Witless Bay, N.L.-"I can guarantee you that your wildest puffin fantasies will be realized here this morning," tour guide and famous Newfoundland singer Con O'Brien vows as a hundred of us set sail on a whale and bird sightseeing cruise.
I already know what's going down, so am first to leave the sunny upper deck of the aptly named Atlantic Puffin to get a spot on the main deck when the time comes.
Suzanne Dooley opens a small pet carrier and carefully pulls out a young puffin, which is adorably black and white, but doesn't yet have a distinctive orange striped beak.
To great fanfare, she holds the puffling above her head and tosses it into the wind. The bird flies away, awkwardly at first and then gaining momentum before circling back and veering past the boat towards small islands in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve where 500,000 of its kin nest.
The kids clap wildly. The adults cheer.
But Dooley's just getting started. She gets the crowd to pass carrier after carrier to her and a fellow from O'Brien's Whale and Bird Tours, and one by one the sweet pufflings are released.
Some fly like pros. Others hover just above the water like they're about to run out of steam and fall in. One comes dangerously close to flying right back into our faces.
"Goodbye baby puffins," my kids say a little sadly. They bonded with the pufflings a few hours earlier when Dooley - at the time the co-executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's Newfoundland and Labrador chapter (CPAWS) - and three volunteers processed the seabirds beside the dock.
This is the Puffin and Petrel Patrol in action. It's a one-of-a-kind volunteer seabird rescue squad and it happens just outside of St. John's near the ocean home of North America's largest Atlantic puffin colony.
Juergen (Puffin Man) Schau co-founded the patrol about 11 years ago. The retired Sony film executive, who used to hobnob with A-list celebrities, visited Newfoundland from Germany with his wife, Elfie, and snapped up a place in Witless Bay on a whim.
When the couple spotted dead seabirds by the side of the road and others wandering on land, they learned that pufflings get kicked out of their island nests every August and are supposed to start living at sea, but some wind up on shore when they mistake artificial lights for the moon and stars.
The Schaus started roaming the streets at night with flashlights and butterfly nets, collecting birds and releasing them the next day. Neighbourhood kids and then bird-loving locals and tourists soon joined. The beloved puffin is, after all, Newfoundland's provincial bird.
CPAWS got involved in 2011 and now co-ordinates the patrol, starting with puffins in August and Leach's storm petrels a little later. The weather, full moon and abundance of capelin that the puffins eat always influence the numbers of birds needing rescue. The patrol used to just release the birds on a public beach in Witless Bay, but teamed up this year with boat tour companies (O'Brien's, Gatherall's and Molly Bawn) to do three releases at sea each week.
The puffin side of things gets all the attention and ran Aug. 6 to 31 this year, with the first patrol happening Aug. 10 and the final release on Sept. 1. Volunteers processed 730 pufflings and more than 300 people searched for birds.
My family happily devotes a day of our Newfoundland summer vacation to joining the action, watching the processing first, the release second and the patrol last. (Actually, my husband kept our 4-year-old back at the St. John's hotel for the evening patrol.) My advice: plan a Newfoundland trip around this experience and book a hotel in the Bay Bulls area for at least two nights.)
We love snuggling (cautiously) with pufflings after Dooley and three veteran volunteers weigh and measure them at patrol headquarters in one of O'Brien's buildings beside the dock. Usually, they band the birds, which are about two-thirds grown, but they are all out of bands so skip that step.
"Hold them this way so their wings don't flap around," Dooley instructs us, handing out gloves and advising how to keep the birds calm while we share a moment with pufflings that get dubbed Puff and Mister Wally.
The volunteers promise to show us the best spots to hunt on the evening patrol.
"It's just a good feeling to save them," offers local volunteer Joan Hutchings.
"It's so exciting - it's like a rush," chimes in her Nova Scotia sister Marilyn Thornley.
"They just pop up out of everywhere," adds Barbara Peach, another local sibling.
It doesn't turn out quite like that for us.
My 9-year-old daughter and I sign waivers and gear up with reflective safety vests, headlamps, gloves, butterfly nets and a pet carrier. We are warned to be careful about traffic, not to trespass and to patrol by car or on foot wherever we like from Bay Bulls south to Bauline East through Witless Bay, Mobile, Tors Cove and Burnt Cove.
First, we drop by the Schaus' home in Witless Bay, past a street sign that says: "Slow down! Baby puffins on road. Be aware." Home and business owners are learning to turn off their porch lights at night, close their curtains and embrace free-coloured light bulbs to prevent the pufflings from coming to shore in the first place.
We're not particularly comfortable roaming the darkened maze of streets by ourselves, so we hightail it to the well-lit crab plant that's an apparent beacon for pufflings. Lots of families are having fun poking around. A few people are waiting patiently to coax puffins swimming off the dock to come to shore.
Suddenly, one of these pufflings takes off from the water, flies over our heads and disappears on shore. Everybody mobilizes for a short, frenzied hunt until one lucky fellow finds the bird and cradles it for all to see.
We gather around, envious but oohing and aahing, and then call it a night.
When You Go
The Puffin & Petrel Patrol runs out of the Witless Bay/Bay Bulls area of Newfoundland for about a month every August. Volunteers gather at dusk and search for wayward baby puffins until about midnight. Watch the patrol's Facebook and Twitter posts to find out more.
It's best to stay in local hotels, but you can make the 30- to 45-minute drive back to St. John's if you're comfortable driving at night, when you need to be extra cautious about moose. In 2017, the patrol processed the pufflings at 10 a.m. every morning in Bay Bulls. It released some birds through three whale and puffin boat tour companies - O'Brien's, Gatherall's and Molly Bawn – and the rest from a public beach. Plans for 2018 aren't finalized yet.