Searching for Tufted Puffins in the Salish Sea


Written by: Cheryl



Taking a cruise near Smith and Protection Islands is something to put on your calendar for the Summer months. Who knows, you just might see an actual tufted puffin!
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A short post about looking for Tufted Puffins in Puget Sound…and taking a cruise out of Port Townsend to do so.

“This is the puffin. Her name is Gertrude…” the woman across the table at me on the boat said, gesturing at the cartoon picture of a puffin on her brochure.

“…and she just made her cursory 30 second appearance for this cruise.” I finished her thought.

swimming tufted puffin
tufted puffin swimming

Gertrude did appear. Briefly. Far out in the water. So far away and so fleeting that, after the fact, I was surprised to find that I had ANY photos of her on my camera. But she was still the star of the day. This was, after all, a puffin watching cruise. And, for me, taking photos of birds is a good practice at the art of acceptance. Nature never does my bidding — but it sometimes does offer wonderful surprises.

The Summer months are the best times to go see the tufted puffins in the Salish Sea. The birds are known to make their nests on a couple of islands in or near Puget Sound: Protection and Smith Islands. Both islands are protected, which means that boats must keep about 200 yards offshore to protect wildlife. Which is as it should be — but it can make it difficult to get photos of the birds.

One photographer, to get closer to the birds on Smith Island, launched his kayak off Whidbey and was rewarded with some spectacular photos. I am not so brave — for myself or my camera gear — and, unfortunately, no longer own kayaks. So taking a birding cruise is my next best option (or working to find a friend with a boat!) Fortunately, there are a number of cruises available.

The cruise I took was one of a few offered every Summer through the Port Townsend Marine Science Center, boat cruise provided by Puget Sound Express. Due to wind and waves, you are seated indoors at a table for four for much of the cruise. However, the boat slowed down closer to the island, and then on the way back. Though we only were treated with a brief glimpse of a tufted puffin, we did see auklets, pigeon guillemots, harbor seals, bald eagles, oystercatchers, and a LOT of gulls. Protection Island, I later read, is home to one of the largest glaucous wing gull colonies in the area.

Bald Eagle Skwaking at an Oystercatcher

Some other Salish Sea Puffin Cruises

Here are some other companies that offer tufted puffin cruises in the area:

  • San Juan Cruises offers cruises through part of the Summer that leave from La Conner and go near Smith Island.
  • Spirit of Orca offers private group birding photography tours that leave from Anacortes.
  • San Juan Safaris specializes in whale watching tours, but offers private “birding safaris.” Of course, you will also see birds on whale watching tours, but one of these may get you closer in to where the puffins are.
Do you have any additional favorite bird watching cruises or places to see tufted puffins in the area? Leave a comment!
Do you have any additional favorite bird watching cruises or places to see tufted puffins in the area?x

Tufted Puffin Map

The static map image below shows the locations of Protection and Smith Islands. You can click here or on the map image to view the interactive map — which map offer additional tufted puffin locations if we (or visitors) add more map pins later.

If you would like to add a viewing location for tufted puffins, you may add one here, but must be registered and logged in to do so.

tufted puffin map

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