Machias Seal Island Puffin Tour

Machias Seal Island Puffins

 
Whatcha doin in there?

 

My wife and I decided we'd like to see puffins up close so after some research we booked our puffin trip early January 2018 for our trip in July with Bold Coast Charters. The tour departs from Cutler Harbor located in the far northeast corner of Maine. It’s one of two tours available where you can leave the boat and spend an hour or two sequestered in a blind and observe puffins, razorbills, common murres and arctic terns up close in their natural environment. The other tour is operated by the Canadian Company Sea Watch Tours. It departs from Grand Manan Island, Canada. These are the only two companies with permission to bring folks to the island and the available slots fill up quickly each year. 

Puffin Razorbill
Tern and Puffin bringing home dinner

 

If the tide is right in Cutler, you can board the tour boat from the dock. Otherwise you’ll be shuttled out to the Barbara Frost on the launch. Before you know it you’re loaded, given your mandatory Coast Guard briefing, and quietly heading out of the harbor.

Just as you exit the harbor to the open ocean, you’ll pass the Little River Lighthouse. The lighthouse is a common site to local Mainers but rare to those who haven’t ventured into the Atlantic Ocean off the Down East coast. The Friends of the Little River Lighthouse maintain the lighthouse structures and provide overnight escapes at the Little River Light Station during the summer for those lucky enough to experience a night or two of quiet isolation.

Cutler Harbor Captain Andy getting Barbara Frost Ready
Underway Little River Lighthouse

 

Machias Seal Island is 10 miles offshore so once past the Lighthouse there’s not a lot to do but get to know your fellow passengers, talk about cameras, the weather, and see if you can spy the island. You also try to keep a good thought and hope you’ll be able to land. A landing is not a guaranteed because weather and ocean conditions can make landing unsafe.

As you near the island you'll start seeing puffins and if this is the first time you've visited their habitat you'll notice two things: puffins aren't very big, about 10" tall; and they fly fast clocking in at more than 50 mph. If the purpose of your visit is photography you'll want to practice shooting all sorts of birds prior to your trip until the camera settings are second nature.

Thousands of puffins are out and about nesting and raising their young during the few summer months until they return to the sea where they live the rest of the year. The naturalists said there were about 5000 nesting pairs of puffins, 1000 pairs of razorbills, 500 pairs of common murres, and a large number arctic terns nesting on the island. Sometimes it seems like most of them take to the air at the same time and other times the activity slows. It’s almost like the birds exist as a single entity with many parts, hunting and feeding, breathing and resting as one.

After anchoring off the coast of the island we boarded a dinghy and were shuttled to a rocky beach next to a concrete walkway. My wife and I took an offered helping hand out of the dinghy and stepped up onto Machias Seal Island on a remarkably clear, windy July day.

I tried to feel appropriately  overwhelmed with gratitude for this day and this experience but thousands of birds do not rest for self-indulgent reflective contemplation. Within moments of landing I was handed a 4 foot long stick about ⅜” in diameter and advised to hold it pointing straight up near my head to discourage arctic terns from their kamikaze attacks meant to keep us clear of their nests. Oddly enough those sticks worked and only one of our party, who spurned the offered stick, had his hat knocked off.

Machias Seal Island is small, just under 20 acres, and both the US and Canada claim ownership. To strengthen the claim the Canadians built and maintain a beautiful lighthouse on the island. But in reality, the island is owned by the birds.

 

 

The Politician Puffin Portrait #2
Friends Curiosity #2

 

On the island you are greeted by naturalists who live there in summer. They give some simple ground rules, a bit of background on the birds you are likely to see and keep their instruction brief because you are there only a short time.  The naturalists divide you into groups, no larger than four people, and lead you out to a blind to spend an hour or two observing and photographing these humorous, curious, beautiful birds.

 

The blinds are rustic and accommodate up to four people standing. Everyone gets their own window close to the rocks where the puffins make their nests. Once you’re inside the guide shuts the door and leaves you. Then the birds return to walk about on the roof and chatter. At first it sounds like they’re trying to get into the blind, but the noise is just their sharp claws scratching against the roof.

When we started taking pictures it was hard to tell which lens to use or where to point the camera. There is so much activity and the birds were always on the move. The puffins weren’t shy and exhibited open curiosity about us with the clicking cameras and lenses poking out the windows of the blind at them.

All too soon it was time to go and we gathered together for the short walk back to the boat ramp. Still taking pictures we were shuttled back to the Barbara Frost for the return trip to Cutler Harbor. After leaving the puffins Captain Peterson took us by a small island to observe a large number of gray seals happily sunning themselves on the rocks. They were skeptical and noted our passing.

It was a remarkable trip and a day to remember in Maine.

A word about this tour:

Should you decide this tour is for you there are a few things you should know:

  • This is a no frill tour.  There's no food or beverage service on the boat. Pack your lunch or snacks. There is a head (bathroom) on board the Barbara Frost.

  • This trip with Bold Coast Charter Company departs out of Cutler Harbor. Departure times vary with the tide. Parking is limited and a little informal. You may get a spot by the dock in Cutler Harbor but more than likely you’ll find a spot on the grass shoulder of the main road nearby.
  • Barbara Frost is a 40’ boat and the ride can be a little rough. There were only 16 people on our tour and there wasn’t really room for many more.



  • There is no guarantee you will be able to leave the boat and land on the island. Swells from far out in the Atlantic and wind driven waves can combine to make landing completely unsafe. There’s no dock, just a narrow concrete ramp. The landing boat is partly grounded while someone gives you a hand up.

  • Book early. The season is short, running from mid May through early August. Reservations can be made early in January and you will likely have to call several times before you get through. Tours are usually completely booked by the end of February and after that you can only hope for an opening due to cancellation.

  • Consider booking multiple days. We didn’t do that and were lucky but other folks had booked it for two or three days to increase their chances for an island landing.

  • Take a big memory card for your camera. You’ll need it.


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  • Erika on

    Awesome post!

    Informative and entertaining. It makes me appreciate your stunning puffin photography even more knowing how small and swift these guys are!


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