A laid-back Nature Destination on the Atlantic Ocean

Thomas Island, PEI (Photo by Mike Dembeck)

Thomas Island, PEI (Photo by Mike Dembeck)

October 24, 2017 | by Julie Vasseur

Visitors to PEI often comment about the laid-back, friendly nature of the people who live here, and in the Maritimes in general.

I’ve given this some thought, and concluded this attitude is not only because of generations of inherently friendly people, but also because of generations of adapting to our unique place. For hundreds of years, our ancestors had to earn a living from the land, the forests and the sea, and accept that Mother Nature was in charge. Maritimers learned a long time ago that we may as well be laid-back, because we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control: the growing season, the amount of rain or snow or ice, and the bounty and power of the ocean.

Nowhere is this more evident than the tiny coastal communities that dot Prince Edward Island’s shorelines, and we are fortunate to have a protected area smack dab in the middle of one. In the southeastern corner of the province, lies the small fishing village of Murray Harbour, one of the best places on the island, in my opinion, to experience not only our renowned Islander hospitality, but also an isolated natural area, all within the span of a day-long visit.

Julie Vassuer enjoying the view of Murray Harbour from her kayak (Photo by NCC)

Julie Vassuer enjoying the view of Murray Harbour from her kayak (Photo by NCC)

Murray Harbour (the body of water) is unique due to its sheltered nature and the presence of five offshore islands within the harbour. Despite their small size and isolation from the mainland, all five islands were stripped of their forests a century or more ago in exchange for fields, pastures and homesteads. While this worked for a while, the islands were very quickly outgrown by their inhabitants and by the 1940s they were abandoned and once again left for the birds and wildlife.

In the early 1970s, the International Biological Program identified all offshore islands in Prince Edward Island as critical nesting habitat for colonial nesting birds and seabirds like terns and gulls. Since then, conservation groups, including the Nature Conservancy of Canada, have endeavoured to protect the 19 offshore islands that dot PEI’s coastlines, including the five Murray Harbour islands. In 2014, the last remaining privately owned island, Thomas Island, was purchased by NCC and, finally, all five islands were protected for conservation.

Thomas Island and Murray Harbour are intriguing destinations for visitors: the small community, sheltered harbour and remote location have combined to create a place where wildlife and people seem to be thriving together, in their own laid-back way.

The best way to enjoy Murray Harbour is by water. The calm harbour is perfect for a leisurely kayak trip, and this yields the absolute best of wildlife encounters. Gray seals will follow your kayak curiously, trying to find out what you are. If you kayak at low tide, you will probably see hundreds of them out on the island beaches, sunning themselves and lazing about — unless you get too close — and then they charge into the water en masse!

Osprey in flight (Photo by Lorne)

Osprey in flight (Photo by Lorne)

Paddle close to the shoreline of any of the islands and peer into the crystal clear water, and you’ll learn why we are so well known for our mussels and oysters. Aquatic plants cover the sandy bottom, and if you look very closely, you’ll see crabs scuttling between rocks, trying to stay out of your shadow. Schools of fish scatter when you get too close.

If you look skyward, a whole other world awaits you. Raptors like bald eagle and osprey are common fishers in the harbour. Terns and gannets swoop overhead as well; their spectacular nose dives make bald eagles and ospreys look like clunky robots!  

Cormorant and great blue heron nest on the two larger islands, and their morose cries encourage visitors to appreciate them from a distance (fair warning: both species defecate and/or vomit on perceived threats).  

Great blue heron (Photo by Lorne)

Great blue heron (Photo by Lorne)

Remember to keep some distance when viewing wildlife. Not only does this reduce stress on the animal, you will also be more likely to witness its natural behaviour, rather than continually seeing its backside as it tries to maintain its distance from you. This is especially important during the nesting season, when most of their resources and strength are going towards raising their babies.

Take the example of the lobster fishermen and mussel farmers of Murray Harbour, who’ve managed to compromise with wildlife, and seem to share the harbour seamlessly. It’s a quiet harmony that is possible anywhere with a bit of effort and a relaxed attitude. 

We also encourage visitors to pitch in and help us keep the Murray Harbour islands clean. Bring a garbage bag and make a day of it with the family by helping to remove trash from our beautiful PEI shorelines.

If you’re in Prince Edward Island and keen to try a water adventure and a cultural experience, pick a nice day and plan for a paddle to NCC’s Thomas Island and the pristine islands of Murray Harbour to see the wildlife that live on them, and the ocean waters that surround them. When you get back, make sure to strike up a conversation with the people who live here, or just say hello, and they’ll strike up a conversation with you. It’s an experience you won’t forget.

Thomas Island is one of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s properties featured in Nature Destinations, a program that invites you to take a journey through some of the greatest examples of our country’s natural areas and to connect with nature. Visit naturedestinations.ca.

Julie Vasseur (Photo by NCC)

About the Author

Julie Vasseur is NCC's program manager in PEI.

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