If you visit Maine at the right time of year, plan to catch glimpses of colonies of puffins that were once nearly extinct when taking one of our Maine Puffin and Whale Cruises. What’s the big deal about the puffins? If you are asking that, you have never seen one. They are so darn cute, and their life story is fascinating.
The Puffin Story
There are four types of puffins, but only one lives on the Atlantic coast, the Atlantic Puffin. In North America, they nest from Labrador/Newfoundland to the Northeastern US. In Maine, the puffin population dropped to two isolated colonies until the 1970s. At that time, a concerted effort (called Project Puffin) was made to re-populate Eastern Egg Rock and Seal Island by bringing puffin chicks from Newfoundland and raising them, first on Eastern Egg Rock and then on Seal Island.
Puffins are long-lived birds, believed to have lifespans of about 20 years. They do not mate and produce eggs until around the age of 5. Puffins only lay one egg per year after that. They dig among rocks or on a hard-to-reach cliff to form a burrow and build a nest. Once the puffling can fly, it leaves the den and lives on the ocean for the first several years of its life. Then, it returns to the area where its burrow was to join the community, mate, and reproduce.
Puffins’ beaks can hold multiple fish. To catch them, puffins swim underwater for up to a minute. The bright colors of the beak and feet fade during the winter and become colorful for the breeding season. Unfortunately, the Maine population was decimated by over-fishing in their nesting habitat and hunting for puffins. In addition, global warming has further reduced puffin’s food source. They live in areas where the ocean temperature is between 32 degrees and 68 degrees.
The Whale Story
On the opposite side of the size scale are whales (puffins are only about 10 inches across). The types of whales that frequent the Maine coast are humpback, finback, minke, and pilot. Whales can be sighted from mid-April, when they first arrive from wintering in the south, until October, when they head back.
Humpback whales were taken off the endangered species list in 2016 and are now one of the more frequent types of whales seen on tours. You can recognize them by their black and white pattern on the belly. They are larger whales, reaching up to 55 feet in length, and are known for their playful behavior, riding alongside boats.
Finbacks are one of the biggest whales, reaching up to 85 feet long. Dark gray bodies, light gray heads, white bellies, and curved dorsal fins can identify them. You will find them in deeper, cooler waters, mainly towards the fall months.
The Minke whale is a smaller species, usually about 20 feet long. They have a pointed front, a gray body, and a totally white underbelly. You can spot their dorsal fin about two-thirds down the back. Minkes do not usually raise their tails (flukes) out of the water when diving and are not known for breaching (leaping out of the water).
Pilot whales belong to the dolphin family and reach about 20 feet long. They are black, with long curved dorsal fins. They are highly social and usually travel in groups.
How to See Them
The best way to see both whales and puffins is on a boat, out in the water. There are many tours available, and some take you to see both. Make sure you dress warmly; it will be much cooler out on the water! Here are a few of the choices:
You can choose a tour that is just for whales (and lighthouses), just for puffins (narrated by someone from the Audubon Society), or a combination of the two.
Bar Harbor has many different cruises available, including those for whale-watching and puffin-sighting. They provide a guarantee that you will see whales. If a sighting doesn’t happen on your trip, keep your ticket and try again within three years.
Puffins and Whales Are Just Part of the Maine Adventure
There are many other adventures than a Maine Puffin and Whale Cruise! Try Lobster Fishing or rowing if you want to stay on the water. Landlubber activities abound with antiquing, museums, or a walking tour. Call us after you make your reservation, and we would be more than happy to share suggestions for a personalized itinerary.
Published March 2023