Puffins are undoubtedly among the most charismatic of birds. But despite their obvious appeal, most people never actually get to see them. Why? Cause it takes a little bit of effort. I fell in love with puffins in Iceland, but the boat tour I took from Reykjavik to the island they live on allowed me to see them only from a distance, so I decided to go to a place where I could see them up close. My choice was Skomer Island in Wales. As I did not want to rent a car because my left side driving skills are limited, I decided to go by public transport and here is how I did that. But let me start with some introduction about puffins just in case you are not so familiar with them.
Who are puffins?
Puffins got their name because of their distinct appearance. Their downy feathers make them appear puffed. The nicknames “clowns of the sea” and “sea parrots” are appearance-based. Both are references to the birds' colourful facial markings and beaks. Puffins have a black back, white underparts, a distinctive black head with prominent pale cheeks and a tall, flattened, brightly-coloured bill. The puffin's red and black eye-markings and bright orange legs make them look comical. Estimates about the number of puffins in the world vary from 6 to 14 million. Despite being just 26–29 cm in length, Atlantic puffins are extremely tough, braving storm-tossed seas throughout autumn and winter, out of sight of land. Puffins eat fish, especially sandeels. They are one of the few birds able to carry multiple small fish crosswise in their unique hinged beaks. Puffins are very social birds, forming immense colonies together. When a puffin is around 3–5 years old, it will choose a partner at sea to mate with for life.
April to mid-August is breeding season for puffins. They create burrows, about 90 cm (3 ft.), either in the soil or between rocks. At the back of the burrow, they build a nest lined with grasses, seaweed, and feathers. After the female lays a single egg, both parents take turns incubating the egg for about 40 days.
Where do puffins live?
For most of the year, Atlantic puffins live on the open ocean, with a range spanning from the eastern coast of Canada and the northern United States to the western coast of Europe and northern Russia. About 60% of the world’s Puffin population live in or near Iceland. There are more than 1 million puffins in different parts of the UK, living predominantly on islands.
The best places to see puffins in the UK
A few places, such as the Bullers of Buchan north of Aberdeen and Bempton in Yorkshire, have small mainland colonies, but most are on islands. Easier puffinries to reach by boat include the Farne Islands off Seahouses in Northumberland, the Isle of May from Anstruther in Fife and Skomer island from Martin’s Haven in Wales.
Best time to see puffins
You can see puffinries from late April to August, but June and July are the best months to see them as at this time they are busy feeding their single chick.
So now it is time to get back to our Skomer Island trip planning.
First step: buying boat tickets to Skomer
To make your trip as efficient as possible, I suggest you secure a booking for a boat to Skomer. Better do it as early as possible when they start selling tickets for a particular season. For example, I bought my ticket online on the 2nd of February for a boat trip on the 14th of June. The boat goes to Skomer five times a day from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. except for Mondays. The boat is not big and my best estimate is that there are about 50 places on it. Travel time is roughly half an hour. Time on the island is limited to five hours. Be aware that boat trips will not operate in bad weather.
OK, you got your boat ticket; let’s plan the other parts of your itinerary.
How to get to Skomer Island by public transport
I assume that Cardiff is a good starting point for your trip if you visit from overseas. You would want to get to Martin’s Haven as it is where the boat departs for Skomer Island. Most likely, your puffin trip from and to Cardiff will take three days. One day getting there, one day visiting Skomer, and one day returning back to Cardiff. There are trains to Milford Haven from Cardiff several times a day. The trip takes about three hours. You can go to Milford Haven or Haverfordwest stations. Both are a similar distance from Martin’s Haven, which is a place from where boats to Skomer Island depart. If you plan to use the bus to get to Marloes afterwards, then Milford Haven is closer because of the bus route. You can hop on public bus number 315, which is going to Marloes from Haverfordwest with a stop at Milford Haven. Marloes is 3.5 kilometres from Martin’s Haven. It's advisable to book your accommodation in Marloes after you come back from Skomer. In this case, you can leave your unnecessary luggage there before going to Martin's Haven. The simplest way is to walk this last part. If you have time, it is possible to do this section by the coast, taking a short coastal walk. Then the hike will be longer, about 5 kilometres or so, but much more scenic. There is also Puffin Shuttle or bus number 400 going from Marloes to Martin’s Haven, but you have to check the timetable or call the operator to make sure it is operating. In 2022, for example, it was operating just once a week on Wednesdays. If you want to take the Puffin bus from Marloes, then your schedule will be like this: Arrive from Haverfordwest or Milford Haven to Marloes by bus number 315 at 10.05 a.m. and change to bus number 400 for a five-minute ride to Martin’s Haven. Then your safe bet for boat departure time would be 11.30 a.m. if bus number 400 does not show up and you have to walk to Martin’s Haven instead.
Lockley Lodge Visitor Centre
Arrive one hour earlier at Lockley Lodge Visitor Centre to check-in and get your boat boarding pass. At the centre, you can buy an information booklet about Skomer island, souvenirs and some snacks and drinks. There are also toilets near the boat boarding point and a drinking water tap to fill your water bottle for free. The boat trip is only 30 minutes to Skomer.
What to bring
Wear suitable clothing and footwear for unpredictable weather conditions. Skomer has no catering facilities; however, water can be bought on the island. Therefore, you will need to bring your own food and beverages; drinks and snacks can be purchased at Lockley Lodge Visitor Centre. Even if sometimes you can see puffins very close, it is a good idea to bring binoculars because large colonies of birds are on cliffs relatively far away from pathways. You can also rent a binocular near the pier on Skomer, and I highly recommend doing it if you do not have your own. Keep in mind that dogs are not allowed on the island to protect wildlife and the environment.
Practical tips for visiting Skomer
Skomer is the largest of Pembrokeshire’s islands at almost 300 hectares (730 acres). It is owned by NRW (Natural Resources Wales) and managed by The Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales. Access to the jetty at Martin’s Haven is over a rather steep set of steps and uneven footpath, and the island has 87 steep steps to climb from where the boat lands. Therefore, a certain level of fitness is required to access the island. Toilets are located just in one place at the old farm, so be warned. There are no trees on the island and many people with binoculars... The island is very exposed and there is a very little shelter or shade. After arriving, listen to a ranger for rules on the island and the best tips to plan your walk. The golden rule is to stay on designated paths at all times to prevent damage to puffin’s burrows.
Your time at Skomer will be limited to five hours. Use your time wisely. Despite short distances, you are likely to use most of your time watching puffins and taking lots of pictures like me, with only enough left to take a brief 15-minute lunch break. Following the ranger’s advice, I walked around the island counterclockwise to get to Wick, where most puffins are visible, late in the afternoon when they are more active.
Other wildlife at Skomer
Besides puffins, the colony of Manx Shearwater on Skomer is possibly the largest in the world, and the Storm Petrel, Guillemot and Razorbill colonies are relatively large. Visitors can see these birds from a much greater distance than puffins, so it is when binoculars can be very helpful. Guillemots come to land only to nest, spending the rest of its life at sea. Dark brown and white, not as black as the similar razorbill, it has a 'bridled' form with a white ring around the eye and stripe behind it.
The razorbill is a medium-sized seabird. It has a white belly, a black head, and a thick black beak which is deep and blunt, unlike the thinner bill of the similar guillemot.
Skomer Island is home to half the world's population of Manx shearwater. More than 300,000 pairs of these birds breed in the colony. Unfortunately, you will most likely be unable to spot them as they can only return to feed their chicks under the cover of darkness. Since I did not see any animals myself, I will not comment on them.
If you like Skomer, think about visiting other places in Pembrokeshire, Southwest Wales.
First, book your boat trip from Martin’s Haven to Skomer Island online in February for your trip in June. From my personal experience, the most suitable dates for booking a boat trip would be in early June within a certain timeframe, around 11.30 a.m. to 12.00 p.m. Allocate at least three days for your adventure. Go to Cardiff a day before your Skomer trip. Start your journey from Cardiff in the early afternoon, at the latest, by taking a train to Milford Haven or Haverfordwest and staying there overnight. The train trip takes about three hours to Milford Haven. In the morning, take a bus number 315 to Marloes, arriving there a bit after 10 a.m. If you are lucky, change to Puffin Shuttle for a five-minute ride to Martin’s Haven, where boats to Skomer Island depart. If not, you will have to walk 3.5 to 5 kilometres to Martin’s Haven, depending on your chosen path. Check-in at Lockley Lodge Visitor Centre one hour before your boat departure time to get your boarding pass. After arrival, listen to the ranger’s advice and enjoy your five hours on the island. After returning to Martin’s Haven, walk back to Marloes and stay overnight at Lobster Pot Inn or other accommodation. Advance booking through booking.com is highly recommendable. In the morning, take bus number 315 back to Milford Haven or Haverfordwest to continue your trip back to Cardiff by train. Have an awesome journey!
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What did you think? Have you seen puffins on your travels? I’d love to hear from you so please add your comment below.
Author: Anita Sane
About the author
Incidentally, in one of your photos, I first thought 'how come you included a photograph of my husband? But of course you didn't. It's just that the clothes and most of the camera gear were the same - as well as the colour and length of hair! And anyway, we haven't been to the islands since before the pandemic. Which also means we haven't been on the new boat. The old boat, the Dale Princess, took 50 passengers. This new one, the Dale Queen, is bigger, and takes more passengers.