Ironically, there may never be a better time to go see puffins. On the downside, the pandemic requires unusual precautions. On the plus side, some of those precautions mean fewer people on the boats. If ever there was a year to get great views and awesome photos without crowding the rail, this is it.
Maine’s Atlantic puffins are so popular, most boats are filled for every trip. But not this year. Some days, there aren’t enough passengers to justify making the trip.
I checked in with some of my favorite boats to see how this COVID-plagued season is going. Acadia Puffin Cruise visits Petit Manan Island, departing from Winter Harbor. In most years, they’d be out every day. This year, they’re doing their best to visit the puffins four days a week. Happily, this appears to be a particularly good nesting year. There’s even a couple pairs of common murres attempting to nest on Petit Manan this year.
The murres are a reminder that it’s not just puffins out there. Puffins are members of the alcid family, which also includes common murres, razorbills and black guillemots. All are deep divers with short stubby wings. They use their wings as underwater paddles. These wings are good for swimming, not so good for flying. So it takes a rapid wingbeat to keep the birds aloft, and they all fly somewhat like bumblebees, buzzing around the boat. All four of Maine’s breeding alcids are nesting on Petit Manan this summer.
They’re not alone. One thing that makes an island puffin-friendly is a squadron of terns to provide air cover from predators. There are five puffin islands along Maine’s coast, and they all have tern populations. These aerial acrobats get alarmed when an intruder approaches their nesting area, and they will gang up to drive it off. They’ll even attack humans. Each of the islands has a different mix of common, arctic and roseate terns.
Several other boats visit Petit Manan. Bar Harbor Whale Watch is offering combination lighthouse and puffin trips this summer. Although the company’s large catamaran can hold 350 passengers, they’re limiting this summer’s puffin tours to only 50 people. It’s practically a ghost ship! Likewise, Acadia Boat Tours out of Bar Harbor has limited itself to only 1/3 of its licensed capacity in order to ensure safe social distancing. Both vessels have roomy cabins, and passengers can be well spaced from others, but masks are still required if you choose to sit inside.
Crowding is never a problem on Robertson’s Sea Tours out of Milbridge. Jamie Robertson takes only six people at a time over to Petit Manan.
Isle au Haut Ferry plans to visit Seal Island every Sunday, departing Stonington at 10 a.m. This island has big populations of puffins, razorbills and terns. It also contains Maine’s largest nesting colony of great cormorants. It’s a gray seal pupping colony in winter, and quite a few hang around the island in summer.
The ferry is restricting the number of passengers to ensure social distancing. The boat has two decks, so there should be plenty of room along the rail for great viewing this summer. Masks are required, which is a reasonable precaution. Of course, anyone who has been out on a puffin boat knows what it’s like on deck. When the boat is moving, any wayward virus is blown half a mile behind the stern before it knows what hit it. When the boat is idling near the puffins, sea breezes often achieve the same effect. Nonetheless, crews of all vessels are taking great care to keep surfaces clean and sterile this summer.
Sadly, there is one space you wouldn’t want to share with strangers this summer, and that’s a puffin blind on Machias Seal Island. This is the only island that allows people onshore, inside blinds. These blinds are absolutely the best way to see puffins, sometimes at arm’s length. But they require squeezing four people into a tiny structure, and that just won’t do this year. Andy Patterson of Bold Coast Tours in Cutler has had to cancel his season, but he’s already looking forward to next year.
In summary, it’s a great year to see puffins. Book ahead. Space is unusually limited, and the captains need to know who’s coming well in advance in case they need to juggle schedules to meet demand. Bring a mask that won’t blow off in a breeze. Bring a camera. Bring a big smile. Nobody frowns upon the sight of a puffin.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.