As Maine Duck Tours pulls away from the curb near Long Wharf on Commercial Street, three rules are announced by tour guide Dugan Murphy:
Don’t stand while the vehicle is moving; keep your arms, elbows, noses, and toes inside at all times, and if the tour guide quacks, you must quack too.
“Let’s try the (last) one out,” Murphy instructed his captive audience. “Quack quack!”
Everyone aboard either shouted “quack quack!” back at him or made noise with the brightly colored plastic quackers that are available for purchase at the check-in counter at the Blue Lobster Gift Shop.
That’s how it goes six times a day, except most Thursdays. The duck boat’s cartoon duck and blue-and-yellow exterior can be seen around Portland while its scheduled tour gives riders from near and far an elevated and entertaining view of the city and harbor.
“I’ve been on a duck tour before and it was really fun,” Melissa Gonzales from Connecticut said. “We’ve been in Portland for two days so (we just want to see) what there is and (to see it) from their point of view.”
Maine Duck Tours has been around since 2004; owners Kris McClure and Khaled Habash purchased the business in 2017. They have backgrounds in tourism, had an interest in seaworthy tours, and there was a surplus of amphibious duck boats after World War II.
Despite accidents involving duck boats in other states, Maine Duck Tours’ vehicle is customized for tours, so “it’s actually safer than a lot of the other tour companies around the country,” Murphy, the tour guide said.
He said they started with a lot of passion and information about the history of Portland.
“What I’ve been honing is more of an entertainer, so it gets across less like a lecture and more like a fun time,” Murphy said.
Highlights of the tour, which costs from $10 for small children to $33 for adults, include the Portland Museum of Art, Fort Gorges, the Narrow Gauge Railroad, the Old Port, and the Eastern Promenade.
“I like explaining things to people and I like telling stories,” Murphy said. “I find that this fits that proclivity very well.”
After going over the rules for his audience, Murphy started the tour with a big question: “What’s up with all the freaking granite in this town?”
The answer: “Because (in) 1866 we had the most devastating fire in American history,” Murphy said. “We burned on the Fourth of July because of a ‘firequacker.’ Quack quack!” A few people laughed at the joke.
For Murphy, being able to understand a piece of information is the best way to learn.
“It’s kind of like how it’s a lot easier to put in the last few pieces of a puzzle than the first few pieces,” Murphy said. “So once you have sort of a framework for understanding the history of a place, then learning something new, it fits right in.”
After about 30 minutes on land, the vehicle made its way to the East End boat launch. Murphy pointed out the lifejackets above the seats, and excited chatter filled the bus as it transformed into a boat.
“This is a great place for photos,” Murphy said. “I can get a picture of you and your group. Just take your camera out and I’ll walk down the aisle and take some pictures.”
He also handed out small business cards with recommended activities and maps of where each one is located.
“I really appreciate having this broad mix of kids and adults and their grandparents and trying my best to meet all of their needs,” he said.
While in the water, as the vehicle was steered around parked sailboats, Murphy talked about the surrounding islands and landmarks that could be seen from the water. After crossing Portland Harbor to South Portland, the boat made land and transformed back into a bus at the boat launch near Bug Light Park.
After a brief history lesson on the lighthouse, it was the perfect time for Murphy to explain the stereotypical Maine accent. He dropped his “neutral American radio voice that tends to work for pretty much everybody” and told the group “If you’re traveling around Maine, interacting with us native Mainers, it could be helpful to have a couple of words under your belt.”
The well-known response to the simple question “Are you having a nice day?” he said, is “Wicked good.”
Murphy spoke about lobstering and the working waterfront as the tour made its way through South Portland, over the Casco Bay Bridge, and back to Commercial Street.
“There’s a huge market for tourism in Portland,” Owen Freeman, Maine Duck Tours ticket agent, said. “(The owners) knew that there would be a lot of work and revenue to be made.”
Freeman has been working with Maine Duck Tours since 2018 and said his favorite part of the job is interacting with different people.
“Maine is a very small isolated state in the right-hand corner of the map,” he said. “I just like meeting people from all over the country.”
“We consider ourselves the fun, quirky alternative to maybe the straightforward tours in town,” co-owner McClure said. “… We do want to become sort of that must do like the Boston Duck Tours. We want to become that.”