Puffins. I think everyone likes Puffins. Football shaped, Penguin-esque, with their colorful, mini-toucan beaks…no wonder they are called ‘clowns of the sea.’ Puffins… heck, even the name sounds funny! I first learned about Puffins when I was a kid. I was one of those nerds who collected stamps, and as it happens, there is a small island off the coast of England named Lundy, which prints their own stamps featuring, you got it, Puffins.
More recently, I was planning a photo trip to Acadia National Park when I ran across an article about photo tours to a Puffin breeding island off the northern coast of Maine. Now, I’m not a ‘birder’…I mean, I do like photographing birds, but it’s not like I plan my vacations around them (not that there is anything wrong with that)! However, since I thought Puffins were just plan cute (and maybe because of fond memories of my stamp collection), I decided to find out a bit more about the tour.
I learned that although Puffins are common in the North Atlantic, they stay at sea most of the year. They only come ashore for a few months each year to have their young… and there are only 5 breeding islands in the US. Only one of those islands (Machias Seal Island) allows photographers and tourists to actually come ashore. A total of 30 people per day are allowed to photograph Puffins from plywood blinds on the island, often with the Puffins only a few feet away. That option sounded a lot better than the other tours where you just take a boat out and try to photograph them from the rocking deck! Two tour companies have permits for Machias Seal Island…one (Bold Coast Tours) leaves from a small port (Cutler) in northern Maine and another (Sea Watch) is over the border in Canada. I booked with Bold Coast for three reasons:
- They were a lot closer to Bar Harbor (where I would be staying)
- Cutler is closer to Machias, so the boat ride would be half as long (especially nice if the weather is rough)
- Their reviews on Trip Advisor were excellent.
Before I knew it, a couple months had passed and the alarm was ringing at 4am in my small hotel room in Bar Harbor. The drive to Cutler was a bit over 2 hours, so I needed to be on the road before 5am to be at the dock by 7am. I checked the off-shore weather report and saw that it was going to be clear and calm. This was great news because there is always a chance that if the seas are rough, you won’t be able to actually land on Machias Seal Island once you get there.
A couple of hours and a few cups of coffee later I arrived at Cutler: a small, quaint working harbor. The 16 folks on the tour were quickly ferried to the Barbara Frost, a 40′ coast-guard inspected cruiser where we met Capt. Andy Patterson. Andy has been doing this tour for a couple decades and his jokes and stories kept us all entertained. He also knew his birds and was able to educate us about Puffins and the other wildlife we would see. Fortunately, the ocean was smooth as glass, which allowed us to cover the 9 miles to Machias in slightly over an hour with the bonus that no one got seasick.
Surprisingly, the island is claimed by both the US and Canada, but so far the dispute has been amicable…although a group of Maine lobster boats did ‘blockade’ the island for a short period a few years back:) Although Puffins were heavily hunted in Maine and nearly eliminated in the early 1900s, they have since made a comeback and we were greeted by literally thousands of them as we approached the island. We got ashore and were given the ‘rules of engagement’ by the resident Canadian wildlife warden about what we could and couldn’t do while on the island. He takes his job of protecting the birds seriously, as one of the tourists learned when she broke a rule and got a sharp reprimand.
We were led to the blinds in groups of four and as we approached, the puffins in the area took to wing. The blinds are simple plywood shacks, barely big enough to hold 4 adults and not a place for anyone with claustrophobia! Once you got in, there was very little room to move around. Our blind had ten small windows with sliding panels that you could open and photograph through. We had barely closed the blind’s door when the Puffins returned. They were everywhere, you could even hear them marching around on the roof!
The four of us started snapping happily away. About ten minutes later I came to the brilliant realization that if I took all my shots from the same window, then they would all look pretty much the same. I mentioned this out loud and everyone laughed, because we were all thinking the same thing. We soon worked out an agreement where all 4 of us would shuffle clockwise to the next window every five minutes or so. This allowed us all to shoot out of different windows and capture different backgrounds.
I think we were all surprised when the warden opened the door and told us that our hour and a half was up. I might not be a birder, but time had definitely flown by…it sure seemed like a quick 90 minutes to me!
Everyone was chattering excitedly as we headed back to the boat. It really was an incredibly neat experience. Once back on the boat, we circled the island photographing other birds and the seals on a nearby island. We got back to Cutler about 1pm…about six hours from when we had left.
Was it worth a half day and $120? Oh yeah. No question. Even if you aren’t a birder, this is a great tour. For example, one of the folks on our tour was a typical teen-ager who had been dragged on the trip by his dad, who was clearly an avid birder. It was every bit as clear that the kid couldn’t care less about wildlife or birds…most of his time on the boat was spent playing with his phone. When he got in the blind, you could see that he was bored out of his skull. But then he glanced out the window as the Puffins landed within a few feet of the blind and he got a ragged smile. Then, he nearly squealed when the Puffins landed on the roof and started stomping over his head. Soon the iPhone was out and he was making a video for friends at home…all the while treating us to a stream-of-consciousness monologue about how cool it was!
Tips for my fellow photographers:
1) Which tour should I choose?
First of all, if your heart is set on photographing from the blinds, make sure that you make this clear when you contact the company. Both Bold Coast and Sea Watch also sell cheaper tours (about $55) to the island in which you don’t go ashore…you just cruise around Machias taking photos from the water. Don’t even consider this option, spend the extra $60 bucks and go ashore…you won’t regret it.
2) When should you go?
Tours are offered from mid-May through mid-August. However, the birds are thickest from mid-June thru the end of July. The absolute best timeframe is mid-July when the Puffins can be photographed with their beaks full of fish they have caught for their chicks.
3) What lens should I use?
The Puffins do get close, so even a 200mm lens will get you some good shots. I used my Nikon 200-400mm zoom with a 1.4 tele-converter, which was absolutely ideal. It was able to focus on birds close to the blind and give me frame filling head shots, but with the effective 550mm length (thanks to the teleconverter), I was able to get great shots of the birds on the edge of the shore as well.
Changing lenses in the blinds is difficult. I’d suggest you bring a single zoom instead. A second option would be to bring a second lens on a second body.
Anything 500mm or larger is not going to be practical in the blind…plus the other folks in there would be sorely tempted to kill you.
4) Camera Settings?
Unless you are going to try to capture them in flight, you won’t need a particularly fast camera setting for Puffins. I rarely had to go over 1/1000th of a second.
I was able to shoot with an ISO of 200 but you might have to boost that if you are there on a foggy or rainy day.
The blinds are tight, so this isn’t a shoot where you want to bring every piece of gear you have. Leave your tripod and monopod at home. You could bring a beanbag if you have one, but I found that I could support my big lens on the bottom of the windows and it worked just fine.
Going on this tour, my goals were simple. I really wanted to get a good puffin headshot and some in-flight images. On any ‘normal’ photo tour, those goals would have been challenging enough to keep me busy for a half day. But not here. The puffins are so close and so comfortable around humans that I easily had those goals nailed in the first ten minutes. Don’t get so focused on your initial goals that you miss out on other opportunities. Try for different backgrounds and look for unusual behavior or poses.
You have a good chance of getting wet on this trip. Have rain gear for both your camera and yourself. It is also a lot colder out on the water than on shore, and the wind will make it seem even more so. Dress in warm layers. Wear footgear with a good non-slip sole.
Everything you bring on this tour should fit in a single waterproof backpack. Stepping from the skiff to the floating dock at the island can be challenging, especially if you have some waves. Carrying your gear in a backpack will be a lot safer than trying to lug it onto the dock in a hand-held bag.
The backpack should be compact…remember, you won’t have room in the blinds for a full sized hiking backpack.
9) Photo gear
Fog and rain are common so bring extra lens cleaning cloths.
Bring a polarizer if you are blessed with a bright day. It will help saturate the colors and tame glare off of the water.
Don’t forget an extra battery and memory cards…you will be taking a LOT of photos.
I didn’t need a flash unit on the sunny day I visited. However, if you were to visit on a dark/overcast day you might want to give it a try. Keep in mind that the windows are only about 6″ tall, so you won’t be able to use a camera mounted flash. You could use a remotely controlled flash and hold it out another window but that would be awkward (if you are making the trip with someone, you could ask them to hold your flash while you shoot).
It is a long day, so have a good breakfast and bring some protein bars or similar compact snacks. You might want to leave a full lunch in your car to enjoy when you get back.
If you are prone to seasickness, buy some pills and follow the directions (and hope the other folks on the tour do so as well). Andy has water on board but I brought my own drink bottle as well.
There is a bathroom on the boat as well as porta potties on the island that you will have access to should the need arise.
11) Make your reservations early.
With only a single boatload going ashore per day, the tours fill up fast, especially those for the peak-timeframes. Reserve early. Weather in Maine can be ugly and tours being canceled are not uncommon. If this tour is the primary reason for your visit to Maine, increase your chances of a successful photo op by making reservations on consecutive days.
12) Take a map and print the directions to Cutler Harbor from the Bold Coast website.
Cell service is spotty around Cutler and my GPS was completely confused as I got into town. Don’t count on electronics to get you to the dock.
13) Bring cash or a check
You pay the balance of your deposit when you arrive at Cutler and Capt Andy doesn’t take credit cards. Cash is always nice to have as a tip at the end of the tour as well.
14) Bring your passport
You don’t need a passport to visit Machias Island. However, after your tour you should keep in mind that Canada is only 30 minutes away. Campobello Island and the Roosevelt Campobello International Park are nearby Canadian locations that you might want to photograph.
Lubec Maine (the northernmost city in the US) is also nearby and features a very photogenic lighthouse.
15) A special note for you birders
In addition to puffins, there are nesting colonies of Artic Terns and Razorbills on the island . Other species that we saw included Black Guillemots, Common Murres and Common Eiders.
Unless you were to visit on a stormy day and get seriously seasick, I can’t imagine how anyone wouldn’t have a great time on this tour. I thought it was a wonderful change of pace from photographing landscapes at Arcadia and it got me to another part of the coast I wouldn’t have explored otherwise.
If you are planning a trip to the coast of Maine or Acadia National Park during May-August, this tour is something you should put on your itinerary.
Have a great time!