One Hour of Paradise


The dates of this journey were the 16th through the 18th of July 2013 which means it’s taken  me a long time to write this post. I’ve  also gone beyond the normal length for a blog post and am rapidly approaching a small novel. However, believe it or not, there is an awful lot that I have omitted such as the bald eagle Andy spotted and maneuvered into shooting distance for ten minutes before we had even left the harbor. I haven’t mentioned my new friend Jim Caldwell and his courageous wife or the Canadian helicopter that interrupted our visit (but not the birds). I guess I’m trying to say that this day was an unparalleled treasure for me and long in the waiting.

So I’ve felt compelled to try to capture the scope of this rich experience in words and I can only hope I’ve at least partially succeeded or more importantly that I can hold your attention until you read to the end.

Classic Puffin


When I mention to people that I am a Nature Photographer there are almost without exception a few assured responses based around what could be called the True Nature Photographer Archetype. You know: hikes alone 25 miles into the wilderness to a secret location where the rare white unicorn can be seen or travels the world to distant lands shooting for National Geographic with an expense account and local guides who carry all the gear.

In truth, and in these times, almost everyone is freelance, projects are self financed. Travel has a hardscrabble budget, overnight accommodations need to be on the order of Motel 6 or 59.95, whichever costs less and the most attractive locations are a day’s drive away or so.

I first saw a photograph of a Puffin more than 10 years ago and the die was cast. Such beautiful coloration, amazing large quizzical Red eyes, the rainbow beak and the orange rosettes that seem like a small orange stickpin being held in each corner of its mouth. From that fateful day until a few weeks ago, I dreamed often of having one of these gorgeous birds in my viewfinder with an unlimited time budget, great light, perfect weather conditions, unrestricted access and an empty CF card. (2003 was when I purchased my first digital body, a Canon 20D and other benefits aside, not having to load film in the middle of shooting a once-in-a-lifetime species inspired many a photographic dream sequence.) Alas however, much conspired to keep my nearest “perfect” location just beyond easy acquisition.

First Attempt:

Machias Seal Island is almost an eight hour drive from Boston; almost the furthest eastern location in the US, only a few miles from the Canadian border and 10 miles out in the Bay of Fundy. Given that any boat tour to the island would depart early in the morning, this immediately became a two day minimal trip with an overnight motel stay. It also required a reliable car, a few tanks of gas, a small budget for meals and a minimum $120 prepaid reservation for the boat ride. Translated realistically, I guesstimated this called for a minimum two days available time and maybe $350 cash altogether.

Being perennially economically challenged, a few years ago I attempted a slightly less demanding Puffin adventure with grand hopes of killer images on a budget. Three hours from Boston in Port Clyde.ME is Hardy Boat Cruises which will take one on a ride around a regenerated Puffin colony on a small island known as Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, about 6 miles (9.7 km) away from Pemaquid Point. We all know that the expression “timing is everything” has merit. My timing however has its occasional faults. My first try at the budget puffin adventure was August 19th, 2010. I had moved that year and had major lung surgery as well so September was my earliest available “free” moment. I also had not done proper research on my intended subjects and so didn’t know that this late in the year, the young puffins have hatched and fledged and pretty much everybody but the real slow pokes are headed out to sea where they winter. We I saw three puffins that trip, they were far away, in “Pea Soup Fog” and small in the frame and alas all candidates for the round file. Hardy Boat however recognized our disappointment and gave all cruise participants a free rain check ticket for the following season.

The next year I reserved early and with my “rain checks” went back to Port Clyde on June 15th. Although we had better weather, a second truth soon reared its ugly head. Puffin photography from a boat in choppy waters and still considerable distances doesn’t allow for many suitable photographs although for birders it still may be an enjoyable experience. I tried shooting from a tripod which made the horizon go up and down at the exact pitch and yaw of the boat but wasn’t good for much else since the motion itself was still there. I also tried handheld with my image stabilized 100-400 lens but technology met its match with the trifecta of the oceans motion, the horizons leaping and my body’s lurching about. In all, I got one shot that I kept only because I thought it might be my only keeper from the whole experience. It was what we call a butt shot with the bird floating away but at least it had a mouth full of fish.

So what’s a shooter to do when they’re two tries and no wins? Swing for the rafters. A few weeks ago I took on the real adventure. Booked the boat to Machias Seal Island with Bold Coast Tours, a boat company that actually has a license to land on the island. All told, I spent more than sixty hours and $750 to get one (yes I said one) glorious hour shooting my dream species. The breakdown was roughly 20 hours of driving, 3 hours on the boat out and back; 24 hours at an inexpensive motel (I was too tired to drive back to Boston after the island visit), two hearty and a couple of makeshift (read snacks and chips) meals in Machias and in the motel room, a couple of exploratory drives and 4 hours or so to pack and unpack.


When a close friend found out I was going, they recommended that there would be plenty of picturesque houses there for me to shoot. Machias and Cutler Maine are classic studies in what happens to an area when the economic base dwindles or simply vanishes. On the local roads that I drove down or through, many businesses were shuttered, 50% of the homes were trailers, half of those were fair to nice conversions but the rest were assorted shades of run-down to downright decrepit. Of the “real houses”, many were so weather weary as to be threatening to succumb to the incessant tug of gravity at any moment. Often hanging from makeshift poles, the brightly colored laundry waved in the breeze telling a tale of hard working men, several children and mothers purely functional house dress rendered clean and respectable another day. The telltale Dish TV antenna hung fiercely to the side of dwellings that otherwise seemed uninhabitable. (Narrow broken windows and widescreen TV.) And in front of all but a very few was parked either a pickup truck, semi late model car (c.f. 2008 Toyota), or a backyard hot rod of some sort. These telltale signs spoke of the existence of at least one loaded rifle inside, near the door and well ready to dissuade nosy trespassers from curious ambulation in too close a proximity, much less an ill considered photograph of the perceived quaint charm of a “fallen to disrepair” dwelling.

In the end I have one shot that I took of a shack that had been turned into a form of advertisement. Even taking that one, I could feel several pairs of eyes on my back from across the street.

Old Shack

The Cruise:

It was truly wonderful to get going at 5am to drive the 40 minutes from Machias to Cutler. The air was cool and slightly foggy with hazy sunshine. The decidedly scenic rural road sometimes sliced through groves of trees, showed glimpses of seashore, curved and twisted back inland showing dilapidated houses and converted trailers and then repeated the cycle, finally arriving at a small harbor at Cutler,ME. This was the office, assembly and departure point for Bold Coast Tours.

As I snuggled my Jeep into a roadside parking space I was met by others who would be taking the trip out to the island. Everyone was amiable and almost all had some level of photo gear with them including a few “serious” photographers with ‘big glass” and tripods, the latter of which would later turn out to be rendered unuseable in the parsimonious close quarters of the blinds. Interestingly, the average age was fifty plus but all possessed a youthful spirit and a sense of adventure. One brave woman even sported a foot cast having recently fractured a small bone in her foot. She had decided not to let a minor infirmity keep her from this once in a lifetime experience. All in all there were twelve of us on the adventure when it was time for departure.

After a short wait, Captain Andy Patterson met us and our tour began. The local tide fluctuates more than fourteen feet between high and low tide so getting to and from our tour boat, the Barbara Frost, required us to ride out to the anchored vessel in a small skiff. Our day would involve four boarding’s of the skiff along with four transfers on and off the Barbara Frost and a slippery landing and departure at the island itself. Each of these accompanied with the additional complexities of swinging heavy photographic equipment safely aboard as well as the athletically attired but in-the-end not so youthfully spry passengers. Much to his credit and skill, Captain Andy and his able assistant managed to get the twelve of us through all of these machinations and senior gyrations without a single incident.

During the 40 minute ride to the island Captain Andy entertained and educated us with information about the birds we were going to see. And then the island came into view and we were introduced to the amazing sights we would enjoy for the next few hours. The sea, sky and land were filled with thousands of birds. On the water were “rafts” of Puffins and Razorbills with the occasional Common Murre mixed in. On the island, nearly every foot was dotted by the stocky black body of an Alcid. The sky was thick with red nosed bullets whizzing from sea to land; busy gathering and bringing food to the young offspring on land. The whir of cameras on continous firing grew louder and with impecable timing our captain/nature guide suggested we not exaust the capacity of our digital media (CF, SD or whatever cards) as the best was yet to come. He was perfectly right. Only 48 of my 386 shots in this shoot were on the approach to the island and 30 of those were my Gannet captures but I might have easily burned through a CF card had he not given us this bit of advice.

Captain Andy brought us leisurely around the island while continuing to give us an informative nature talk on what we were seeing. As we circled around one end of the island, fellow birder-photographers Pat and Stokes whom I had mentioned that I hoped to see a Northern Gannet, shouted “Arni”, here’s your bird and I rushed over to the port side of the boat. At this point it’s reduncancy to mention that the physics of shooting from a boat at sea are counterproductive to sharp photographs but I spread my legs, leaned my  knees into a bench seat and prayed for the miracle of Canon’s Image Stabilization technology to work it’s magic. In the end I grabbed a couple of frames that I’ve yet to work on but may reward me aesthetically for my efforts.

At snails pace we continued to round the island and soon we saw the famed blinds that would provide us with a both challenging and rewarding sixty minute window into the life of the Machias Seal Island waterfowl. The four gray boxes stood only marginally taller than a short basketball player and were roughly four feet by ten feet. Envision a wooden sardine box packed with photographers instead of fish. Several small square open ports were semi strategically placed, some high, some lower and some to the sides, to allow some repositioning for view and composition but with three photographers within such small confines, changing viewpoints while the action  was fast and furious just seemed ill advised.

The Blinds

Eventually we anchored the big boat, transferred to the skiff and set foot on the island. Once there were advised that for the safety of the birds, we were only allowed to be in one of two places; a flat area near the lighthouse or in the blinds. There was absolutely no unsupervised strolling about and all of this was supervised by a Canadian wildlife researcher who let us know in no uncertain terms that she meant business. As a matter of fact there was passing mention of the fact that both U.S. and Canada lay claim to the island however Canada has the lighthouse and researchers on the island and funds the entire operation and it seems that the opinion of the staff there is that Americans don’t care about the birds or the island.

After a brief orientation we were herded single file over a wooden boardwalk to the blinds and the fun began. I shot with two bodies; one mounted with a Canon 100-400 and the other mounted with my Sigma 500 f4.5. The birds were almost in constant motion and jostling for space. Surprisingly the Puffins were almost outnumbered by the Razorbills and Captain Andy later mentioned that years ago the Razorbills numbered less than ten but their numbers have increased dramatically in the last several years. The net result was that often a clean view of a puffin was obstructed by several stray but beautiful Razorbills. This was not a negative but a learning experience by far.

Puffins and Razorbills

As striking as the Puffins are, the Razorbills also have two astonishing characteristics. They have a long white line in front of their eye that makes the eye seem more aggressive and dramatic and the inside of their bill is a bright lemon yellow. The other prominent species, Common Murre’s were much more subtle by comparison with their muted brown coloration and dark eyes but still lovely. Together they all represented a superabundance of visual delights.

I and the other photographers were in high concrentration mode. Observe, frame, shoot, shoot, shoot, chimp a little and then repeat the cycle.

The puffins would fly in from the ocean like red nosed rockets, their intention being to bring small fish in their beaks to the single offspring in their nests. The nests are nestled deep in the islands rocks and the determination of both parents (both sharing responsibility for razing the young) is to get the meal to the young as soon as possible. Our positioning in the blind was limited by the paucity of view ports which is good for the birds but not so convenient for us: then again that’s the way it’s supposed to be, right? The net result being that an incoming bird often landed and jumped right down into the nest cavity which was of course below view in a crevasse between the rocks nearer and further from us by mere inches. If an incoming had fish, it was literally fractions of a second between their landing and the hop into the burrow and given our limited facility, it’s not surprising that out of all of us plus some who had gone on the cruise the day before, no one had the classic portrait with fish in the mouth. Still, there were several opportunities presented to me that I fully cherish and have printed including a ¾ portrait with exquisite detail that hangs it this minute in a group show at Gallery at the Piano Factory in Boston.

For Pauline-3

During the next hour we experienced heat from the close quarters, mild but noticeable odors from the cooking guano on the roof above us as well as the “thump” of a landing or the footsteps of the Puffins overhead on the roof of the blind. Yet all of us framed and shot relentlessly like a bunch of Papparazzo’s on the red carpet at the Golden Globe awards.

Time became suspended in our awareness, that is until Ms. Puffin Police came and told us that time was up! And yet, I should probably retract that faultfinding given that I was the slowest to pack up and during that time she didn’t become overly impatient but instead asked if I had a good shoot and generally displayed real compassion. Like all who spend a great deal of time meeting and greeting the public, I suspect she has acquired the defense mechanisms of someone who needs to immediately command the respect of all in front of her lest something go seriously awry.

There is a Chinese proverb that goes, “Sooner or later, the party ends.” Experientally dazed, after some physical exertions that we hardly paid attention too, we eventually found ourselves back on the Barbara Frost and beginning our return back to Cutler. Before leaving the island entirely our captain swung around one more time and in so doing we were treated to views of many Harbor and Grey seals sunning on the rocks. We all clicked a few, not wanting to miss an opportunity but knowing that the big event of the day had already happened

On the ride back some of us compared notes, others peeked at monitors on camera back and still others just leaned back and enjoyed the fresh ocean air. All however had a certain air of contentment; of having had an amazing experience that was well worth the  effort and irreplaceable. I, in addition returned to Boston with fine images with which to share and relive the experience. Am I totally content? Well, I still am a photographer after all and it would be nice to have that classic “fish in the mouth” shot. Maybe I need to go again. What do you think?

Thank you. I thought you’d say that.

2 Responses to “One Hour of Paradise”

  1. September 22, 2013 at 10:31 am

    I’ve been out to Machias Seal Island several times and was never disappointed. The area requires more than a 2 or 3 day excursion as the entire area is a picturesque opportunity. One should not miss making it a priority to spend at least 7 or 8 days in the area.

    Did you go for a tour of the Burnham Tavern in the center of Machias? The tavern is where plans for the first naval battle of the Revolution took place and is under the watchful eye of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The tour is well worth making and I highly recommend it.

    Here is a link to my 2006 tour of Machias Seal Island http://www.pbase.com/wally_newell/maine_august_2006.

    • 2 Cheatham Arni
      September 22, 2013 at 12:06 pm

      HI Wally,
      Guess I do need to go again. Outside of the island, I stayed mostly near my motel or the roads from Machias to Cutler. The route GoogleMaps gave me coming from Boston was fairly efficient but decidely not picturesque. Only when I was leaving the area using a different route did I get a hint of other possibilities. Next time I’ll get a date with the DAR.

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September 2013

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All Photographic Images ©Arni Cheatham, Segami Images and Eyes and Ears, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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