Thursday, September 12, 2013

The curious case of Machias Seal Island

As a child growing up in the United States, I learned about the establishment of the various U.S. borders, including disputes over the Maine/Canada border,  a dispute between the U.S. and Britain over the Oregon territory, and a number of disputes over the Texas/Mexico border.  But that was all long ago.  And of course I know about border disputes in places like Africa, as well as North and South Korea and much of the Middle East.  But those are all 'far away'.  Surely all US border disputes have long since been settled, haven't they?

Well apparently, there are still a number of border disputes being fought between  the United States and Canada.  While geography is not my strong suit,  I did know that the Canadian/US border was the longest border in the world.  And I knew that there were some odd little jogs in what you might imagine would be a straight line, but that's due to geographic things like lakes and mountains.  After all, the waters of Niagara Falls fall on both Canadian soil and U.S. soil.

But what I did not know was that there are a number of little bits and pieces where these two countries both claim to own the same little bit or piece.. even today, in 2013.  Now, I live not far from a state border... and being a divorce lawyer, I often deal with issues such as which state should the children attend school in or which court has jurisdiction over this case.. but typically, those questions can be answered by simply determining which side of the line each person actually lives on.  So I was very intrigued with this notion of a situation where there's a disagreement as to where the line is.  Where do you vote?  Who collects your taxes?  Which set of national holidays do you celebrate?  Whose national anthem do you sing?

I took a closer look at the bits and pieces that were up in the air.. although that's only figuratively, as neither the bits nor the pieces are actually in the air.  But it does turn out  that 4 of the 5 disputed bits are in the water.  Well, pshaw...  that kind of dispute doesn't really count.

But......  disputed bit #5 appeared to be different.  #5 is Machias Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine -- the entire island!  

Wow!  This must be a pretty important island for the US and Canada to be unable to agree who it belongs to.  So I dug a bit deeper, and discovered that Machias Seal Island is less than 20 acres in size,  it's completely devoid of trees --  and it's fogbound for much of the year.  Really? This is what we're arguing about?  An acre is smaller than a football field.  This island is in the middle of the ocean, and it's generally covered in fog so there's not even an ocean view to fight over.

Oh wait, it gets better.  From 1832 to the present,  Canada has maintained a lighthouse on this island. And even though Canada converted most of its lighthouses to the unmanned type about twenty years ago, the Machias Seal Island lighthouse has always been manned.  And the US involvement?  Well, back in 1918, the US put a small detachment of marines on the island, to help the Canadians keep an eye out for German u-boats.  After a few months, the marines left.  Since then, the US presence has been non-existent, although it continues to press its claim to the little island.

Now, as it happens, although there are no inhabitants on Machias Seal Island (other than the Canadian lighthouse keepers), and the seals in the area all live on a neighboring island (perhaps a problem with their GPS?), there are LOTS of birds, including a large colony of puffins.  But that's about it.  And when the US and Canada had an opportunity to take this issue to the World Court in 1984, both countries declined... preferring the certainty of a stalemate, over the possibility of a loss.

Hmmm, not quite sure what to make of all this.   You can get to Machias Seal Island by boat, from either Maine, or New Brunswick.  And no matter where you leave from, you don't have to go through customs, as each originating point believes that the destination is in the same country you came from.   And apparently the bird watching is phenomenal and well worth the journey... although I'm not much of a bird watcher.

So perhaps I'll just have another cup of tea and stay at home.


  1. I've been there. The bird watching IS phenomenal! Somewhere I have a picture of the lighthouse. I don't remember the ownership dispute being mentioned on our tour - a puffin-watching cruise.

  2. Is the border between Canada and the US the longest? A border being the line between 2 geographical areas then the border between the UK and its surrounding seas is the longest (or equal longest). You might not think it but maps aren't always accurate for distances. The Cornish coastline is said to be roughly 420 miles, but when you get away from Euclidian geometry and consider the fractal properties of coast lines then that 420 miles is a very, very rough figure. In fact it is as far out as it could possibly be. I think you will find the UK border is infinite when you take into account the coastline paradox. Who said were just a small island! You Americans – you think you have the biggest in everything!