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There's Nuffin like a Puffin
Farne Islands (England)
Member Name: koshkha
Farne Islands (England)
Advantages: Puffins are Perfect
Disadvantages: I wouldn't want to do this if the weather was bad
When we started planning our trip to the North East of England for the end of June this year, the most northerly part of our itinerary was going to be Lindisfarne. Whilst hunting for somewhere to stay, we came across some information about the Farne Islands. I'm sure we should have known about them, but we didn't. It took just one word to convince us that a visit was compulsory; that word was PUFFIN!
I would guess that almost everyone knows what a puffin looks like - especially if they've grown up in the UK - but hardly anyone has ever actually seen one. I put it down to Puffin being the brand name of the children's range of books from Penguin Books. Their logo made the little black and white bird one of the most recognizable of British birds, even though you'll never see one in your garden or on your bird table or round the local duck pond.
I had seen a few puffins in the Oceanarium in Lisbon but never in the wild so as soon as we realised that it was possible to see puffins in the wild by taking a boat trip from the small coastal town of Seahouses, a trip went onto our must do list. I'll be honest that I wasn't actually that optimistic about seeing anything because I've been the bored victim of too many tiger-free tiger safaris, jeep tours in Africa looking for the Big Five (and finding most of them absent) and even going diving looking for manta rays and seeing little bigger than plankton. I'm not lucky with beasties but I was willing to give it a try.
~Choose your boat operator~
The weather in June in England is always risky so we knew it would be best to have at least two days in the area to maximise the chances of getting good enough conditions for the boat journey. Actually we got very lucky with the weather when we turned up in Seahouses around noon on the first morning in the area. We parked up in the car park on the dock and then walked back to the row of small booths where different companies were offering boat trips to the Farne Islands. All seemed to have similar things on offer. Various lengths of journey were available and the main decision to make was whether to get off the boat and onto one of the islands or not. The main island which can be visited is controlled by the National Trust, and since we are members, we would get free entry to the island so it made perfect sense to take a trip with a landing.
There was no particular reason why we chose Billy Shiels' tours rather than any of the other companies with booths on the dock. Perhaps it was something as random as it being the booth we were standing next to and there being nobody else in the queue. Also they had a chalk board that gave very clear information on the sailing times so we were confident that they'd be able to help us.
The lady in the booth was very helpful, especially considering that we were very vague about what we wanted.
"How can I help you?" she asked.
"We don't know, we just want to see puffins." we told her. "And some seals would be nice too if that's not too much trouble."
She calmly explained our options, checked if we were National Trust members and then told us that since we were, we should take a trip that gave us time on the island. She sold us two tickets for the Inner Farne Bird Sanctuary tour for £13 each. This trip is scheduled to last about two and a half hours and includes an hour on the island of Inner Farne. We were told to be at the end of the dock at one o'clock or ideally five to ten minutes beforehand. She reassured me that we would definitely see puffins.
The boat was due to leave in about half an hour which was long enough to get something to eat but not long enough to be too choosy. We asked the lady who sold us our tickets where we could get something and she told us that the sandwich stand on the quay was as good as anywhere else. Two big stalls were standing next to each other - one selling sandwiches and snacks, and the other selling fish. I was eyeing up some dressed crab and wondering how on earth I could eat it when the 'fish lady' told us that the 'sandwich lady' would make up sandwiches for us if we bought something from the fish stall. Sure enough, that's what we did - getting the crab from the 'fish lady' and having the 'sandwich' lady make it up into two really lovely sandwiches. We bought some bottled water and then headed down the dock to wait for the boat to arrive.
~Glad Tidings of Great Joy~
All the Billy Shiels boats are painted blue and white and seem to be called Glad Tidings followed by a number. They come in different sizes and ours was one of the larger boats, Glad Tidings IV. Some of the smaller boats have a small undercover area but Glad Tidings IV has no protection from the sun and rain so be sure to take sun-block and a rain coat and keep your fingers crossed. If the weather looks dodgy, you might want to check if any of the other operators offer boats with cover. We were very lucky to go when we did as the next two days were foggy and wet and the trip would not have been pleasant in the rain.
The boats moor up at the bottom of a steep flight of steps and no more than two boats can load or offload at the same time which means at busy times you can wait quite a long time. Our boat arrived fully laden and took about ten minutes to offload all the passengers and another fifteen or so to get the new passengers on board. It's important to be aware of the steps as anyone with mobility issues is really going to struggle to get up and down and there was - as far as I could see - no alternative to the steps. A couple with a young baby in a push chair were the last to arrive after everyone was on board and settled and we cringed to watch them messing about with baby and buggy and keeping the whole boat waiting another five minutes. Logic would say you turn up early if you've got a baby in tow rather than waiting until everyone else is seated before you stroll up late.
There's no luxury on board. Passengers sit on hard wooden benches. I would estimate the payload at something like fifty people per journey in Glad Tidings IV. Ironically another boat that was loading at the same time as ours left with about half a dozen passengers. I had asked the lady selling tickets if there was a loo on board but I saw no evidence of it so if you can't go up to an hour and a half without needing a pee, you might want to reconsider or double check the boat's facilities when booking.
We set off on a clear sunny day and the crossing was not too rough at all. As someone who can get queasy in the bath, I didn't suffer at all so that tells you how calm it was. We were rather jammed in like sardines in the back of the boat but the sense of excitement was high. If there was a puffin out there, I wanted to see it. Little did I realise that I wasn't going to have to keep my eyes peeled as there would be puffins aplenty. The ship's captain took us around multiple islands, telling us about the differences between them, pointing out particular buildings and features of interest. When the first little puffins flew past I didn't know whether to cry at how cute they were or laugh at how silly they looked.
Puffins are not elegant flyers - they look like very unaerodynamic clock work toys. The German word for puffin (here's a bit or real linguistic trivia for you) is Papageitaucher which means 'parrot diver' and it's an excellent word which - as so many German words do - perfectly describes what a puffin is and what it looks like. It's a diving parrot.
There are several islands and whilst you only stop on one of them, there are plenty of things to see as you sail past the islands. There's an old ruined church and several light houses. The captain tells passengers about Grace Darling and her father and their work rescuing people from ship wrecks. He's full of interesting anecdotes and slightly worn jokes and the spirits on the boat are very high. But most people are there to see the animals and he knows that's where our focus will be. He sails up as close as is safe and non-disturbing for the animals so you can see seals basking on the rocks. Most look rather a lot like rocks themselves so you'll probably find you're looking at your photos afterwards and wondering what the big grey blobs are. A few seals were playing in the water, coming to have a look at the boat and all the funny animals on it.
We circled around several islands until he came to a set of cliffs which were literally coated in birds and which - not surprisingly - stank of bird poop. The smell is overpowering even from a distance. The birds tend to gather by species - the puffins claiming one area of the cliff, the seagulls taking another and the guillemots claiming their own area too.
The highlight was still to come as we headed into the bay where boats land for Inner Farne island. The captain explained that we would have an hour on the island and that those without National Trust membership cards would need to pay for entry. As we pulled up at the jetty, a young NT volunteer came to tell us what we could expect to see and to warn us that the terns in particular were getting very territorial because their chicks had hatched. He warned us to wear hats if we had them to protect from poop and sharp beaks. The captain chipped in with the advice that if anyone didn't have a hat they should "stand next to someone taller than you". We should expect a serious aerial assault from protective adult terns.
We showed our cards and headed onto the island. The terns lay their eggs on the ground, sometimes very close to the pathways and don't appreciate visitors getting too close. They do peck your head and I had totally the wrong type of hat to prevent attack. We saw one woman, who must have been before, walking around with a plastic mixing bowl on her head, kept on with a bungee cord. As we walked along the paths the terns took (pun entirely intended) turns to attack the heads of passers-by.
Inner Farne is a small island of approximately 16 acres which it turns out is plenty of space for tens of thousands of birds to gather and lay their eggs. Keeping in mind that many of these birds spend most of the year on the wing or on the water, they seem somewhat out of their element when strutting around on land. After we'd run the gauntlet of the attacking terns, we soon found the cliffs on the far side of the island where the other birds were gathering. As on the previous cliffs, the zones for each bird tend to be quite clearly separated. The puffin pitch was in a different area to the cormorant community, the guillemot group, the kittiwake club and the shag pad. Spotting the puffins in the distance I worked up to a full on puffin frenzy by checking out all the equally cool but less funny looking birds first, saving the puffins as the icing on the avian cake.
With the help of an ornithologist colleague who had a look at my photos earlier today, we were able to identify Arctic terns, razorbills and guillemots (which look very similar), shags and kittiwakes. The dress code of black and white seemed to be de rigeur for most of the birds on the island although the terns have bright red beaks and the puffins beaks are rather brightly coloured. I wished I'd taken my big lens for my camera as I was quite disappointed with how close I could get to some of the birds.
The puffins are the stars of Inner Farne. Nobody sells boat trips to go and see shags and kittiwakes - they're nice enough birdies but the big draw is the puffin colony. At the end of June the puffins were a little more relaxed than most of the birds on the island as their eggs hadn't yet hatched by that point. Puffins lay their eggs in burrows and tragically in the weeks that followed our visit horrendous rain storms caused the death of many of the puffin chicks who drowned in their burrows.
The one thing funnier than watching a puffin fly is watching it land. As they approach their landing spot they move from flying horizontally to raising their heads and coming in feet first. It's hard not to be struck by the look of total panic as a not very aerodynamic chubby little bird tries to avoid performing a total wipe-out on the rocks. Impressively, many of the birds come back to land with their bills absolutely stuffed full of tiny fish. I asked the birding colleague how they gather so many without dropping them and he had to admit that he didn't actually know.
We found a quiet bench where we could eat our crab sandwiches and were relieved to find that the birds were totally disinterested in our food. The waters around the islands are so rich in little fish that a crab sandwich was no attraction at all. We wandered all over the island, taking photos, cooing over the birds and generally feeling overwhelmed by the privilege of being able to hang out in birdworld for an hour. Yes, we laughed at some of the less elegant flyers but we couldn't help thinking they were eyeing us up and concluding that we'd be pretty rubbish if we jumped off a cliff.
We headed back to the jetty to join the boat again and to head back to the harbour. If you recall that I mentioned that only two boats at a time can offload passengers, you'll not be surprised to hear that we spent more time just outside the harbour walls waiting to get in than we did in the crossing back from Inner Farne. The boats with fewer passengers had clearly decided to try to beat us back to the harbour and we were on the water for at least twenty to thirty minutes longer because of congestion. We far exceeded the two and a half hour target cruise time but nobody minded.
Billy Shiels' boat tours to Inner Farne sail several times a day between April and October and the times vary according to the month. You can find full details on the website at www.farne-islands.com Adults pay £13 and children £9 and the entrance fee to Inner Farne island is paid on top of this and is £5.20 per adult in April, August, September and October and £6.20 in May, June or July. Kids landing fees are half as much as for adults and family groups can get discounts.
Billy Shiels' boats also offer cruises to Staple Island and Holy Island as well as arranging all day bird spotting trips, seal cruises, pelagic cruises and SCUBA diving. Prices vary according to what you want to do but there's good information on the website. The Inner Farne tour is their basic and probably their most popular trip. At less than £20 including National Trust fees, I think it's an excellent way to see puffins without having to travel to really out of the way and inaccessible places. We got lucky with the weather but I can imagine it would have been a miserable trip if it had been raining.
Summary: We got lucky with the weather and fell in love with the puffins