Puffins are well-known, thanks to their adorable clown-like faces, but researchers have been pondering one of the great mysteries about Atlantic puffins for decades. Where in the world do they go for most of the year? We see them for about four months when they're nesting, but then they disappear for the winter months. We know they are somewhere at sea, but where?
Finally, scientists have figured it out, and the birds' secret spot is amazing.
Steve Kress, founder of Project Puffin, has been studying Atlantic puffins for more than 40 summers. And it's only in the last few years that he and fellow researchers have finally been able to uncover where the birds go for most of the year by using tiny geolocators attached to a handful of birds.
The data, gathered last spring from 19 puffins that returned to their burrows on the two islands, showed that the birds embark on an adventurous route that takes them to two main locations. They start by swimming north through the fish-rich waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Kress explains, spending about a month in Canada before veering south to overwinter in waters about 200 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. Their final destination is an epic, underwater landscape: home to New England’s famed 'coral canyons,' which go deeper than the Grand Canyon, and huge submerged mountain ranges that stretch for hundreds of miles along the ocean floor.
Of course, the birds aren't spending time in the underwater canyons. They feed from the surface of the water above the canyons, which benefits from the biodiverse ecosystem and must have an abundance of fish for the birds to feast upon.
This underwater paradise is being considered for Marine National Monument status, the first ever monument in the U.S. Atlantic. If approved, the status would help not only everything swimming below the water, but everything that feeds from above, including Atlantic puffins. The status of national monument would protect the area "against potential future threats like dredging by fishing vessels, undersea mining, and oil drilling" reports Audubon.
According to The Safina Center, the areas to be considered for the monument include the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts Area, which contains many cold-water corals and rare deep-sea species, and the Gulf of Maine's Cashes Ledge, which is home to the deepest and largest cold-water kelp forest on the Atlantic coast. Both places attract an incredible diversity of wildlife including whales and dolphins, sea turtles and sea birds.
Puffins and many other sea birds are already facing challenges brought on by a changing climate that's causing shifts in the availability and location of food, as well as the challenges of competing against fleets of industrial fishing vessels and marine pollution. There's much that puffins are working against for survival, so keeping their winter sanctuary safe seems like the least we can do.