Behind the Image(s): Atlantic Puffins

My father-in-law owns a very old house by the sea on an island called Grand Manan, which I have had the privilege of visiting three times. Grand Manan is a two-hour ferry ride, over cold restless waters, from mainland New Brunswick, Canada. The house, which is at least 150 years old, is situated at Seal Cove on the southeast side of the main island. It’s a small community. Tired old fishermen’s houses, salmon smoking sheds, a seasonal bed and breakfast, and one sparsely stocked convenience store are all that corner of the island has to offer. You don’t go to Grand Manan for the food scene, or nightlife, or architectural grandeur. None of that exists. What the island does have is an abundance of beautiful shoreline and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This is one of those “must visit” (I despise that overused term in travel writing, but bare with me…) places for birders, which makes it a great place for photographers. The ever famous and adorable Atlantic Puffin nests in the region. Grand Manan, itself, hosts a small seasonal population on the south side of the island, but if you really want to go where the action is and see these critters up close, you have to take a chartered boat a couple hours south of Grand Manan to Machias Seal Island. A puffin colony hundreds strong nests on the rocky shores of Machias each summer. Due to predation, habitat loss, and climate change, the Machias Seal Island colony is dwindling. Fortunately, I was there just at the right time to observe hundreds of mating pairs of puffins as well as a few other sea bird species.

Machias Seal Island Puffin Sanctuary

The trip began by booking a tour from one of the very few providers allowed to visit Machias Seal Island from Grand Manan. Nothing was guaranteed, not seeing puffins, or the weather to allow us to go out on the choppy north Atlantic waters. My wife and I hopped on the boat with a dozen others at 7am. We received instructions from the burly captain and first mate on how to behave while on the island and some useful information about a few other species of wildlife we may encounter en route.

This was my first ever trip specifically for the purpose of photographing wildlife. I owned a decent telephoto zoom and my first decent DSLR. I was beyond excited.

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

After a long and bumpy ride of being wind-blasted on an open vessel, we arrived near the rocky shore of Machias Seal Island. We took a much smaller dory the rest of the way. A short walk on a slippery dock brought us to another large and intimidating islander (with a very large camera lens), who further briefed us on how to conduct ourselves in a way that would not disturb or endanger the animals. Aside from a lighthouse, the island was bare except for a few wooden blinds and boardwalks. The island is small and desolate, with little vegetation and a terrain covered in large boulders. Much to my delight, despite the desolation of the land, it was covered in puffins. Hundreds of them!

We were split into small groups and ushered quickly to our blinds. Though the journey took a couple hours, we were only given 45 minutes of puffin watching. By this time it was mid day and swelteringly hot inside the blinds – which were small – barely big enough for the four of us in it. The windows were only about 6 inches square, just big enough to shoot through (we are not allowed to stick anything, including lenses, outside of the windows). I’m not sure how shooting with larger lenses could work here; I could barely turn around with my compact 70-300mm zoom handheld.

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

The late morning light was harsh and poor quality, but there were birds everywhere I looked, so I didn’t fret about it. I fired away, filling up cards with hundreds of shots. I shot wide, medium, and close up portraits. I’d never been in a situation where I wanted fewer animals in the frame before. The chaos of thousands of birds (both puffins and rare razorbill auks) made getting tight simple shots difficult. I started focusing on the puffins nearer to the blind where numbers were fewer. I looked for interaction between mating pairs, who hid their nests under boulders and out of sight. Birds were flying out to sea and back with fish, but I was never able to get the classic “beak full of fish shot.” The limited maneuverability in the blind made panning in-flight shots difficult. I kept shooting portraits. 300mm wasn’t necessary at such close range, even though puffins are very small. Most of the images from this trip were shot between 100 and 200mm for portraits. The birds don’t mind the blinds, and as long as windows are only open on one side at a time, they don’t seem to notice the people in them.

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

It was an amazing experience I think every photographer should have. Puffins on the North American side of the Atlantic are growing fewer in number by the year. It was a privilege to get to spend time photographing so many of them at once. We were lucky that year. The following summer we tried to book another tour, but were told there were so few birds on the island that it wasn’t worth the trip.

Puffins spend most of the year solitarily on the open sea, which makes them difficult to study. They congregate, reuniting with their mates, each summer for a few short weeks on rocky cliffs and small islands like Machias. Little is known about their life on the open Atlantic. Biologists are trying to find ways to increase puffin numbers, but the troubles these comical little birds face are many. I would recommend seeing them in the wild as soon as you can as sustainable ecotourism helps support conservation efforts.

Yes, You Need Travel Insurance...

This is not an advertisement for travel insurance companies. I am not affiliated with any insurance company. This is just simple advice you need to hear. An alarming number of people go abroad without any additional travel or health coverage. Worse, some go without any at all. This is insane, because travel insurance that covers up to 100% of your medical expenses and travel interruptions is cheap. Whether you simply need to reschedule or cancel a flight, your hotel is overbooked, or you have an unexpected medical emergency, the top travel insurance providers offer plans that cover you. Usually it’s only around $70-100 a week for coverage. I always buy insurance, but never had to use it until last fall when it saved me hundreds of thousands in medical bills.
Here’s the story:

The Time My Pancreas and Gallbladder Tried to Kill Me

I was visiting my family down in North Carolina during the Thanksgiving holiday. I was looking forward to having some good southern food again (food that does not exist in Western Canada). On Thanksgiving Day, I had a growing pain in my upper right side. It started out dull and grew worse. I didn’t get to participate in the Thanksgiving meal. I just reclined in a chair in the corner near Grandpa’s wood burning stove trying not to groan too much.

That night I was hurting a lot. I was nauseous. My Dad took me to urgent care in the morning. The doctor told me I’d be okay with some meds. My gallbladder was acting up, but he thought I’d be okay to travel back to Canada by taking proper medication and avoiding fatty foods. Later that day the pain got much worse and I was vomiting. The pain in my guts was sharp. My folks took me to the emergency room. The rest is a bit blurry, especially after the morphine hit me (which barely helped the pain and made me feel loopy).

I still don’t know how many days exactly I was in the hospital…4, 5, 6 days? At some point my wife came down from Canada. All I really remember is watching Friends reruns on the hospital TV, complaining to the nurses that the pain meds weren’t working, and having occasional visitors. I ate nothing for several days. Apparently my gallbladder was inflamed, but the worst part was that my pancreas became inflamed as well. That was a more serious issue. They simply couldn’t remove my gallbladder until my pancreas was stable. That took days.

I had the surgery, was discharged the next day, had my first meal in a week, and began the recovery process. I cancelled my return flight to Canada and stayed with my parents in NC for the next few weeks until after Christmas. My activities and diet were limited, and I was still in pain from the surgery for several weeks after.

Eventually I began to feel normal. While in recovery I mostly played guitar, but managed to get up the strength to go out and photograph a bit on the nearby beaches. That was therapeutic.

My first outing after the surgery. A chilly morning on Sunset Beach, North Carolina. December, 2018.

My first outing after the surgery. A chilly morning on Sunset Beach, North Carolina. December, 2018.

So, Yeah…You Need Travel Insurance!

Needless to say, that was not a fun trip. Luckily, as I normally do, I purchased travel insurance through World Nomads before the trip. My wife contacted the insurance company to start a claim while I was in the hospital. The insurance covered my medical bills, which were very high. The travel insurance reimbursed me for all the medication and doctor visits and covered my hospital bills and all expenses related to treatment (like the MRI, ultrasound, follow-up appointment, meds, etc.). Ultimately, the insurance saved me almost $200,000 USD in medical costs. The insurance plan was only $100; that’s a pretty good deal if you ask me. Had I not purchased the travel insurance, it’s unclear whether my Alberta Health Plan would’ve covered much of my stateside medical expenses (likely not). I would have been responsible for thousands and thousands of dollars in healthcare costs if I hadn’t spent that $100 on travel insurance.

It’s ironic that I enjoy free healthcare in Canada, and that my first hospitalization happened in the states, but I am happy that I was in a place I was familiar with and had my family there to help me through it all. If I’d been in another country, things would have been more complicated and stressful. So, make sure you get travel insurance that covers the cost of trip cancellation and interruptions, but also covers any possible medical situations as well.

I’d recommend World Nomads, but there are other reputable options out there, so you can shop around, but wherever you go, don’t leave home without travel insurance!

Seasonal Transitions, White-tailed Jackrabbit

Sometimes I don’t have to go far for wildlife opportunities. I live in a city of almost a million people, yet native animals can be found right outside my door. Alberta’s white-tailed jackrabbits have suffered habitat loss due to farming on the prairies, but are thriving in the city limits where they have few predators and an abundance of food. As long as they watch for traffic, they have little to fear on the streets of Edmonton, even in the town’s most populated neighbourhoods.

In winter, these large hares are pristine white and blend in with the snow perfectly. In spring, just as the snow melts and muddy earth tones return, the rabbit’s fur changes along with it, gradually changing from winter white to brown.

White-tailed Jackrabbit in spring, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (Nikon D750,  Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR , 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600)

White-tailed Jackrabbit in spring, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (Nikon D750, Nikon 200-500mm f5.6 VR, 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600)

Why I Don't Own A Car...

How on earth can I be a photographer, especially a “travel” photographer,
and not own a vehicle?!

In the short time I had this car, it got me to lots of amazing places. Jasper National Park, Canada, Winter 2018.

In the short time I had this car, it got me to lots of amazing places. Jasper National Park, Canada, Winter 2018.

About 8 months ago, my wife and I drove our beloved 2016 Jeep Patriot through the Canadian Rockies and central British Columbia all the way down to Seattle, Washington. When we arrived in Seattle, we immediately sold our car to a dealership, absolving ourselves of a few more years of loan payments. We spent a couple days in downtown Seattle, then flew back home for a small fraction of the cost of gas to drive from Alberta to Washington. The drive down to the states took most of two days, but the flight back took 2 hours.

Why did we drive all the way to Seattle to sell a car when we live in Canada? Simple really. It was a U.S. car we bought when we still lived in the states. Once I got permanent resident status in Canada, I was required to “import” the car (even though it was already in Canada). This meant driving it back to the states and going through a complex and very expensive exporting/importing process, then having it registered in Canada. I estimated it would cost about $3,000 CDN in fees. It was also very possible we wouldn’t be able to import it at all because we still owed several thousand dollars on it. So, instead, we decided to sell it and settle our debt. The reason we sold it in Seattle is that a dealership there offered us a much better price than dealerships in Montana (the nearest state to where we live).

Originally, we thought we’d buy another car in Canada not long after selling ours. I thought not having a vehicle would hinder my photography work. I thought I’d miss the “freedom” of having my own wheels. What I discovered over the next several months of not owning a car is that it hasn’t affected my work much. Sure I can’t just drive to the rockies on a whim, but otherwise, I’m not missing out. Honestly, I don’t miss having a car much at all. Before we sold our car, it just sat in our parking lot most of the time, especially during winter. It seemed ridiculous to be making monthly payments, not to mention paying for insurance, gas, maintenance, etc, for a car that only gets used a couple times a month. That money could be spent in better ways.

Pros of not owning a car:

  • No car payments

  • No insurance payments

  • No registration/inspection fees

  • Never buying gas

  • We lessen our environmental impact

  • Never worrying about parking

  • No repairs/new tires/oil changes

  • We get more exercise by walking

  • Walking and public transit are statistically safer

  • No stressing about traffic

Cons of not owning a car:

  • Hard to haul things that are too big to carry

  • Walking in winter conditions is tough

  • Public transit is not exactly world-class in our city

So how do we get around? We can walk to 99% of the places we need to go. We are centrally located, my wife works only a few blocks away, and we’re surrounded by all the grocery stores, shops, restaurants and other conveniences we need. We live in a pedestrian-friendly city with limited, but decent, public transit (it’s also pretty bike-friendly, but we’re not bike people). If it’s too far to walk, we use the light rail. If the train doesn’t go there, we get an Uber. When I need to get out of the city and into nature, I rent a car. I added up all of our transportation costs for the last 8 months (including car rentals), and they pale in comparison to what we’d have spent owning a car. We’ve literally saved thousands.

I’m not saying I’ll never own a car again (or that this is a practical way to live for everyone). It has disadvantages, but the cost savings are just too good to pass up right now. We have very little debt, and I hate owing money. We’ve looked at cars and considered buying outright, but the thought of all that cash and savings going away makes me feel uneasy. I’d rather hoof it and use the savings for travel and other ventures instead of owning a car.