We were cruising along the Kenai Peninsula, near the Fjords National Park, when we came across a fairly large breeding colony. Thousands of birds sitting on the cliffs, floating on the water, flying with their short wings flapping crazy fast. Their "crash" landings were quite funny (especially after learning they don't hurt themselves!). Quite a memorable moment.
What surprised me the most about these birds?
Puffins are about the size of a small duck (and weigh about the same as a can of soda). I don't know why I always had this image they were quite large. Maybe because most pictures are close up and you don't have a reference to surrounding objects. Or maybe it was just wishful thinking.
- Puffins spend the majority of their lives far out at sea - 6 to 7 months at a time. The only time they come back to land is during breeding season, which is generally mid April through mid August.
- Puffins rarely change mates, and will re-use their nesting site every year. Females lay a single egg, and both parents incubate the egg and feed the chick. Chicks are called pufflings.
- On land puffins make a lot of noise, but at sea they are quiet.
- Puffins eat primarily small fish, like herring. They dive and swim underwater using their wings, up to about 1 minute.
- The best time to observe puffins is late May to early August, but don't get your hopes up to see the pufflings. Chicks generally stay hidden in the nests during the day, and fledge at night.
- Puffins don't start breeding until they are five years old.
- Puffin is part of the national diet in Iceland and can be found on many restaurant menus. Although I have not tried it, puffin is usually smoked and I'm told is quite good.
If you are one of the thousands (or perhaps millions) of people who want the experience of seeing puffins in the wild at least once in their lives, you need to plan! Puffin breeding areas are only found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific regions, and the season to see them is quite short, May through August. This means limited availability which can book up early. Quite often 9-12 months in advance.
Puffins live in cold water areas. Most of the world's puffins are in Iceland, but large colonies are also found in Norway's Spitsbergen, the British Isles, and the Faroe Islands on the Atlantic side and in British Columbia and Alaska on the Pacific side.
A day excursion on a small tour boat is one way to see the birds up close. These can be added to a land based vacation or to a large ship cruise vacation assuming ports of call are close to a breeding colony.
Another option, one I am slightly biased towards, is a small ship cruise, especially in Alaska. These cruises take you off the beaten path where bigger ships can't go, and into quiet bays where you will find all types of wildlife (including puffins!), away from the crowds. Captains know the "secret" spots. Just you, a few others, and nature at its best. A front row seat to incredible experiences.
The key for the best experience? Plan and book early. Whether you are looking at a land based or cruise vacation, plan ahead and book early. Many small ship cruise itineraries are sold out well before March, and hotel options also become limited.