaspe region. They form the largest gannet colony in North America and the second-largest in the world. (The other is in Scotland).

Even if you don’t consider yourself a bird-watcher, and even if you have never heard of gannets, the spectacle they create is unforgettable.

A one-hour boat ride takes you from the nearest town, Perce, past Bonaventure’s cliffs and beaches, which literally are white with birds, to a landing dock. From there, choose any of four trails through woods and meadows to the bird colony. The Colony, the shortest, easiest trail, is almost two miles (one way), but the trails intersect, so you can sample various routes.

You’ll pass fields of wildflowers such as purple fireweed and goldenrod. Seals cavort just offshore from the rocky beaches, but the most amazing sight is the birds’ nesting area. Long before you see them, you’ll hear the cacophony of their cawing and squawking. Often two birds will clack their beaks together in a sign of affection. The smell of their guano is powerful, too. If you plan to picnic, you’ll want to eat elsewhere on the island.

It’s hard to imagine seeing 100,000 of any living thing swarming about, no less 100,000 creatures twice the size of the average sea gull. Their din and the sight of them jostling, marching around and tending to their fluffy babies is at once comical and wondrous.

The cruise from Perce offers other memorable sights as well, passing by a well-known Canadian landmark — Rocher Perce, which means “pierced rock.” This arched cliff rises 290 feet from the sea, a dramatic outcropping with a hole bored clean through like a natural tunnel.

At low tide, you can walk to Rocher Perce from the Perce beach. A naturalist is on hand to answer questions. Be careful, as the rocks underfoot are slippery. Once you reach the cliff, resist the temptation to walk through the arch; the rocks there are unstable and treacherous.

Stay the night before your trip to Ile Bonaventure at a hotel in or near Perce so you can take a morning cruise and have most of the day on the island. The first boat leaves at 9 a.m., and the last one back departs Bonaventure at 5 p.m.

Before you leave Perce, get a prepared picnic from La Boite a Lunch or do a quick shopping at the Co-op market on the main street across from the wharf. There you’ll find luscious native strawberries, cheese, bread and pate along with chips, drinks and cookies.

Getting to Perce is a long trip for most visitors. Quebec City is 485 miles away, but the journey offers unique opportunities for sightseeing, such as a stop in Tadoussac for a whale-watching tour of the St. Lawrence River. Or just keep your eyes open on the way to Perce as you drive along Highway 132 between such towns as Ste. Anne-des-Monts and Petite Vallee.

So many whales inhabit the river this time of year that you can see them spouting their fountains of foamy white even if you’re driving by at highway speed.

Once you are on Ile Bonaventure, you’ll find the island’s human history as interesting as the wildlife.

Immigrants from the British isle of Jersey, as well as from Ireland and France, settled here as early as 1800. Two dozen wood-frame buildings, some dating to the mid-19th century, still dot the island.

Most of the residents worked as fishermen until the early 20th century. In 1919, when the island was declared a protected bird sanctuary, some were hired by wildlife officials to watch the colony.

The last year anyone wintered on the island was 1964, according to Roger St. Arneault, who works at the park office on the island. When the island was declared a national park in 1970, the last summer residents left, as well.

Today, said Mr. St. Arneault, their departure is recognized as an important contribution to “the safeguard of an important bird sanctuary and fragile habitat.”

• • •

Air Canada flies from Quebec City and Montreal to Gaspe, about 40 miles from Perce. The driving distance from Boston to Perce is about 795 miles. If using a computerized mapping service, specify Highway 132 and Perce postal code G0C2L0 in your destination.

Boats run throughout the day from Perce to Ile Bonaventure from late spring to mid-October. Round-trip boat fare for adults, $16; children 6 to 12, $5. An additional $3 park fee is collected either on the island or at a nature center you can visit beforehand on the mainland.

From the Perce beach, it’s a 20-minute walk at low tide to the outcropping. Beware of slippery rocks underfoot.

Hotels, motels and eateries abound throughout the Gaspe region. For more information, contact the Perce Tourism Bureau, 418/782-5448 or visit www.perce.info.

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