Machias Seal Island, Maine (or Canada?)
As a wildlife photographer, nothing gets your blood going more than the opportunity to photograph a species you’ve dreamt about for your entire career. And my blood was going in July of 2015 as I planned a summer vacation we could all enjoy, "all" being myself, my wife and our two adult sons.
Great Family Vacation Idea & A Dream Come True
Maine was always an interest for us, and with a colony of Atlantic puffins off its coast, I knew I might finally get a chance to fulfill a dream. We decided to rent a house on Maine's Mt. Desert Island, it would give us great opportunities for a visit to Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor and also for a day trip to see puffins at Machias Seal Island!
Machias Seal Island is a tiny, 20-acre (6.1 hectares) parcel of land about 10 miles (16km) off Maine's coast. The sovereignty of the island is under dispute between the United States and Canada. The Canadian Coast Guard continues to staff the island's lighthouse and greets you when you come ashore.
Let's Talk About How To Get There, Machias Seal Island, Maine
Before I tell you about my experience, let's talk about how to get there. Two companies offer trips to the island, and they are the only ones granted access. One tour is from Grand Manan Island in Canada, and the other is Bold Coast Puffin Tours out of Cutler, Maine. The latter is the one I chose. Each company is permitted roughly 12-15 people a day, six days a week for approximately 6-7 weeks during the summer months.
Weather Makes Your Final Plan for Machias Seal Island
The important thing to keep in mind when booking is there is always the possibility that you could get “weathered out.” By that I mean, if the weather is not deemed suitable for the 10-mile (16km), hour-long boat ride the tour operator will cancel the trip the night before. For this reason, I recommend booking tours over multiple days while you will be in the area. That way you have a better chance of getting there, plus even if the first day is a go, you will probably want to go back again!
At the island, your boat will anchor just offshore, and a smaller dingy will be sent out to get you. It's a bit tricky getting off their little boat since it doesn’t fully dock. It just sort of pulls up next to the gangway and you will climb out and wait for the rest of your group before being escorted to a holding area. A staff member or lighthouse keeper joins you to explain the rules for being on the island and in the bird blind. The one you need to be most concerned with is there is no stopping on the walk to your blind.
4000 Puffins & A Lens Too Big for the Portal
Machias Seal Island is a unique place to visit, but to the avid bird watcher, it is heaven. During the nesting season, it becomes home to thousands of pelagic birds. Northern gannets, razorbills, common muure’s, and common and Arctic terns are there in abundance amongst the 2,000 pair of puffin. The bird blinds offer spectacular viewing of all of the above and for the avid bird photographer, well, be ready.
At first, when you step into a blind, you might feel a bit claustrophobic as they are only about 3 feet wide by 7 feet (.9 x 2m) long, not much room to maneuver. If you’re a photographer, it could be quite cumbersome trying to shoot with a long telephoto lens. I brought along a 500mm prime, and a smaller 70 - 200mm lens that coupled with a 1.4 teleconverter gave me 280mm. That length was just about perfect, but for closer portraits, I switched to the 500mm. The problem with the bigger lens is it doesn’t entirely fit through the portals. The birds though will be in extreme close distances to you. At times you will even hear them dancing around on the roof above your head.
Awestruck! Atlantic Puffins Everywhere
After getting myself and my gear set up, I opened one of the portals and was awe-struck. Atlantic Puffins everywhere! I didn’t know where to look first. Not only were they out on the rocks in front of me but they were even nesting right below the blind. Razorbill auks also covered the rocks and seemed to inhabit well with the puffin. Make no mistake, as beautiful as the puffin are, the razorbills and common murres are equally as beautiful and entertaining.
After grabbing as many photos as I could for the first 15 minutes, I settled down to concentrate on getting the quintessential shot: Puffins with food in their beak. Sand eels are their main source of food. Most of the time when the birds fly out to hunt they come back with not one but three, four or more in their mouth to feed their young. I was able to witness this behavior only a few times and at a distance but it was amazing to observe.
From Me to You, My Best Puffin Photography Advice
Speaking specifically from a photographer's point of view, I’d like to offer some advice to anyone who goes for the photos:
1. Shutter Speed: Have your shutter speed set to at least 1/2500th sec. To capture the birds in flight and with sharp detail.
2. Be patient. Stay on one specific bird until it leaps to take-off. They usually don’t sit still for too long, so you need to be ready.
3. Be prepared to change your aperture quickly. If you want to photograph the group of birds in front of you, you’ll need an aperture of at least f8 or greater to get them all in focus.
The time I spent there was very misty with beautiful light filtering through the thin clouds. Exposure can be a problem when you’re dealing with a subject that has both light and dark feathers: My best advice is to keep checking your histogram and make sure to expose for the highlights.
No! I Don't Want to Leave!
When my * 90 minutes in the blind was up, there was a little knock on the door from the attendant who came to get us. My first thought was “no, I don’t want to leave” but I realized what a great opportunity this had been and I think I came away with some incredible images and memories. The boat ride home went by quickly. I was engulfed in the back of my camera reviewing my images. With every photo, I would go “ooooh.” In the photography world, when you get excited while reviewing your photos it's called “chimping.”
(Puffin) Heaven is A Place on Earth
For the average or advanced bird watcher, all I can say is: heaven is a place on earth, and you’ve just come from visiting it!
* More From the Editor about Machias Seal Island
Machias Seal Island is a designated bird sanctuary by both the United States and Canadian Wildlife Wildlife Services.
This small ( 15-20-acres, even the size seems to be disputed) rocky island is a breeding place for Atlantic Puffins, common murres, razorbill auks, and Arctic Terns. Many other migrants rest here too.
The season runs from May to August. Access to and allowable time on the island is extremely limited. Tour booking may be made as early as January and are frequently filled by April.
Book in Advance - and Enjoy
About the Contributor
Joe Gliozzo is a Wall Street trader by day and wildlife photographer by passion. He lives in New Jersey with his family and is frequent contributor to Destination: Wildlife