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.
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.
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.
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.