One of my favorite photographic experiences to date was when I had the privilege of visiting Machias Seal Island, home to the largest colony of Atlantic Puffins in the Gulf of Maine. An estimated 5,500 pairs of these comical looking birds return to Machias from sea each summer to mate and raise young. Unfortunately, due to climate change and other factors, their numbers are dwindling. Iceland actually has the strongest population of Atlantic Puffins, and I've been fortunate enough to see some there, too. However, if you want to see these increasingly rare and beautiful birds in North America, Machias Seal Island is the place to do it.
Machias Seal Island is a small and rocky dot on the map located in the Gulf of Maine (10 miles from Maine and 12 miles from New Brunswick, Canada). It is claimed by both the United States and Canada and is accessible only by licensed guides from either Machias, ME or Grand Manan - a much larger island off the coast of New Brunswick. I travelled to the puffin colony from Grand Manan, which in itself hosts many photographic and recreational opportunities.
Best Time of Year to See Puffins:
Puffins spend most of the year out on the open sea feeding. They return to land only during the breeding season. The season starts as early as April and ends typically by August when the young are ready to take to sea on their own. Pairs mate for life, returning to the same colony each breeding season to make burrows and rear chicks. Peak season on Machias Seal island is usually July when literally thousands of puffins (and other neat sea birds like Razorbill Auks) pepper the rocky shores. This is also high tourists season in the region, so it's important to book your tour in advance. Depending on the numbers of puffins and the conditions at sea, your tour may be tentative. When I was on Machias Seal Island, I was overwhelmed at the numbers. I had never seen so many of one species in one place in my life. All I had to do is point the lens and fire away!
How to Get to Machias:
There are a couple tour operators offering transport to Machias Seal Island from both Maine and New Brunswick. On the Maine side, the tours only seem to offer boat rides (with a few exceptions) around some of the other smaller puffin colonies, and you can't land and experience the wildlife up close. That's not good enough for me. I used Sea Watch Tours, a company based on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. I've actually used them twice, once for puffins and once for whales. Both experiences were enjoyable, and they know how to find the wildlife (if you don't see whales, your tour is free). The captain and his first mate are experienced and knowledgeable; they will tell you up front if there are low numbers of puffins on Machias and let you know in advance if the sea is too choppy to go out.
The tours depart from Seal Cove in early morning for the long and often bumpy ride to Machias Seal Island. Along the way you may spot whales and will definitely see other sea birds (and the occasional puffin) skimming the water for fish. There are also smaller islands along the way where seals bask in the sun in large numbers (called rookeries). The crew of Sea Watch Tours will often stop for a bit so you can get a closer look at the seals. They also offer hot cocoa at the end of the trip.
Experiencing the Puffin Colony:
Upon arrival at the puffin colony, you have to get off the 45 foot boat and into a small skiff a few folks at a time to complete the journey to land. This requires a little physical ability, as it would be easy to fall into the ocean. The crew takes the proper precautions. Once landed, you are swiftly herded along a wooden boardwalk to a picnic table under the lighthouse where a very large and burly gentleman tells you what to do and, most importantly, what not to do. This guy demands authority and is very serious about protecting his island of little birds from stress and harm. There are lots of rules, but it's all pretty straight forward. You are given a time limit that is usually generous; you must stay on the boardwalk; you must not stuff a puffin into your bag to carry home...among other reasonable requests (you do not want to anger the very big man). Then you're ushered to the colony where you are divided up 2-4 to a small wooden blind. The blinds are designed with small sliding windows on two opposite sides. To prevent the birds from flying into the blinds or through them, only one side of windows can be open at once. There isn't much room for big photo equipment, especially if there are four of you stuffed into the blind. It does get hot, but the activities of the comical and colorful little puffins soon make you forget all that. They come and go, interact, bring food back from the sea, and provide loads of photographic opportunity.
Tips for Photographing Puffins:
Once inside the blind you'll notice how little room you have to shoot. The windows are a bit low for my height, and if I'd had any lenses larger than a 300mm, I wouldn't have been able to use them. You are strictly forbidden to stick anything out of the windows of the blinds. The birds quickly forget that you entered the blind, so sticking a big lens through the window might freak them out. You don't need a huge super telephoto on Machias Seal Island. The birds come so close to the blinds that I even took shots with a wide-zoom! Most of my shots were made between 100-300mm. So a 70-200mm or 70-300mm will work perfectly. Don't bother with anything bigger and heavier than a 300mm f4; you can't set up a tripod in the blind anyway, so all your shots will be handheld. Light isn't an issue. It's likely to be mid-morning or mid-day and either foggy or overcast, so you can shoot at low ISOs and any aperture you like. Your shutter-speed will be plenty fast enough. To capture puffins in flight, use a shutter-speed on 1000/sec or above to freeze the action.
I'm always surprised at how many shots I can fire off during successful wildlife shoots. I took around 2,000 shots in one hour on Machias. Make sure you have your batteries charged and lots of cleared memory cards. I shot in burst mode to capture as much of the action as possible. Unfortunately, I never managed to get the shot of a puffin parent bringing a beak full of fish to its burrow - I never even saw it happen, but I did get many good shots.
Go. Do. See.
As I mentioned earlier, Atlantic Puffins are experiencing some major obstacles to their survival. A hundred years ago, they were nearly wiped out in North America; they then made a comeback thanks to conservation efforts, but now populations are in decline again. Climate change is affecting their food supply, and chicks aren't getting the nutrition they need, especially in the northern colonies. 2016 was an especially tough year on Machias, where nearly all of the young died from predation or malnutrition. Tourism to Machias Seal Island and other puffin colonies is ironically a good thing. It not only helps support local economies, it helps educate people on these threatened birds and the troubles they face. Thanks for reading and happy travels!
( To see more of my images of Grand Manan and Atlantic Puffins, visit www.jonreaves.com. )
All images (c) 2017 Jon Reaves Photography. All rights reserved.