Puffin adventure on Machias Seal Island

July 22, 2018

(Warning, this blog is very picture heavy.)

About two years ago, I had read a story about photographing puffins off the coast of Maine somewhere. After a little research, I discovered that there's only one US charter that can take you to this specific island, and actually get you on the island, for the real up-close experience. The tour is so popular, their very limited spots book up in January for the mid-May to Mid-August trips. After two years of unsuccessful attempts to book a trip, I was fortunate enough to be able to secure two spots, one for me, one for my dad, for this past July 17th.  That took place back in the third week of January. 

After half a year of anticipation, preparation and questions, the day arrived and dad and I headed north to Cutler, Maine. Prior to booking this trip, I had never heard of Cutler, Cutler Harbor, or Bold Coast Charters. The ride to the motel took about five and a half hours.  Cutler Harbor, where the boat leaves from, is another 30 minutes north. 

The night before the trip, after checking into the motel, we took a ride out to the harbor. The afternoon was a little foggy, and much more so as we got closer to the water.  

A short ride later, we arrived at the coast and parking location where we would depart from the next morning.  

Or, more accurately, hopefully departing from. The trips are 100% weather and sea-condition dependent, which is completely understandable.  Machias Seal Island is approximately 10 miles off shore from Cutler Harbor.  In addition, actually getting to go ashore to the island, is a multistage process.  First, weather and sea conditions must be favorable for at least a 4 hour minimum window, to allow you to board the Barbara Frost. This is the boat that takes the 12-15 puffin enthusiasts, and captain and crew to just outside the island. 

Upon arrival at 6:30am the following morning, we were greeted by incredibly thick fog.  I took a few photos, but honestly, there was nothing to see!  After all the participants for the day showed up, we got the word that the sea conditions would be favorable to at least head to the island.  Going ashore was still a game-time decision at this point.  After taking a smaller boat to the Barbara Frost, we set out of the harbor.  It was about an hour boat ride, but it went by very fast. Captain Andy provides a brief safety speech as well as lots of historical and educational information about Cutler, the surrounding area, puffins, and the other birds we may also encounter on the island, such as razorbills, common murres and arctic terns.

About 45 minutes later, and the only reason we knew we were getting close to the island, we started to encounter some birds. Then, we all saw it, the first puffin rapidly buzzed by the boat in and out of the fog - but unmistakingly - a puffin.  You could definitely feel everyone's excitement level jump a notch as for most of us this bird only existed in pictures to this point. 

Now, back to that multistage process.   Below is the boat that is towed behind the Barbara Frost and takes you to the island.  The captain does an exceptional job of making this transfer as safe as possible. However, you are still climbing over the gunnel of the larger boat, into the smaller boat while carrying your gear, wearing a life vest, and attempting to instantly have the sea legs to successfully do so.  The small boat only has the capacity for about half of us at a time.  

Here's a picture of the first group heading to the island into the fog.  The island can just barely be made out through the fog, and I have to give a shout out to the puffin that decided to fly into the frame on the right as I took the shot. 

Once we safely boarded the small boat, and made the very short ride to the island, we were once again assisted off the boat by the captain, and the crew working the lighthouse on the island. After going ashore, you are escorted up to a staging area for some more instructions and information about our time on the island.  There is only one other tour allowed on the island, and they come from Canada. Once their time was up in the blinds, we were escorted in groups of three and four to one of the four wooden blinds. As you walk to the blinds, there are birds everywhere!  They do scatter a bit upon your entrance into the blind, but within seconds of the door shutting behind you, and before you open the little window and turn the camera on, thousands of puffins are back within a few feet of where you're standing, and it's time to get shooting!

This isn't one of the better pictures, but it's special for me as it was my first shot taken once I opened the little wooden shooting window that morning. 

This particular puffin waddled up the rock and peaked his head over to gaze into the blind and see the newest crew of photographers and birders that would be intruding on him, and thousands of others, as they work to raise their one chick.  Puffins are sea birds, which literally means they live at sea. They only come to land once a year, to dig borrows under the rocks and in the soft dirt to lay their one and only egg.  For more detailed info on puffins, check out this page

My photography goals for the day were simple, yet ambitious. I wanted to get the few classic shots that everyone tries to get of these amazing birds. The holy grail of puffin shots is the close up of the head with them holding fish in their beak that they'll be bringing to their chick. I wanted at least one, full body shot. I also wanted to get a shot of a bird in flight, some group shots, a super close up portrait, and especially a perfectly straight on close up portrait. And then of course, the 'candids' - puffins are known for being quite animated at times.  I also hoped to get some pictures of the other species on the island, but that was secondary to puffin pictures. The foggy conditions were exactly what I had hoped for. This meant no harsh shadows, no blown out highlights creating lots of feather detail in both the white and black parts of the bird.  I was able to get most of what I had hoped for, falling short with great in-flight shots and great fish-in-beak pictures. 

In no particular order, here's what the entire puffin looks like.  About the size of a crow, maybe a little larger. Incredibly colorful beak, bright orange webbed feet with little black claws for digging those borrows. 

Puffins are also very vocal. Here's a great quick video illustrating the noises they make.  They sound like a cross between a cow, and chainsaw.  While they did spend a lot of time on their own sleeping or preening, they also spent a lot of time interacting with each other.  

Many times, there were several birds all sharing the same rock or outcropping together.  These next two images were taken seconds apart, and you can see the crowd growing from shot to shot.

While mostly active the entire time, puffins also appeared to take quick little naps, even if only for a few minutes. 

Another thing puffins, and the others species spent lots of time doing, was preening. Just about every bird upon landing on a rock, spent some time preening themselves.

Now, for some fun, how about a few of those candid shots...

The only other species I was able to capture a few shots of were the razorbills. They are a little scary, borderline mean, looking birds.  They're a little bigger than the puffins and shared the same space, shared the same rocks a lot of times, but also spent their fair share of time alone or with other razorbills. 

I had really hoped to be able to capture a crystal clear close up a puffin with fish in its beak, as well as a great in-flight shot.  I only managed a few marginal photos of both.  The speed at which they fly in with the fish, and immediately dart into the borrow, is amazing! It would definitely take some serious focus, and luck, to be able to anticipate, prepare for and see the bird coming first, in order to nail that perfect shot.  Here were my best attempts. 

Lastly, one goal I did succeed in, and based on how close these birds actually get to you, it's something I'm sure everyone succeeds in, was getting those classic close up puffin portraits.  I honestly lost count at how many of these types of shots I purged, and they were all really good, but these few made the not so short list of the best ones. 

 And my favorite, and not actually the sharpest image, but definitely the most impactful with the dark background and water droplets on the head.

We were allotted about 90 minutes in the blinds.  They time went by incredibly fast, but we had reached our limit on the island.  After getting back on the Barbara Frost, the captain took a short ride over to Gull Island which was populated with gray seals resting on the seaweed-covered rocks.  I love how comfortable the seal on the left looks!

Our last stop on the way back, while there was just a little less fog, was a view of Little River lighthouse. You can actually book an overnight stay at this place. From other photos I've seen, it's extremely picturesque... when you can see it!  

Moments later, we were back at the harbor, back on the small boat to shore, and in the truck heading back from an adventure that will be very hard to top! We passed this little church a few miles from the harbor and it was just begging for a picture.

When I looked at my image count on the back of the camera, I had taken over 1500 pictures while in the blind in a little less than 90 minutes. From a photographic standpoint, this trip is entirely worth every penny spent, mile traveled, and stages required to finally end up in the blinds. The sweet spot for length of lens seemed to be about 300mm.  Most of my pictures were taken handheld (no room for tripods or monopods in the blinds) with my 150-450mm lens. A few with the fixed 100mm, and many more with a fixed 300mm. Zero photos taken in the blind with the wide angle lens.

If you're looking for a really special wildlife experience, whether you're into birding or even own a camera, this trip would be absolutely worth it.  Contact Captain Andy, and Bold Coast Charters, you will not be disappointed. 

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