In a hypothetical contest to crown the world’s cutest animal, the Atlantic Puffin almost certainly has to be in contention. Curious, playful, colorful, and awe-inspiring, there’s something about puffins that seems to always put a smile on your face. Atlantic Puffins can be viewed in the wild throughout the North Atlantic, from Ireland to Iceland to coastal New England, and viewing them in their natural habitat is a memorable experience no matter where in the world you might be. While I admittedly have not traveled the world seeking out the best puffin viewing experiences, I think that photographers and animal lovers alike would be hard-pressed to find a more magical puffin viewing experience than what lies on a small, deserted island in disputed waters about 10 miles off the coast of Maine. After setting sail from the small coastal town of Cutler for an hour long boat ride, visitors arrive at Machias Seal Island, a haven for seabirds in the summer months. Only 20 acres in size and completely wild save for an automated lighthouse, Machias Seal Island is home to the largest puffin colony on the coast of Maine. While a variety of other seabirds (and sometimes seals!) such as Razorbills, Common Murres and Arctic Terns nest on the island in the summer and add some variety to the bird viewing, almost everyone ventures here specifically to see the puffins. Once on the island, visitors are escorted down boardwalks to small wooden observation blinds, which hold 3-4 people each.
The blinds are strategically placed along the rocky shore, and are what make the puffin viewing experience at Machias Seal Island so incredibly special and unique. Instead of having to carefully “stalk” the puffins to get close enough to take pictures, while possibly disturbing them and their natural habitat in the process, the blinds allow visitors to get within feet of the puffins without them even knowing that they have company. Small windows in the blinds open just enough to peer out of and stick a camera lens out, and although about two hours is spent in the blinds, the high level of excitement makes the time fly by.
Although the vast majority of my wilderness photography focuses on landscapes, I was excited to give bird photography a try, and can now say that I am hooked! Here are some tips and suggestions for coming away with the best photos possible of these majestic creatures:
- Bring the longest telephoto lens possible
- I arrived at the island knowing that I wanted to focus on getting intimate portraits of the puffins in their natural habitat, which meant that I would be utilizing longer focal lengths. Unfortunately, since I spend most of the time photographing landscapes, the “weakest” lens in my arsenal at the time was my telephoto, which had a maximum focal length of 300mm on a full-frame sensor camera. When the puffins were just a couple feet from the blind, at 300mm I was able to get close-up, frame-filling shots, but I often found myself wishing that I had a longer lens, and I had to crop several of my best shots in post-production in order to get the tight composition that I truly wanted. In hindsight, having the ability to use a 400-500mm focal length with perhaps even a teleconverter as well would have been preferred, and I’ve since invested in just such a setup to utilize on future wildlife photography outings.
- Pay close attention to shutter speed
- To freeze the action of a puffin in flight, a fast shutter must be used. A good rule of thumb is to use a shutter speed of 1/1000s or faster for birds in flight or on the move. If the light level is low and precludes the use of such a fast shutter speed, bump up the ISO a bit and use an intermediate to wide aperture like f/8 or wider to allow in sufficient light while still maintaining depth of field to keep the subject sharp.
- Anticipate the action
- While wild animals are of course unpredictable, paying close attention to the puffins and getting a feel for their behavior can aid in coming away with stellar shots, particularly of birds in flight. The playful nature of these splendid critters makes for interesting, even funny photos of birds interacting with each other or goofing around solo. Traveling with a friend or family member can also be helpful, as they can alert you to opportunities outside your immediate field of view, and a friendly poke in the ribs by my sister helped me to capture some moments that I otherwise would have missed.
- Don’t bother with a tripod
- If you’re primarily a landscape photographer like me, a tripod is an essential, ever-present piece of gear. Due to the limited space of the blind, coupled with the aforementioned fast shutter speeds needed to freeze the action, a tripod is unnecessary in this situation. A monopod, however, could be useful if utilizing a bulky and heavy telephoto lens to provide support and reduce arm fatigue.
- Utilize back-button autofocus
- Due to the fast-paced action of bird photography, there’s typically not enough time to manually focus each shot. This is where the lens’s autofocus ability can be a life-saver. While most cameras come programmed to perform auto-focusing by pressing the shutter button down half-way, it can be more advantageous to change settings and utilize a technique called back-button focusing. As the name suggests, this technique allows autofocusing to happen via a button on the back of the camera, rather than via the shutter. This is advantageous in a fast-paced action situation such as bird photography, as it decouples focusing and shutter release. This means that rather than the camera prioritizing focus before firing the shot, which can cause just enough of a delay to miss out on capturing a pivotal moment, the shot can be continually refocused by holding down the back-button focus button while panning a moving subject and simultaneously pressing the shutter button to capture images when desired.
- Play nice with your “roommates”
- Unless travelling with a group of four, you’ll be sharing the tight quarters of the observation blind with some strangers. Being courteous and quiet, not lugging along excessive gear, and offering to rotate viewing positions so that everyone gets a chance to photograph from multiple angles are a few ways to ensure that everyone has an enjoyable and productive experience.
Viewing and photographing the puffins of Machias Seal Island was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible and memorable adventures of my life thus far. It was an experience unlike any other, and I can’t wait to make a return voyage to the island armed with the lessons learned from my first trip. This is an experience that anyone will enjoy, whether or not you’re a photographer. Travel logistics and more helpful tips can be found below, and feel free to reach out to me with any specific questions you might have.
Make it Happen
When to go:
Summer. Tours are offered daily by Bold Coast Charter Company from late May into August. Puffins can be seen throughout the summer, with late July – early August often giving the most favorable weather. I went in mid-June, and wouldn’t hesitate to go again during that time. The days were cool, but the crowds of summer had yet to arrive to the Maine coast, which was an added bonus of visiting early in the summer season.
Cutler, Maine is far from the beaten path, which makes getting here an adventure in itself. The closest major airports can be found in Bangor, Maine and St. John, New Brunswick, but are each still about 2-3 hours from Cutler. Rent a car to drive the rest of the way.
To actually get to the island, head out from the Cutler Harbor with Captain Andy on his 40 foot boat, the Barbara Frost. Captain Andy has many years of experience and a vast amount of local knowledge, and is one of the many reasons that this trip feels so intimate and special. Once at Machias Seal Island, passengers switch over to a smaller boat that was towed behind the Barbara Frost in order to access the landing dock on the island.
- Prepare for variable weather and bring warm clothes and rain gear. While packing a winter hat and gloves in summer may sound silly, it’s a good idea, as it’s much colder out on the ocean than on land, especially when the boat is motoring and the wind picks up. Bringing a small blanket to put over your lap or to sit on is also something to consider. In exceptionally foul weather or rough seas, the tour may be cancelled, or the boat might not be able to land on the island.
- Book as far in advance as possible. The booking window typically opens in January for the coming summer, and the tours completely book up for the entire summer shortly after the booking window opens. If time isn’t an issue, consider booking multiple days during your stay in the area as insurance in case poor weather cancels the trip on a given day.
- Pack efficiently, as space on the boat and inside the observation blinds is limited
- If prone to motion sickness, bring along some meds for the hour long boat ride to and from the island.
- A small bathroom is available on the boat, but food and water is not provided. Bring along a lunch, snacks, and plenty to drink.
- The island is not wheelchair accessible, and pets (including trained service dogs) are not allowed on the boat or island in order to protect the birds and their fragile habitat. In addition, while this trip doesn’t require much physical activity, visitors will need to be able to climb in and out of boats and sustain a sometimes bumpy hour long boat ride to and from the island.
- If you need to leave the observation blind for any reason during your ~2 hour stay inside, you won’t be able to reenter. This is to limit the amount of foot traffic and disturbance to the birds. So make sure you visit the bathroom (either on the boat or at the lighthouse on the island) before you get in the blind!
- Looking for a place to stay nearby? Hotels are rather limited in the area, but we stayed at the Eastland Motel in Lubec and would stay there again. It’s nothing fancy, but was clean, affordable, has some dog-friendly rooms, and is conveniently located to Cutler and other nearby attractions. Plus the complementary, homemade blueberry and rhubarb muffins that were offered for breakfast were divine!
Other Nearby Attractions
If time allows, there are several worthwhile destinations in this section of Downeast Maine in addition to Machias Seal Island. Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec is home to coastal hiking trails as well as West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, which is the only candy cane-striped lighthouse in Maine and the easternmost point in the United States.
Little River Lighthouse, which is on Little River Island at the mouth of Cutler Harbor, is an attraction that the tour boat will pass by on the way to and from Machias Seal Island. Ever wonder what it would be like to live at a remote lighthouse? Well, you’re in luck! Guests can stay overnight at the Little River Light Station and watch the most variable tides in the Lower 48 rise and fall up to 20 feet in a day.
For an altogether different experience, head to the Cutler Coast Public Reserve, where the best seaside backpacking in New England can be had along the rugged and wild Bold Coast. If you’ve brought along your passport, take a foray into Canada at Campabello Island and Grand Manan Island to extend the adventure to see the puffins of Machias Seal Island into a perfect one or two week summer vacation.