Peeking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Peeking at Puffins: Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
One of the “Puffins” from my old stamp collection..

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. Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island 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:

  1. They were a lot closer to Bar Harbor (where I would be staying)
  2. Cutler is closer to Machias, so the boat ride would be half as long (especially nice if the weather is rough)
  3. 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.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
The Barbara Frost

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.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
Machias Seal Island is only about 15 acres and is nothing more than a low-lying pile of rocks.


Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
They use this skiff to shuttle you to and from the Barbara Frost

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.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
Those small rectangles on the side of the blinds are the sliding windows you photograph thru.. As you can see, the Puffins are not exactly shy.

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!

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
“Pose for the camera please…”

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.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal IslandI 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!

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
Tug of War: Puffin Style!

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?

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
I was there in mid-June when the Puffins were building their nests among the crevices in the boulders.

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.

5)  Tripod?

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.

6)  Don’t get in a rutPeaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island

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.

7)  Clothing/Footgear

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.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
Puffin’s wings are also used to propel themselves underwater.
Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
Their landings antics aren’t graceful, but are good for a chuckle or two.

8)  Backpack

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).

10)  Food/Sundries/Facilities

Maine Puffins
Larry, Curley and Moe!

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.

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
The famous “Candy-Stripe” Lighthouse at Lubec is only 20 miles from the harbor at Cutler.

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.

2014 June Acadia (760)

Arctic Terns had disappeared from the island but they have returned
Arctic Terns had disappeared from the island but they have returned
You will likely see a number of seals in the waters off the island...
You will likely see a number of seals in the waters off the island…



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!

Peaking at Puffins:  Tips for Puffin Photo Tours on Machias Seal Island
I got that head shot I wanted!

Related Images:

This Post Has 32 Comments

  1. Hi Jeff,
    I found your puffin article to be very informative and your shots to be quite beautiful. Thank you for all the information! My favorite bird, no question, and I can’t wait to go this summer. I look forward to more of your photos and articles now that I’ve found this one. Cheers!

  2. Hi Jeff,

    I found your blog looking for puffins in the US, Kudos for you this is a travel Blog for Puffins fans.
    I sent and email to Bold coast on Monday (they were fully booked) per your recommendation and I got the call that they had a cancellation son of course I Jumped on the opportunity.
    Your recommendations were spot on 100-400 worked like a charm, the rotation inside the blind, what to wear etc.
    Thank you very much for all the Info it was invaluable!!!

    1. Hi Gustavo,
      Great to hear my blog gave you some helpful hints…that’s why I write them! Hope you got some great shots, would love to see your best ones.

  3. Never mind about the lense part of my earlier question….i forgot u already answered me 2 years ago when i tried to go there but they cancelled it night before because the weather…

    1. Hi Frank,
      They rotate each group through the different blinds, so you should be able to shoot from all of them. Once you get in a particular blind, there is no protocol about who gets which window (first come first serve). I’d suggest you talk to your group before you get to the first blind and suggest that you all agree to spend five minutes at each window then move clockwise to the next window. That way everyone gets a chance. Each window is unique and you never really know which one will be the best on a particular day. Have fun!

  4. Once on the island, how do they assign you which house to use and which window will be assigned? I presume all windows will allow one to see lots of puffins…is it just a matter of the subject and the background? Do you have a preference?
    Do u think if only bringing my zoom lense 100mm to 400mm be sufficient? Wonder if a wide angle lense be not so useful there? Seems like not too much time or ideal to keep changing lenses there…
    Thanks ahead

  5. Thank you Jeff for the writeups. I am so glad to read your blogs, it is very informative!

  6. Jeff, I just stumbled across your post while searching for Maine photo locations. I already had Machias Island on my list for a summer trip, but had very little practical information. Your article is supremely helpful — so practical. Thanks so much for taking the time to write and illustrate.

    1. Glad you found my article helpful Steve. Have a great time with the Puffins!

      1. Thanks for posting this information. I had tried to book this trip last year but it was sold out. Got my request in the morning they started taking reservations this year and while I did not get the dates I wanted was able to get in 2 days mid-June. As far as gear goes I had planned on taking my 150-600 for my crop body and 24-105 for my full frame. After reading all the comments I wonder if maybe I should look at securing a 70-200 or similar range for the full frame. Any thoughts on this? Also will have the wife with me as she is a bird lover. She is concerned about the landing. Hopefully have calm seas at least one of the days.

        1. Hi Bob,
          I think the lens/body combos you have will likely handle 90% of the possible shots you will come across. The 70-200 would push you to 99% of possible shots but if that makes it worthwhile depends on your budget! The landing on the day I visited was fine, but it will obviously depend on the weather for your trip. It is a great photo shoot…you will have a blast!

  7. Thank you for this informative post! I stumbled across it and am so thankful I did!! I’m hoping to go in 2019!

    1. Hi Lezlee, you will have a great time. Puffins are incredibly photogenic and you will come home with some great images.

  8. Hi Jeff,
    This is very informative. Much appreciated. Do you know the approximate dimensions of the “windows” in the blinds? Are they large enough to bring my Canon 200-400 F4 (5.0 x 5.0 x 14.4 inches)?

    1. Hi Barry, I was shooting with my Nikon 200-400 f4 (about the same dimensions as your lens) and I had no problems with the size of the windows at all. You should be fine. Have fun!

  9. Thanks for a wonderful article. We are heading to Lubec next week then down to Cutler for the Bold Coast Charter tours. Hoping for wonderful weather and great shots.

    1. Hi Charlie, Enjoy your trip…hope you get lots of great puffin shots!

  10. Absolutely loved this review of this tour!!! Sorry I can’t make it this year, they are already booked, but it’s on my 2017 bucket list now!!

    1. Hi Amy, You will have a great time on the tour next year (here’s hoping the wether cooperates)!

  11. I will be taking the puffin tour in two weeks…I wonder if my Canon 100 to 400 mm lense sufficient? Should I attach the 1.4x converter. I just don’t want a situation where the puffin is too close to be focus on. Also if a wide angle lense be useless in the scenario. Thanks.

    1. Hi Frank,
      If you are using the 100 to 400 on a DX Camera body, then I think it will be fine. If you are using a full-frame camera, then you should also use the 1.4x converter. Unless a Puffin lands right by your blind, it won’t likely be too close…I believe that your lens will focus as close as 10′, so you should be fine. If you have a second camera body, you could attach a smaller lens to it and take it along but I honestly think that wouldn’t be necessary.
      Have fun and I hope your weather is good and your photos are great!

      1. Thanks! Are any blinds better than others? How will it be assigned?

        1. Hi Frank,
          The blinds are assigned randomly. My impression was that there really wasn’t a lot of difference between them. However, depending on where the sun is located, some of the spots in each blind can definately be better than others. I’d suggest that once you get assigned to a blind, you talk to the other folks who will share it with you and suggest that you rotate positions within the blind every five minutes or so. When I was there, our group just rotated clockwise and it ensured that everyone had a fair chance of getting good shots. Good luck!

  12. Hi Jeff
    I am doing a photo shoot up the coast of Maine in July and I am booked on the island-landing tour on July 24. Quick follow up on lens selection since space seems limited, as is my lens collection!! I have a 150-600, a 28-300 and then 20, 35, 50 and 100 and 200 mm primes. I will have both my FX and DX camera bodies with me. Would you suggest just taking the 28-300 and the 200 prime, and leave the super-zoom behind? I wish I had better options in the zoom department. Maybe I can snag a 80-400 on Ebay before I leave!! I am afraid my primes will limit my framing options. Thoughts? Thanks in advance. It helps getting advice from someone who has been there. Your pics are amazing, by the way. I didn’t know about the “fishing season” for the Puffins either. Hopefully my July 24 date will be a good fishing day 🙂

    1. Hi Tim,
      Sorry it took me a bit to get back to you. I was in Alaska on a shoot and didn’t have internet access for quite a while!
      I think your timing is great to capture shots of the Puffins with Sand Eels in their beaks…I believe July 24 is right in the peak timeframe.
      I would strongly suggest bringing zooms. In fact, since you have two camera bodies, I’d bring both each loaded with a different zoom. If it were me, I’d load the 150-600 onto your DX which would give you great reach for those distant shots. Then put your 28-300 on your FX body…which should give you incredible detail on the birds that get close to the blind. Personally, I wouldn’t take the primes
      I just went back and looked thru my Puffin shots and 90% of them were taken at 550mm (I was using my 200-400 with a 1.4 teleconverter). Even though the Puffins get close, you will want the reach of a big zoom. The big lens will be a bit awkward in the blind and your arms may be sore the next day, but it is a small price to pay.
      Good luck and share your photos with me when you get back!

      1. Hi Jeff
        I just wanted to thank you for your help in planning my trip to MSI. Sadly, I didn’t get to go last summer as planned, but I was able to get on the island twice this past week. The weather was beautiful and the birds were spectacular. I would never had been prepared if you hadn’t responded like you did. The delay also enabled me to upgrade my lens selection, and I took along the 80-400 and the 200-500 the first day, followed by the 28-300 and 150-600 the second day. I found I needed the 28-300 because the birds got so close they were inside the focal range of the big lenses. Again, thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions. If you are interested, you can view a few of the Puffin images at Then just select the Puffin album.

        1. Hi Tim,
          I appreciate you taking the time to send your note. It is a great motivator for me to hear from folks who have found my blog helpful…that’s why I do it in the first place! I checked out your facebook page and loved your puffin shots…great job!

  13. Nice writeup, Jeff.

    A couple of questions: I had heard that there was a waiting list for these tours. Was it hard to get reservations? And did you use flash on any of these?


    1. Hi Ed,
      Yup…I thought this post would perk your interest! Yes, you do have to make reservations well in advance, especially if you want to go in mid July when you can photograph the Puffins with their beaks full of fish. I made my reservation about two months in advance but my trip was in mid-June. They do get cancellations, so you can get reservations with a shorter notice if you are lucky. I didn’t use flash but then I had a nice bright day….which you can’t count on. The windows in the blinds are only about 6″ tall so a flash mounted on your camera won’t fit. You could try a remote activated flash and stick it out another window, or just boost your ISO and make adjustments when you get home with photoshop.

  14. So lovely!
    This Maine area is absolutely gorgeous. Your photos pay great homage to the region and the state of Maine, one of the most picture-like states in the US. The puffins are so photogenic.
    Thanks for another beautiful post.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Evelyne. And yes, I would certainly agree that Maine is a beautiful state!

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