How to Visit the Puffins on Skomer Island

DSC_0516.JPG

I finally managed to tick off the top spot on my Welsh Bucket List over the weekend and went to visit the Puffins on Skomer Island.  I hadn’t exactly been putting it off, but I’d always kind of set it aside as a tricky one to do given the fact that Skomer Island is way out west and the Puffins are only actually on the island from late April to early August.  But then last weekend, Sunny and I decided to go on a little a Pembrokeshire road trip and since we were going to be in that neck of the woods then we decided that we’d be idiots not to try and take the boat to Skomer too.  It was a really early start and involved a lot of driving back and forth between the hotel and the dock along narrow country lanes just to get a ticket – but it was SO WORTH IT.  Seeing the Puffins (which my Dad calls Welsh Parrots) for the first time was pretty magical – they’re such adorable little birds – and watching them flutter back forth from the sea to their burrows with fish for their Pufflings was such an amazing thing to see – and catch on camera!  I came back with over a thousand snaps on the camera SD card and plans to do the trip all over again (and again) – so get ready for Puffins-a-plenty! 😉

DSC_0410DSC_0417DSC_0423DSC_0889

About Skomer Island

Cut off from Pembrokeshire by the choppy waters of Jack Sound, Skomer Island (Ynys Skomer) is home to the largest Puffin colony in Southern Britain, the preferred nesting spot for half the world’s population of Manx Shearwaters and home to lots of other seabirds and wildlife – including grey seals, dolphins, glow worms and toads.  The whole island is protected – as well as the waters around it – and the only way to visit is by taking the fifteen minute boat ride from Martin’s Haven between April (when the wildflowers start to bloom and the puffins return) and October (when the grey seals have their pups).

Obviously the main reason I wanted to go was to see the puffins (and honestly, I could have watched them all day!), but there was so much more to see.  The coastal path over the cliffs around the island – full of bluebells and sea thrift – was beautiful, but we spotted seals chilling out on the rocks when we docked up and even saw rabbits and owls in the middle of the island.  It’s such a beautiful place 🙂

DSC_0720DSC_0566DSC_0564

About the Puffins

Atlantic Puffins arrive on Skomer towards the end of April each year to breed in the burrows on the cliff edges around the island (most of them dug by the rabbits!).  They spend their days fluttering back and forth between the island and the sea bringing sand eels to their Pufflings, who leave the burrow and fledge towards the end of July.  No one really knows what the puffins do the rest of the year when they’re out at sea; they tend to fly alone and are kind of difficult to pin down.  Puffins mate for life, but more out of ease than anything else!  They’re creatures of habit who like the familiar after all those months at sea; they like to return to the same island, the same cliff face and even the same burrow – so taking up with the same mate just makes things easier!  Once the Puffins find their mate, they spend a little time sorting out their burrow and billing (rubbing their beaks together – a Puffin snog), before the female lays one egg – which takes about 40 days to hatch.

Once a Puffling comes along the parents divide their time between fishing for food, protecting the burrow (the great black-backed gull is their biggest predator on Skomer), chatting with passing Puffins and making sure they look their best!  Puffins are apparently a bit vain – they spend hours spreading oil and making sure that not a single feather is out of place!

There are over 10,000 breeding pairs of Puffin on Skomer Island (I feel like one of the wardens said that there were 30,000 this year, but I might be wrong – their numbers are certainly increasing on Skomer since they seem to love it there so much!) and most of them can be found on the grassy cliff tops between South Haven and The Wick.  It’s not hard to find them; they’re constantly criss-crossing the footpaths to get to their burrows. 🙂

DSC_0704DSC_0082DSC_0395DSC_0442DSC_0844DSC_0768DSC_0377DSC_0084DSC_0289

Tips for Visiting Skomer

If you fancy seeing the puffins for yourself (or the grey seal pups in October) then do it!  It’s such an amazing day, and definitely worthy of its top spot on my Welsh Bucket List.  If you do plan on making the trip, do your research first (as there’s a little more to it than just turning up) and check out my top tips below…

1. Be prepared to get up early to get your ticket!

If you go on trip finder then you’re sure to find hundreds of reviewers complaining about the backward ticketing system and the fact that they made the long trip to Martin’s Haven only to miss getting a ticket.  Here’s the thing; Skomer is protected – for good reason – and only 250 people are allowed on the island on one day to keep it that way.  Three boats head over every day at 10am, 11am and 12pm from Tuesday to Sunday from April to October, and when the Puffins are nesting, getting a place on one of those boats is practically a sport.  You can’t book a ticket online, you have to wing it, turn up on the day and buy one from The Lodge in Martin’s Haven when it opens at 8.30am.  Because of this, some people start queuing from 5am(?!) to make sure they get one!  We’d read up ahead of heading down there ourselves and joined the queue at 6.45am (the queue was already long enough to fill the first boat and half of the next!).  The ticket office opened up at 8am (which sometimes happens if there’s enough of a queue) and we managed to get a ticket on the 12pm boat – and the last ticket went to a lady from Swansea who told us she turned up to queue at 8am.  Sure, it’s a pain queuing outside at the crack of dawn – but worth it to get on that boat.

Make sure you come with change – the way it works is that you buy your landing ticket in The Lodge for £11 (£5 for kids), and then pay for your passage by boat to Skomer on the dock in cash for £11 (£7 for kids).  If you’re driving, then you’ll also need to pay £6 to use the all day car park (once you’ve got your ticket, you can come and go).

2. Keep an eye on the weather

Unfortunately, you can turn up at 4am and queue for four hours only to be told by staff at 8am that the boats aren’t running!  There’s only one place to dock up on Skomer, and due to the treacherous waters around Jack Sound, if the wind is moving from the north then the boats can’t dock.  Plan ahead!  Keep an eye on the weather forecast and the Skomer Island Boat Information Twitter Feed to see if the boats are running.

3. Be prepared to wait!

Say you’ve queued up and have managed to get a ticket for the 10am boat – you’ve still got at least an hour and a half to wait until you actually get on that boat.  And that waiting time just goes up depending on which boat you’ve booked onto.  We bought our tickets at about 8.30am for the 12pm boat – so we had hours to wait before we needed to be down by the dock.  Luckily, we’d factored that waiting time in and drove back to the hotel for breakfast! 🙂

4. Bring a packed lunch

There’s nowhere to buy food or drink (only bottled water) on Skomer Island – so make sure you bring a packed lunch along with you.  You’ll be on the island for approximately five hours – so make sure you’ve got enough food and drink to keep you going!

5. Bring waterproof layers and sun cream

As I said, you’ll be on the island for around five hours and there’s almost no shelter or shade – so if it’s hot then you’re going to burn, and if it’s raining then you’re going to get very wet!

6. Dogs aren’t allowed!

Dogs aren’t exactly a sea bird’s best friend, so unfortunately they’re not allowed on the island.  However, you can do a boat trip around the island (a good option if you don’t manage to get a ticket!) and apparently you can take dogs on that.

7. Be prepared to climb

There are 87 steep steps up from the dock on Skomer, and a lot of the paths around the island are narrow and rocky.  Also, be prepared to be on your feet for most of the five hours that you’re on the island; there are delicate burrows everywhere and so – quite rightly – visitors are asked to stick to the paths and not to sit – just in case they plonk down on top of a burrow.  It’d be heartbreaking to crush a poor Puffling – so keep your butt off the ground until you reach The Old Farm, where there’s a lawn, toilets and places to picnic.

8. If you want to see the Puffins, turn left

I’ve heard that some guides tell you to head right towards the farm once you’re off the dock, but if you want to see those Puffins take the left path towards South Haven and then on to The Wick – that way, you’ll see them first and then have lots of time to see the rest of the island and then come back later if you like!

9. Puffin Crossing!

Kind of goes without saying, but be respectful towards the Puffins – it is their island after all.  As one of the guides told us when we arrived on the island, Puffins don’t pose – if you see one hovering around with fish in their beak then you’re probably blocking their path to their burrow and their hungry Puffling!  Step aside and let them pass before they get mugged by those thug seagulls you see hovering around.

10. Take Binoculars

Not vital, obviously – the Puffins are easy to spot, even if you’re short sighted – but if you want to get a good look at the other wildlife on the island then it’s worth packing a pair of binoculars.  The Manx Shearwaters all nest on the cliff face, so they’re hard to spot with the naked eye, and if you head to one of the hides in the middle of the island then you might spot owls hunting for voles.

DSC_0442

You can find more information about visiting Skomer Island on The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales website.  I’ve also popped up a little video of my trip Way Out West over on Instagram.  Have a lovely week!