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Heather Steeves

Heather Steeves tries to do things that are fun -- and only things that are fun. So far that's included stilt walking, roller derby and cross-country road trips in her Saturn.

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Posted: June 13, 2014

Puffin cruises are a tourist trap worth falling into – try this one in Boothbay to see whales, porpoises, seals and birds

Written by: Heather Steeves

Candy was made for children, but I eat it daily. That’s how I feel about tourist stuff in Maine: Sure, it was made for tourists, but if it’s fun and cheap and in my state, I’m going to enjoy it. The puffin cruise is a “tourist trap” worth falling into. It’s a 2.5 to 3-hour cruise for $30 and you’ll probably see porpoises, seals, a handful of lighthouses (at least four) and adorable puffins. There is beer on board (cash only) and its a good balance of relaxing time and tour guide-time where they tell you about birds and the underdog story of puffins in Maine if you want to listen. If you don’t, there are quiet places on the ship.

This cruise is out of Boothbay Harbor, about an hour from Portland and goes to Eastern Egg Rock, a 7-acre island that is a seabird sanctuary.  It’s run by Cap’n Fish’s Boat Trips (42 Commercial St., Boothbay Harbor), although there are several other puffin cruises in Maine I chose this one because it was close to Portland. Pete Salmansohn (“Puffin Pete”) from the Audubon was on board and told the 40-or-so people on board that Maine is the southernmost place puffins live in North America. But in the late 1800s every puffin in Maine was killed — except two, which were protected by a lighthouse keeper. Hunters killed them for their meat and for their feathers, which women wore on hats. Eggers finished off the species in Maine.


But in the 1970s Project Puffin took some chicks from Newfoundland and helped raise them on Maine islands, hoping they would come back and mate. They did. Now there are about 250 puffins on Eastern Egg Rock.

But here’s the fact that shocked me most, which I wish I’d known ahead of time: a puffin is a little shorter than a Barbie doll and weighs as much as a can of Coke. Compared to the gulls that swarm over the little island, puffins are tiny little sea parrots with nubby wings… and therefore are difficult to photograph. It’s hard to see their signature orange beaks with the naked eye from the boat. The tour guides are pretty good about pointing out which ones are puffins (as opposed to ducks, terns, gulls …) and where they are, so all the camera-ready birders could flock to the right side of the boat.

As the boat cruised to the rocky island we saw two puffins were floating maybe 80 feet from the boat. The crowd, obviously, was delighted. Click click click robotic-click went the shutters. And as the island got closer, the more frequently the tour guides said, “puffin at 1-o-clock, puffins at 3-o-clock, puffin flying on the right side of the boat …” for a while the camera lenses whirled with the instructions, but some people couldn’t take it.

“It’s like you’re shooting in the dark,” a woman with a camera said.

“I’m going to the back,” said another frustrated woman, who had been defending her prime spot at the bow of the boat on the upper deck. “I don’t think I saw anything.”

The tour guides, on the other hand, were pretty ecstatic. About 20 puffins swam or flew near the slow-moving boat in the 30 minutes we were there.

“Wow. We might not see a day as good as this for the rest of summer,” said Puffin Pete after he saw a razorbill, a rare and pleasant find for a New England birder.

I think there were a couple factors that separated people who had a great time from disappointed puffin cruisers. To be happy with the cruise people had to have at least one of these two things: accurate expectations (knowing the bird was small and hard to photograph) or binoculars. Overall, the puffin cruise was a nice ride in the sun with lots of lobster boats and lighthouses to see on the way, plus you get to see some adorable — and very rare — sea parrots (if you have binoculars, anyway). Here’s a video of what you’d see if you went on the cruise. At the end of the video a puffin flies near the water:


What to know if you go

-Bring a warm jacket, sun screen, chapstick, cash, binoculars, camera, sun glasses, ear plugs, a way to hold your hair back if you have long hair.
-Buy your tickets online ahead of time. If the weather is iffy, call ahead to make sure the cruise is still a go.
-Arrive early for the best seat – check the bow on the second level, it’s the best view, but you’ll hear less of the tour if you sit there.
-Plan your parking. Boothbay Harbor has on-street parking, including some 4-hour spots (that’s enough time), but they’re a few blocks (if Boothbay Harbor had blocks) from from the dock.
-There are snacks and drinks on the boat, but you’ll need cash.
-A lot of people watch the fancy houses go by and look at the lighthouses. Not you. You’re going to watch the water. That’s where you’re going to see porpoises, jellyfish, seals and whales if you’re lucky.
-Go to the bathroom before you get on the boat.
-Adjust your expectations. Puffins are very small birds, which makes them hard to see. Photographing them is very hard (they’re small, they move, you’re moving, your autofocus isn’t that fast…) and most of your photos will probably look like this (mostly in focus, but they’re small and trying to flee from the loud cruise boat. I used a DSLR with a pretty long lens, so I don’t know what a point-and-shoot might look like, but there were lots of frustrated amateur photographers – including me! – on board.):

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