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Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Mystical Isle of Puffins | Near the Salish Sea

Nearly 30 years ago my good friend Marcus and I traveled past Neah Bay to the edge of the Pacific hoping to see Puffins. If I saw them they were simply dark, distant dots that quickly faded from memory. Over the years I have often thought of traveling back to the far side of the Olympic Peninsula in hopes of getting a better look, but the distance and time required has restrained my initiative. Little did I know that the Puffins would nearly come to me.

Two weeks ago while visiting Fort Warden and taking photographs from the dock that holds the Marine Science Center, I noticed a hand written sign telling about Puffin Cruises. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there were Puffins less than half an hour away! The first two cruises, sponsored by the Science Center, were scheduled for the July 4th weekend. On the afternoon of July 5th, I walked on the Keystone Ferry (from Whidbey Island) and crossed over to Port Townsend to take my first Puffin Cruise. 

From the ferry deck I spotted this Tern with dinner "in-hand" and a number of Rhinoceros Auklets.

I boarded the cruise at Point Hudson Marina in Port Townsend. On the cruise to the island the Auklets were even more plentiful than on the ferry ride. Their short stubby bodies and wings made it obvious that they have adapted to diving for fish under water. On the other hand, their relatively tiny wings lifting their less than delicate bodies seems to repudiate the laws of physics. 

As we neared the island, the onboard naturalist identified a Minke Whale as it swam about in Discovery Bay.

The naturalist provided a nearly constant, informative narrative about the creatures and the island. He explained that two dedicated and visionary women, Zella Schultz and Eleanor Stopps, share responsibility for the island's National Wildlife Refuge status. This status ensures that in the future the island will continue to provide a safe place for seabirds to lay their eggs and raise their young, as it did prior to Capt. Vancouver naming it Protection Island. The name refers to the fact that the island blocks the waves and the wind from coming straight into Discovery Bay, rather than the protection it provides to the eggs of the seabirds.

There is only one home left on the island, and for the rest of us we can only view the island from a distance of 200 yards or more. If you should decide to take the cruise be sure to bring your best binoculars because there is a lot to see.

The naturalist explained that deer regularly swim back and forth between the island and the mainland. Luckily, they are not a danger to the nesting birds or any of the other wildlife on the island.

What might appear to be driftwood on the beach turns out to be seals with their young. The pups appear to be fairly safe as long as they stay close to the adults.

Bald Eagles wait and watch for food. An isolated young seal might be just the meal they desire.

This eagle in the cave also seemed a bit odd to the seal watching from the water.

The biggest surprise of the cruise was sighting a pair of endangered Marbled Murrelets.

None-the-less the stars of the island show were these Tufted Puffins. The surprising brightness of their large bills and…

…the startling off-white tuffets of feathers behind their heads make them one of the oddest and most appealing creatures on earth.

The body design and wing span of the Tufted Puffin is very similar to the closely related Rhinoceros Auklet

Speaking of design, on the way home I noticed a Nissan Juke that reminded me of a Puffin. I would love to see a Juke painted with the Puffin's color scheme.

Someone on our cruise mentioned that they thought these two birds were both males because of their coloring. Reviewing a fellow traveler's Sibley Guide showed no distinction between male and female birds. Cornell does point out that they are much less colorful when not in breeding plumage. 

Even though Puffins are plentiful, they spend most of their lives at sea and only return to land to lay eggs and raise their young. Since their eggs (often only one) are laid in burrows in the ground they can be easily destroyed by a number of different mammals, which is why places like Protection Island are very special and unique. 

To visit this treasure that is practically on your doorstep (As the crow flies it is closer is to Seattle than Olympia.) check out this link to Puget Sound Express. There are only 3 weekends left.

Have a great day on Union Bay or Beyond!


Parting Shot:

This is a less than perfect photo but there is enough information to identify both of these birds, however maybe not the fish in the mouth of the first one. There are better photos with the names of these birds in either this post or the prior one, Can you tell what they are?


  1. Love those Puffin images! Thank you for sharing the story of this wonderful excursion.

  2. Thank you. I hope at least some of the wonder and joy of the experience comes through in the post. :-)

  3. Rhino Auklet and Pigeon Guillemot on the last shot, unless I am mistaken.
    Did you take these hand-held with your 400 2.8??

    1. Correct on all counts! Although I believe I was using the 1.4x ext. as well. I suspect the R.A. was harassing the P.G. hoping it would drop its prize. However it looks like a pretty small fish for all the effort to me. :-)

  4. Thanks, Larry. I've been meaning to do this cruise for several years, and this post was the reminder I needed -- booked! Looking forward to it.

    1. I hope you have fair weather, beautiful light and see plenty of Puffins. I would have liked to see one with a mouth full of fish. I have read they can hold as many as 8 or 9 at a time. Maybe you will get to see that. Good Luck!

    2. Larry, thanks again for this info! You definitely hit it on a good day in terms of smooth water and sightings. We did, however, see a few Tufted Puffins ... a life bird for me. It was tough to grab focus on our trip Saturday evening as the water was a bit choppy. We didn't stay near the puffin area very long (did you guys stop there for a while?) so the glimpses were fleeting. As far as puffins with fish, no -- but we did see lots of auklets with multiple fish dangling from their bills. The light was dipping so no good photos, but it was wonderful to view. I'd love to visit Protection Island again by boat some other time for another experience and perhaps some better pictures.

    3. I am glad you at least got to see the Puffins. We were lucky in spending maybe ten minutes with them circling around the boat. I think a kayak would be less of an intrusion and allow a bit more time but I am not sure whether the waves might swamp a kayak. It might be risky. :-)

  5. Just a minor quibble - it's a minke whale, not "Menke".

  6. You are welcome...I enjoy the blog and your photos very much! :-)