I’ve been steadily ticking off items from my bucket list recently (visited Asia, completed an ultra-marathon, spent a day with big cats etc) but it still includes swimming with sharks, skydiving and photographing the northern lights amongst other things. With only a couple of days free this summer I figured it would be best to try and squeeze in something a bit less adventurous further down the list, so…puffins!
Skomer Island is open to visitors Tuesday-Sunday but the boats only make the crossing if conditions are good. Puffins are present from May to July so June is a perfect time to head over. It’s recommended that you try and stay in the area for 3 or 4 days to make sure you get a crossing, but I guess if you can find a last minute hotel and the forecast looks good you could manage it in one trip. I was booked in to the Pembroke Dock Travelodge from Wednesday to Sunday, a cheap, well located hotel just 30 minutes or so from Skomer departure point.
Tickets go on sale at 8am from the Lockley Lodge Visitor Centre and they are limited to 250 per day. It’s not possible to pre-book, so you’ve just got to turn up on the day and hope you’re not 251st in the queue. I’d read that 7am was a fairly safe bet for getting a ticket, so I aimed to arrive at the Martin’s Haven National Trust Car Park (SA62 3BJ, £6 for the day) for 6:45am, which is a two minute walk from the Visitor Centre. I arrived just after 6:30 and there were already around 20-30 people in the queue, by 7:30am the queue snaked down around the corner, so I was glad I arrived nice and early.
I managed to get a ticket for the 10am boat (it also departs at 11am and 12pm, you can pick which ticket you like as long as there is still space), each trip over has a return trip 5 hours later, so I had a 3pm return. The landing fee (currently £11) is payable at the centre and you’re then allocated a boat departure time. A further £11 boat fee is payable on the boat itself (bring cash!), but that’s it in terms of costs as there is nothing but water available for purchase on the island itself.
After chilling in my car for an hour I headed down to the jetty ready for the trip across to Skomer. The boat holds 50 and is a very tight squeeze, once 20 are on it looks full, so be prepared to snuggle up with whoever next to you. The crossing is only 10 minutes or so and we were fortunate enough to have a beautiful calm day, so my ability to get sea sick on a narrow boat or pedalo was thankfully not troubled too much.
Upon arrival at Skomer, you head up a steep set of steps and everyone gathers for a mandatory 10 minute briefing with one of the island wardens. After that, you’re free for 5 hours to do as you please. As the 10am boat is the first one and most other visitors on my boat were of ‘advancing age’ I quickly found myself alone at my normal walking pace, even with plenty of photo stops. I ended up spending the best part of 45 minutes completely alone, which was a fantastic experience and not one I’ll forget. Even The Wick was completely deserted
The Wick itself is great, if like me, you’ve never photographed birds before. Firstly, puffins are absolutely everywhere and will literally walk over your feet, so as long as you’re there at the right time of year, you will see plenty. Second, you don’t need a 600mm lens, in fact my 70-200 was more than enough. I spent a good 2 hours at The Wick as I had planned to walk the full island loop on another day, but just the walk to and from that location was spectacular enough.
I headed back to the departure point at around 2pm as that area is home to another big puffin colony. Photographing the puffins flying past with mouths full of sand eels was insanely hard but great fun. I bagged a few keepers, had a chat to others waiting for the boat and then we headed back across to the mainland.
I couldn’t have asked for a better day on Skomer, which as it happens was quite fortunate as the weather turned after my first day and the wind and rain arrived, which meant boat cancellations. I had always hoped for two crossings, but the combination of a lovely quiet day and beautiful weather meant I got more than my fair share in a single day, so more time than expected to explore Pembrokeshire.
Also check @skomer_boatinfo on Twitter for the only official boat departure information.