If you aren’t intrigued by puffins in Maine, we encourage you to keep reading! These colorful and elusive birds with boisterous calls and curious tendencies were once extinct, but thanks to the dedicated efforts of scientists at Puffin Project, the birds came back to the Pine Tree State.
Wait until you hear how they had to be tricked into returning!
Now, puffin tours in Maine are among the most popular activities during the high season, offering visitors scenic views and a chance to see these majestic birds.
But the trips take some careful planning and generous understanding from the visitors who want to get a peek at puffins. Read on to find out how you can see puffins for yourself!
Getting to Know the Puffin
You’ll find Atlantic puffins in Maine, one of four puffin variations in the world. The scientific name is Fratercula arctica, meaning “little brother of the north.”
Puffins are known for their striking black and white plumage. They also have a black back and white chest, with distinctive orange-red webbed feet. The most iconic feature is their brightly colored, triangular beak.
This has earned them the nicknames “sea parrot” and “ocean clown.”
As the name suggests, Atlantic Puffins are only found in the Atlantic Ocean. Iceland is the top destination for puffins and is home to the world’s largest colony of puffins.
Puffins live at sea most of their lives, only coming to land to build a nest and mate. Puffins love being around each other, but don’t like people so much; that’s why the puffin tours in Maine have to be carefully planned.
Puffins measure a foot to a foot and a half tall and grow to about the weight of a soda can. Their daily diet consists of small fish and some crustaceans with adults feasting on up to 40 fish a day.
These colorful birds live about 20 years on average, living on the open ocean for most of the year before returning to remote islands during the breeding season. The birds mate for life, returning to a colony once a year to produce an egg.
How Did Puffins Disappear from Maine?
One hundred years ago, puffins were hunted for their feathers, eggs, or meat. Overfishing caused the food supply to dwindle as well. Puffins eat small fish from nearby waters, and when the sea is overfished, parental puffins don’t have enough to feed their pufflings, which can eat up 100 fish a day.
DID YOU KNOW?: In 2008, Sex & the City fans watched Carrie Bradshaw famously say, “I put a bird on my head, ” referring to her bridal gown accessories. Turns out, Carrie was tapping into a fashion trend of the past. Another reason puffins were hunted was for “millinery purposes,” meaning the fashion trends in the late 1800s included feathers and stuffed birds on women’s hats.
In 1901, just one pair of puffins returned to Maine. Fast forward to the 1970s, the Puffin Project attempted to bring the colorful birds back. Since puffins only want to go where other puffins are, Stephen Kress and his team of scientists put decoy puffins on the island and created burrows for the birds.
This project worked and now most estimates put Maine’s puffin population at around 3,000.
How Puffins Eat
Have you heard the saying, “A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where would they live?”
Puffins seem to be the answer to that riddle. These birds who love to live at sea can swim up to a minute underwater and dive up to 200 feet. They are essentially flying underwater using wings for speed and webbed feet to steer.
Their beaks have spiny points inside that allow them to carry fish back to shore. While one dive usually catches about ten fish, one count holds the record at 62 fish in one beak! Once above water, they can fly at speeds up to 55 miles per hour!
Planning a Puffin Tour on Your Maine Vacation
Since puffins love to live at sea, you can only take a puffin tour in Maine from May through August when the birds come to their colonies.
They need isolated spaces away from predators and people. That means you must travel to isolated places to see them but can’t get too close.
It’s important to know that puffins won’t come to the mainland, so dash any hopes of a puffin pack coming to beg for your lobster roll in Kennebunkport or Portland.
To start your puffin excursion, you can visit the Puffin Project offices in Rockland, Maine.
If you’d like to save time, you can watch this documentary, which is shown at the offices.
A few things to know before you book a puffin tour:
- Most cruises can’t and won’t stop at the island to give puffins the solitude they need. Many of the nesting habitats are protected by the Audubon Society.
- Only ONE island tour allows visitors to walk on land, and that number is VERY limited (more on booking that tour can be found below).
- The islands are remote, some more than others, so visitors prone to seasickness should know this in advance.
- You will see a lot more than just puffins on the tour, with the potential to spot whales, seals, and dozens of other birds.
- You’ll want to bring binoculars and a camera with a long lens.
Where to Find Puffins in Maine
Puffins aren’t found on just any islands. As noted above, they return to the same colonies year after year, so only certain islands are part of official puffin tours.
Below, we’ve detailed the location and the port of call for many different tours.
Eastern Egg Rock
This seven-acre island is most synonymous with puffins. It’s where the puffins were first reintroduced to Maine.
The National Audubon’s Project Puffin Seabird Restoration Program team narrates two puffin tours to Eastern Egg Rock, an experience you can’t get with any other vendors. You’ll hear directly from those who made puffins come home again.
Eastern Egg Rock is also one of the closest islands to shore, offering calmer seas than the more distant trips.
Three tour boats can take visitors around Eastern Egg Rock.
- The Hardy Boat: Departs from New Harbor daily during puffin season.
- Cap’n Fish’s Cruises: Departs from Boothbay Harbor four times a week, with options for a puffin and whale-watching tour.
- Monhegan Boat Line: Departs from Port Clyde four times a week from mid-June through August.
Is Monhegan Boat Line still operating? In late September 2023, an out-of-control fire burned through the historic buildings on the Port Clyde dock. The Monhegan Boat Line office was badly burned, but the boats kept running. Visitors are welcomed and encouraged to visit this seaside community as it heals.
Machias Seal Island
The Machias Seal Island (not to be confused with Seal Island below) excursion is hands-down one of the best puffin tours, most unique experiences, and hardest boat seat to get in Maine. Several aspects make this an epic tour.
First, there’s the land dispute about who owns the island. Canada and the United States have each claimed ownership. Luckily, they share the land nicely. Let’s be honest – the puffins really own this island — thousands of them.
This is the only puffin tour in Maine that allows you to go onto the island where puffins live. Only one tour is given each day, and seats are limited to no more than 15 people.
Once you’re on the island, you’ll be guided to blinds, where you stand inside to be surrounded by the puffins, getting as close as three feet to the majestic birds.
Those who don’t want to ride the dinghy to the island or walk the treacherous trail are welcome to stay on the boat. You’ll still get great puffin views. Plan for 5+ hours for this trip.
Only one tour company on the U.S. side offers this trip: Bold Coast Charter Companyout of Cutler Harbor.
The distant island of Matinicus is one of the most underappreciated islands in Maine, though that’s how the locals like it.
Remember earlier when we said just one pair of puffins survived the harvesting in the early 1900s? Those puffins were on Matinicus Rock, five miles southeast of Matinicus island and plantation.
You’ll be a good 23 miles off the coast of Maine, so strong sea legs and an appetite for adventure are a must.
Just one boat option is available to visit Matinicus Rock, where the puffins play. That’s Matinicus Excursionsdeparting out of Rockland.
The island, where Matinicus Rock Lighthouse also stands, is off-limits to foot traffic during nesting season.
Petit Manan Island
This 16-acre island is 10 miles east of the Schoodic Peninsula, making it one of a few options for those visiting Bar Harbor, Winter Harbor, and Acadia National Park. The second-tallest lighthouse in the state is on Petit Manan.
The island is part of the Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. As with many other islands, no island walking is allowed during nesting season, but you have four tour options to explore the perimeter of the island.
You have two ways to see puffins on a cruise from this Bar Harbor departure point.
First, a whale-watching cruise will go by Petit Manan Island for puffin fans. Second, take a puffin and lighthouse tour to see more of the waters off Mount Desert Island and the Schoodic Peninsula.
Another Bar Harbor favorite, this tour promises puffins, lighthouses, and seabirds in less than four hours.
You’ll explore the shoreline of the mainland Petit Manan island while passing three lighthouses. These boat tours only fill to half capacity, offering plenty of room to explore two boat decks.
Here’s a piece of privy puffin information — if you’re tired of booked puffin cruises or concerned you won’t get close enough, take the journey to Steuben, Maine, less than 50 miles from Bar Harbor.
The departure dock is about as close as you’ll get to Petit Manan Island, offering respite from rough seas while still getting closer to the island than most other boats can.
Three tours a day are offered, making it easy to schedule around your itinerary.
See Schoodic Peninsula: While you’re on this side of Acadia National Park, explore the Schoodic Peninsula and don’t miss Schoodic Point!
Also on the Schoodic side, you can head to Millbridge and catch a puffin cruise on a lobster boat. The seabird sightings are just part of the fun. You’ll get the lighthouse views and help pull in a lobster trap if you’d like.
Since this is a smaller boat, you’ll be able to get closer to the puffin colonies while still being the required distance away.
Even farther out than Matinicus Rock, Seal Island is also a wildlife refuge.
Be sure you’re looking at Seal Island with a Vinalhaven address since there are several Seal Islands in Maine.
If you’re a bird fan, you should also know this tour will include Great Cormorant sightings in addition to puffins. The tours kick off yearly with the Wings, Waves, and Woods festival on Deer Isle.
Your options include:
- Isle au Haut Boat Services: Tours are held on Sundays during puffin season, with a few Wednesday trips. Departs from Stonington.
- Swans Island Charters: You’ll need to take the ferry to Swan’s Island from Bass Harbor on the southwest side of Mount Desert Island to reach the charter departure point. You’ll get two stops on Isle au Haut during this adventure but check the price tag. It might be outside of many travel budgets.
You’re Prepared for Puffins
We hope this article has been helpful for planning a trip to see puffins in Maine. Puffins have made quite the comeback in Maine, and while it’s hard to guarantee puffin sightings, it’s a rare trip that doesn’t see any during the height of puffin season.
To prepare for puffin cuteness and to get excited for a future puffin tour, here’s a live camera with recorded sightings if you’re viewing during the off-season.