Machias Seal Island Lighthouse

Cutler, Maine
Machias Seal Island Lighthouse, standing on an island claimed by both the US and Canada, is a symbol of maritime history and dispute.
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Machias Seal Island Lighthouse: A Beacon in Disputed Waters

Machias Seal Island Lighthouse, standing tall on an island claimed by both the United States and Canada, is not just a testament to maritime navigation but also a symbol of an enduring territorial dispute. Situated between the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, approximately 10 miles southeast of Cutler, Maine, and 12 miles southwest of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, this lighthouse is steeped in history and territorial ambiguity.

Historical Significance

The history of Machias Seal Island Lighthouse is closely tied to the establishment of the Canadian-American border in the region. Early treaties did not specifically name Machias Seal Island, leading to a contentious dispute over its sovereignty between the United States and Canada.

In 1832, two octagonal wooden towers and a keeper’s house were constructed on the island, each equipped with eight lamps set in 23-inch reflectors. This was done to avoid any confusion with other nearby lighthouses. However, by 1869, one of these towers had deteriorated significantly, prompting the construction of a new lighthouse.

On November 6, 1869, a powerful third-order Fresnel lens illuminated the new lighthouse for the first time. In 1878, another lighthouse, an octagonal tower standing fifty-three feet tall, was established on the island.

Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Machias Seal Island Lighthouse played a crucial role in aiding navigation and fostering economic growth in the region. It made it easier for vessels to access the Bay of Fundy, a significant hub for trade, shipbuilding, and fishing.

Changing Times and Disputed Waters

Over the years, Machias Seal Island Lighthouse saw various changes, including the installation of a diaphone fog alarm in 1914 and the construction of a sixty-foot-tall reinforced concrete tower in 1915. The older wooden towers were eventually demolished as they were no longer required.

The island’s significance grew during World War I when a small contingent of United States Marines was stationed there, with Canadian approval, to protect the island and its vital lighthouse from potential German U-boat attacks. However, this presence was temporary, and since then, the island has remained unstaffed by U.S. personnel.

Ongoing Dispute

The lighthouse and the island itself lie in what is known as the “grey zone,” a 45-mile area between Canada and the United States. This region, though lacking in mineral or petroleum resources, is home to a valuable lobster population. Fishermen from both countries have exploited the lack of clear jurisdiction in the “grey zone,” leading to overfishing and stock depletion.

The conflict revolves around lobster population conservation, with differing views on management between the Canadian and American authorities. This ongoing dispute has escalated, posing threats to the lobster population and the livelihoods of fishermen from both nations.

Current Status and Conservation

Today, Machias Seal Island Lighthouse continues to be staffed, with two lightkeepers stationed at the island’s dwelling. These personnel are rotated every four weeks, with helicopter flights from the Coast Guard base in Saint John, New Brunswick. Additionally, they assist the Canadian Wildlife Service in maintaining the Migratory Bird Sanctuary on the island.

In 1944, the Canadian government declared Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters a bird sanctuary, making it the Atlantic Coast’s largest nesting colony of Puffins south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Machias Seal Island Lighthouse remains an enigmatic beacon in disputed waters, a reminder of shared histories, and a symbol of ongoing territorial debates.

Visiting The Island Today

The lighthouse itself is visible only by boat, and tours of the island can be arranged to explore its rich history and vibrant wildlife. If you’re looking to see the lighthouse and get onto the island, consider booking a tour from the Bold Coast Charter Company. They have been operating tours of Machias Island for over 30 years now and are authorized by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a family-owned charter company and they are always highly rated by guests.


Address: Machias Seal Island Lighthouse, Cutler, Maine
Place GPS Coordinates: 44.501908, -67.101879
Parking GPS Coordinates: 44.501908, -67.101879
Parking Notes: Machias Seal Island Lighthouse is located 12 miles off Cutler, Maine. The lighthouse can only be seen by boat. Bold Coast Charter Company does offer a tour of the island.

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