Welcome to the Bold Coast!
Would you like to sit one foot away from thousands of puffins? It’s possible! Join us, as we travel to the bold coast of Maine to the tiny town of Cutler.
Our love of the Atlantic puffin continues with an excursion eight hours from our home state of Rhode Island.
After our last encounter with puffins in Newfoundland (which you can read about in our other post), we wanted to get closer to these tiny birds with their big personalities. We discovered Machias Seal Island, which is actually part of Canada (though history here is complicated as the US also has a stake), but you can visit it from the coast of Maine. It is located about 10 miles from Cutler, Maine where the Gulf of Maine meets the Bay of Fundy. You can also reach it from Canada about 12 miles from Grand Manan in New Brunswick. It is a rocky and barren island that is home to puffins, razorbills, common and arctic terns, common eiders, and murres. There are 5000 puffin pairs! Seals can also frequently be seen in the waters surrounding the island. Presently, only two lighthouse keepers live on the island year-round and access to the island is severely restricted. Two companies have permission to bring visitors ashore so as you can imagine, tickets to these tours are coveted.
Bold Coast Charters
We did this trip over a long weekend, but you could easily extend your time as the coast of Maine and the drive up US 1 is a fantastic road trip. Cutler, where the tour departs, is actually a tiny fishing community so most people stay in neighboring towns. There is Machias to the south or Lubec to the north. We stayed in a fantastic rental off N. Lubec Rd.
A great detour would be a sunrise visit to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, which witnesses the first sunrise in the United States. We have visited Lubec, the easternmost town in the United States, previously during our road trip to Nova Scotia. The area surrounding Lubec has a lot of great hikes, particularly along coastal trails. Kayaking and bicycling are also popular here. The whole area is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts.
Lubec Cottage Rental
Our rental was a two bedroom cabinets perfectly located steps from Cobscook Bay and offered kayaks to use during your stay. The property was extraordinarily well done with a fire pit and welcome s’mores kit, well stocked kitchen, and lots of thoughtful extras (free toothbrushes, snacks, waters, etc). They welcome dogs, which was great as our two senior dogs were able to join us on this trip.
The night we arrived we took a short stroll along the coast for the sunsets, and we’re lucky enough to spot two bald eagles. One patiently perched on a tree branch long enough for a quick photo shoot. Previous guests also reported spotting whales in the bay.
Overall though you can’t go wrong with a road trip up the coast which is packed with charming Maine seaside towns offering delicious fresh seafood, great tourist shops and many whale watching tours and sailing charters.
The charter company will email you the night before your tour with a departure time which varies due to weather conditions and the tides. The morning we left was particularly foggy and a bit cool at the end of June. Good items to bring would include binoculars, your camera, and layers, including a waterproof layer (it can definitely be cool with the wind on the 10 mile journey out to the island), food, so bring snacks and a water as the whole excursion will take approximately five hours.
The ship, Barbara Frost, is a no frills 40 foot ship with a small cabin and toilet. You’ll be outdoors the majority of the time however, as the cabin is not enclosed, and would not have space for all the passengers. Speaking of passengers, the great thing about this tour is that they restrict the passenger number to 15.
Unfortunately, the morning of our departure was incredibly foggy so we did not have much of a view on our ride out to the island. I would imagine it is quite a beautiful journey if you could see the coastline, and do some whale spotting. We did get lucky though, because the seas were calm and so we were able to land on the island. The company does not guarantee that you’ll be able to land on the island if the sea conditions are not favorable. You’ll be taking a small skiff from the boat to the shore.
Here Come the Puffins!
As you approach the island, you’ll start to see a flurry of wings above your head as the puffins race to the island. If you’ve never seen a puffin, know that they are a little speedsters, though they are much more skilled at swimming than flying. When the island comes into view, you will start to see hundreds of puffins bobbing in the water.
The company does warn of the need for some physical agility, as you will move from the small skiff onto slightly slippery, seaweed covered rocks to step onto the island. Once on the island, there is a quick orientation about the dos and don’ts and then you’re off to the bird blinds! I should also mention that you carry a small stick in the air above your head, which is tern stick. This acts as a deterrent so the terns don’t dive bomb you!
You’ll be divided into small groups to go into the bird blinds. Pre-Covid you could move to different bird blinds when on the island. However, post Covid, you will be in the same bird blind for your entire time on island. The bird blind is approximately 3 feet wide by six or 8 feet long and a bit over 6 feet tall. There are small wooden windows that you raise to view the birds and take your photos. You’ll be allowed to stay in the blind for approximately one hour.
I can only describe the experience as magical with thousands of puffins within feet of the blind. If you have never been around puffins, they are very active little birds. They are rarely still, hopping from rock to rock, taking off and landing, chattering with other puffins and making quizzical head gestures. You could be entertained by them for hours. Periodically, there will be a loud fluttering as hundreds of the puffins would take off to hunt at once. It was also cool to hear the pattering of their little feet as they landed on top of the blind.
I think I took about 1000 photos. Besides puffins, we did also see many arctic terns and razorbills, as well as some eiders including baby eiders. The hour was up entirely too soon. Post blind, we reboarded the ship and did a quick tour around the island in the boat. Generally, there are seals and other birds to be seen, but on this particular day of the ability was hampered. Excitingly, we did see one puffin with fish in its mouth. On island, we did not get the chance to witness this as the pufflings had not yet hatched, so the puffins eat their fish right on the water instead of bringing them back to the island.
Magical Maine Puffins
In sum, the tour was incredible. Puffins are incredible. Rarely, do you get wildlife so close to photograph for such an extended period of time. Even if you only had your phone, you will still get some really amazing photographs. Their colorful beaks and orange feet only last for a few months so move your feet and go see the puffins in Maine!
I suppose you could say the tour itself was a slight indulgence, though at only ~ 200 USD, I think it was a great value for the extraordinary experience so close to puffins!
There is another tour company that leaves from Grand Manan in New Brunswick, Canada called Sea Watch Tours. Thus, if you are on the Canadian side of the border, you can still head to this special island.
Open Rhode Insider Tips
- You must book this trip EARLY. It sells out every year and cancellations are rare.
- Don’t expect any frills aboard the ship and most of the ship is open so come prepared for inclement weather.
- Charge up your memory cards and get ready to take thousands of photos…these puffins are too charismatic not to.
- Spend a few days pre or post trip. This part of the coast is gorgeous and worthwhile in its own right.