I shuffle down the gang plank and step carefully onto the bobbing boat. The skipper points me towards an available space on the bench and glances at the heavy camera looped round my neck.
“You a photographer?” he asks, somewhat redundantly.
“I am!” I grin.
“You’re in luck,” he says. “The puffins are out in force. Head to the south of the island: they practically walk over your feet there.”
They practically walk over your feet… This sounds almost too good to be true.
I’ve come to west Wales to fulfil a long-held dream: to take beautiful photos of the Skomer Island puffins.
Every year during puffin breeding season my social media feeds are full of arresting images of these captivating little seabirds: puffins peeking out of their burrows, perched on cliffs above a dazzling blue sea, or standing with their vibrant orange bills crammed full of glistening fish. With their permanently bemused expressions and comical gait, there’s something achingly endearing about these ‘parrots of the sea’, and I’m desperate to collect some eye-catching images for my own portfolio.
Because, embarrassingly, I’ve travelled all over the world and taken photos of wildlife in places as far-flung as South Georgia Island and Uganda, but even though puffins breed in huge numbers right here in the UK, I’ve never even so much as glimpsed one!
Puffins in the UK
This year felt like the right time to do something about that. With Covid making foreign travel all but impossible, it made sense to scratch my wildlife photography itch closer to home. During lockdown I’d occasionally cycled to nearby Richmond and Hyde Parks to photograph the deer and the parakeets, but it wasn’t enough. I knew the puffins were out there, and I became obsessed.
But where do you go to see puffins in the UK? A quick online search tells me that among the best places are the Shetland Islands (too far), the Farne Islands (closed at the time due to Covid), the Isle of May in the Scottish Borders, and Skomer Island, the best place to see puffins in Wales.
Both of these last two seem doable from London, but there’s a problem. I’m too slow off the mark and with boats running at reduced capacity, everything is already fully booked. I call and grovel to the boat companies and repeatedly refresh the booking sites, and eventually I get lucky: a last-minute cancellation on a landing trip to Skomer Island. I’m going to see puffins in Wales!
First glimpse of puffins on Skomer Island
My luck holds out when I arrive at the departure site at Martin’s Haven five days later: the famously unpredictable Welsh sun has put in an appearance and the sea is ruffled only by a slight breeze. We make a smooth crossing, and soon I can see Skomer Island ahead of us, its grassy hillsides glowing pea-green in the June sunshine and a flock of about 50 puffins – my first puffins! – bobbing about on the water just in front of the landing site.
As we approach they scatter, running across the surface on their orange legs before clumsily taking off and flapping away on their stubby little wings. I’ve got the wide lens on the camera so I can’t take any pictures of them, but I can wait – there’ll be plenty more puffins soon enough.
During breeding season from April to July, Skomer Island is home to the largest colony of puffins in Wales – and one of the largest in the whole of the UK. This year there are an estimated 35,000 individuals, more than ever before. And on this pristine June day, with plenty of newly-hatched pufflings in the burrows that need regular feeding, surely I’ll get the iconic puffin images I’m after.
We disembark and climb the 87 steep steps from the landing site up to the visitors’ hut. There’s a short briefing: information about the island, advice about where to go and what there is to see, and a very stern warning never to step off the path in case you crush a puffin burrow or its occupant. It’s important stuff, but I’m feeling impatient. We only have four hours here, and I’m itching to get going.
Walking the full circuit of Skomer Island is about 4 miles (6.5 km) and takes around 2.5-3 hours. Most visitors do the entire thing, stopping to take in the views, enjoy the fresh air, and look out for razorbills, guillemots, short-eared owls, seals, and other creatures.
But there’s only one kind of wildlife that I’m interested in. So as soon as we’re released, and with the skipper’s advice still at the front of my mind, I abandon my shipmates, ignore all the signposts directing me to other points of interest on the island, and make a beeline for the promised puffin paradise: the south of Skomer Island.
Puffins, puffins everywhere
After 20 minutes brisk walk through a glorious meadow of vivid red campion and over a hill with stunning views out to sea, I find the place I’m looking for. Here the edges of the path are clearly roped off, and right up to the markers on both sides the ground is lumpy and pockmarked with hundreds of little holes: puffin burrows.
A few dozen birds are standing or waddling around, more are settled on the nearby cliff edge, and every so often a puffin parent returns from fishing with a beak full of lunch for its hungry offspring, scurries across the dusty ground and dives into the nearest entrance.
A group from an earlier boat has already gathered, and everyone is watching with delighted fascination. Giddy with joy at this dream location and impeccable weather, I move a little further up the path, attach my zoom lens and begin taking photos.
Super close puffins
The puffins seem a bit wary but are mostly unbothered by our presence. Because their burrows are on both sides of the path, sometimes one wants to cross over, often hastily scurrying past within just a few feet of a surprised onlooker.
Others seem content to hang out just a few metres away, keeping a watchful distance but almost as interested in us as we are in them.
It turns out the boat skipper was absolutely spot on. The puffins do ‘practically walk over your feet’ on Skomer Island!
Super speedy puffins
It always takes a little while to get your eye in with a new subject and new location, but puffin photography is harder than I expected. I begin with the simple stuff, portraits of the puffins that are standing about, but even they move around surprisingly erratically, and it’s a challenge to get that perfect combination of a nice pose, light at the right angle, and a pretty background that isn’t just a dusty patch of ground full of holes and puffin poo.
When I’ve got enough photos of puffins sitting sitting still, I start trying to shoot them as they arrive or leave, but puffins in flight are even harder to capture because they move at breakneck speed and are completely unpredictable.
It turns out these comical little birds can fly at up to 55 miles an hour, and puffin parents move as though they’re on a deadline. When one emerges from its burrow you only have a few seconds to spot it, swing round, frame the shot and lock the focus on before it’s gone, and the ones returning with fish are even more difficult to catch because they land and disappear into a hole barely before you’ve even noticed they’ve arrived.
I fire off shot after shot, but most of the time all I get is a blurry shape or the rear end of the bird as it disappears underground.
Getting to grips with puffin photography
But over the next three hours I start to get the hang of puffin photography.
I realise that although standing makes it easier to turn and react when a puffin appears, getting low makes for a better angle, so I alternate between standing and sitting down. I learn how to spot an approaching fish-laden parent when it’s still airborne, and track it as it circles sometimes three, four times before landing, so that when it finally arrives, I’m expecting it and in a better position to catch it before it vanishes down a hole.
It’s still a challenge, but gradually patience and practice start to pay off. Sometimes a puffin comes to take a closer look at us, or a parent with a beak full of sand eels loses its bearings and walks around for a while, as if trying to remember where it left the kids. Those moments are the dream, and I fire off dozens of shots, grinning with delight when I know for sure I’ve nailed it.
I never do see the rest of Skomer Island, but I don’t much mind. A small part of me, the part that suffers from FOMO, wants to go for a wander and see what else is out there, but my fear of going to another location and it not being as crammed with puffins is greater.
If I want to see the rest of the island, I’ll just have to come back. I’m pretty sure this won’t be the last time I visit Skomer Island.
Visiting the Skomer Island Puffins: Practicalities
Where is Skomer Island?
Skomer Island is located on the western tip of Pembrokeshire, in Wales. The two nearest towns are Haverfordwest and Milford Haven, both of which are about a 30 minute drive away.
How do you get to Skomer Island?
There’s a variety of ways you can visit Skomer Island. The easiest is to do a day landing trip. It takes 15 minutes to reach Skomer Island by boat and you get about 4 hours on the island.
Daily boats depart from Lockley Lodge Visitor Centre at Martin’s Haven. In the past there was no booking system and you would have to just turn up and queue, but, due to the pandemic, tickets must now be booked in advance online through the Pembrokeshire Islands website.
There’s also a range of guided walks, non-landing cruises, birdwatching sessions, photography tours and even overnight stays you can do (Covid-depending, of course). Find out more via the South Wales Wildlife Trust.
What times are the boats to Skomer Island?
Skomer Landings run from late April to the end of September. Boats depart every half hour from 10 am to 12.30 pm. There are no departures on Mondays.
Your return boat is allocated based on when you depart, so that everyone gets the same amount of time on the island and the last boat isn’t overcrowded with everyone wanting to stay until the very end.
How much does it cost to visit Skomer Island?
Boat tickets cost £40 during peak season and £30 in August and September.
What facilities are there on Skomer Island?
Skomer has almost no visitor facilities. There are toilets at the landing place, but no shop or cafe. You can buy snacks and water before you board at the Lockley Lodge Visitors Centre and in the nearby village of Marloes.
What should I bring to Skomer Island?
As facilities are limited you should bring a packed lunch and water. Wear comfortable clothing and sturdy shoes for walking around on uneven ground. Be prepared for all weather conditions and bring waterproofs, suncream and a hat. The weather can be unpredictable!
Definitely do not bring your dog. Dogs are not allowed on Skomer Island as they will disturb the birds!
What else is there to see on Skomer Island?
Skomer is the best place to see puffins in Wales, but the island also has a lot more on offer. As well as beautiful landscapes, there are plenty of opportunities to spot other wildlife, including seals, porpoises, guillemots, razorbills, choughs, short-eared owls and other seabirds.
How long does it take to walk round Skomer Island?
As you can see from the illustration below, the entire route round Skomer is about 4 miles (6.5 km) and takes about 2.5 – 3 hours. Of course if you are stopping to take photos all the time, it will take a lot longer!
Most of the paths have markers telling you how long it will take you to get back to the boat; make sure you pay attention to these so you don’t miss your return transport!
Where to stay near Skomer Island
I stayed two nights at the fascinating FSC Dale Fort Hostel near the village of Dale, which is about 15 minutes’ drive from the Milford Haven departure point.
Dale Fort is situated high up on a clifftop a short drive uphill from the village of Dale and has incredible views. It was built in 1856 as a defensive fort, and is now a hostel and field studies centre. It mostly hosts study groups but individuals can book too.
Another good place to stay for visiting Skomer Island is Little Haven which is a cute fishing village with a pretty beach and a number of B&Bs and guesthouses.
Where can I found out more about puffins?
I’m glad you asked! There’s a whole separate post all about puffins and how to photography them, entitled How to See and Photograph Puffins in the UK: 20 FAQs.
Give it a click!
My visit to Skomer Island was part of a longer road trip round Pembrokeshire. There is more still to come so please do sign up to updates by email to get notifications about new posts, or follow me on Twitter or Instagram.
I paid in full for the trip. All opinions are my own and all prices correct at the time of writing.
If you enjoyed this wildlife story, here are some others you might enjoy:
- South Georgia & Antarctica: The Trip Of A Lifetime
- Gorilla Safaris In Uganda – The Real Inside Story
- Behind The Scenes On Safari In Tanzania
And if it’s photography inspiration you’re after, check out one of these:
- Photographing Wildlife – 19 Tips For Beginners
- 60+ Awesome Antarctica Photography Tips
- Top 34 African Birds: A Safari Photo Guide