It’s a dream for many people to see Puffins up close. The comical, stocky little birds with their colourful beaks and brightly coloured feet adorn postcards and calendars in homes and gift shops across the country. They are popular birds, but they aren’t easy to see and people often come to Scotland hoping to see them and leave disappointed. That’s why it’s important to do a little forward planning. The Isle of May boat trips, which leave from Anstruther in Fife, on the east coast of Scotland, are the perfect way to see puffins in Scotland, and not only see, but see up close.
Isle of May Boat Trips
Adults £26, Concession £23
Children (3-15) £13, Under 3 free
Bookings can be made by calling 07957 585200
The Isle of May boat trips take place on a boat called The May Princess which can sit around 100 passangers. The boat leaves from Anstruther Harbour, in the Kingdom of Fife, on the east coast of Scotland. If you are coming from Edinburgh you can get the bus to Anstruther from Edinburgh Bus Station. The Isle of May boat trips takes 4 1/2 - 5 hours in total and you get to spend between 2 1/2 and 3 on the Isle of May which is just enough time to walk around the island, take in the stunning views, watch the birds and grab something to eat. It is best to book in advance as spaces fill up quickly. Board at the small office on Anstruther Harbour opposite the famous fish and chip shop. In the office you can buy gifts such as key rings and books and the boat also sells some gifts. Arrive early if you want to pick where to sit on the boat. Head upstairs to get fantastic views or stay downstairs for easy access to the shop and loo. You can get slightly wet downstairs but I don’t mind that at all and always sit downstairs as I like being close to the water. The shop onboard sells hot drinks, cakes, sweets and cans. The skipper will chat to the passangers about the birds you will see, about anything you spot out on the sea and regale you with funny stories and jokes. As you near the island you will begin to spot puffins flying around you as well as other seabirds such as kittiwakes and shags. Look out on the shore as you round into the bay to spot some seals too.
The boat lands in a small bay where you will be greeted by David Steel, the ranger on the island, or some of the volunteers. They will give a quick talk about what to look out for as you explore and about the work they do before waving you off to explore on your own. Please make sure to stick to the paths around the island so you don't disturb any of the wildlife. Your best chance of seeing puffins is to head to the south of the island which slopes upwards so when you reach the tip you are standing at the edge of some pretty fantastic cliffs. Around half a million sea birds visit the island every year, including 120,000 puffins and also Shags, Razorbills and Guillemots. The Guillemots and Shags also breed on the island and together the birds make quite a sight as you near the south of the island. The sheer rocky cliffs are filled with birds perched on ledges and the chorus can be deafening. It’s here you will be able to get up close and personal with the puffins. Tread carefully, especially around the cliff edge, it can become slippery so stick to the waymarked paths. What you will find is the largest puffin colony on the east coast, who you can watch fly at up to 60 miles per hour and dive to almost 200 feet. These really are magnificent birds, and look super cute when their beaks are colourful during the breeding season.
Puffins spend the majority of their time out at sea, only heading to shore to breed during the months of April to mid August so this is the time you want to be here in Scotland. The rest of the year the puffins are out at sea resting on the waves when they aren’t ducking and diving for food. Puffins mate for life, which is around 30 years, and each pair will return to the same burrow every year, taking turns to collect feathers and grass to line the bottom of their little home. Once the female lays her egg they take it in turns again to incubate the egg. Puffins will always choose a location close to the cliff edge for their burrows so they have easy access to the sea to feed but as the Isle of May is so small that accounts for pretty much the whole island. Once the egg has hatched the adult puffins will fly out to sea to catch small fish such as sand eels up to 8 times a day. The baby puffins are called Pufflings (the cutest name ever) and if you are lucky enough to see them on your visit you will find the little grey fluffy babies sticking close to their burrows. After six weeks the pufflings will be at full size and will fly out to see where they will spend the next three or four years before returning to the island to breed themselves.
The isle of May is a National Nature Reserve because of the seabird population and also a Special Area of Conservation because of the colony of breeding grey seals. It’s just over a mile long with landing harbour, new visitor centre, lighthouse and accommodation. There is no permanent residents. The island is looked after by ranger David Steel who lives there for 9 months of the year. Volunteers also stay for up to a week in the accommodation and help to monitor the birds and maintain the island. You’ll spot the newly built visitor centre which has some information boards inside and a wrap around balcony with seating so you can sit and relax. There are the island’s only toilets here too. You can also return to the boat at any time to grab items from the shop. The Isle of May boat trips are one of only a few who get to land on the island, you can also take a trip from The Seabird Centre in North Berwick.
The small fishing village of Anstruther is in the East Neuk of Fife and is definitely worth exploring while you are there. The perfect end to a day in Anstruther, for me anyway, is always fish and chips from the famous Anstruther Fsih Bar on the harbour or the little chip shop along the road which is equally as good. There are lots of cute independant shops to browse in too and a Fisheries Museum which tells the story of the fishing industry in Scotland. If you have time the nearby villages of Crail, Pittenweem, Elie and St Monans are all gorgeous too with lovely fish restaurants and pretty harbours.