Wildlife paradise in Scotland: Puffin Therapy on Lunga with Staffa’s Awe Inspiring basalt columns

Since a long time I wanted to see and photograph puffins and before seeing them on Lunga, I never had the luck. When I was traveling through Iceland I missed the breading season. The same happened when I moved to Scotland for the first time a few years ago. But living in Oban for a short period of time, finally give me an opportunity to see them (and to wait for a sunny weather).

If you are a nature lover and want to see puffins, Lunga in the Treshnish Isles in Scotland is the best place to visit. Lunga is one of few places left on Earth, where you can experience unspoiled nature and abundant wildlife. The puffins can be spotted during the breeding season between late May and early August.

The best way to go there is taking a boat tour from the west Coast of Scotland to Lunga which is combined also with the Isle of Staffa, the latter known for its basalt columns and spectacular sea cave. It is not a budget trip, but is worth the money. A short boat trip takes you to a different world, where a wildlife photographer dreams come true. The puffins on Lunga are not afraid of people (that having humans around keep their predators at bay) which gives you ideal opportunities for photography. This means you get to see them up close, watch them flyin from the ocean with fish in their beaks, interact with each other and clean their feathers.

Map of the tour

The Isle of Lunga, Treshnish Isles

The Isle of Lunga, which is the largest island in the Treshnish archipelago is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Argyll and Bute (western Scotland) due to its unique geomorphology and because it is a habitat for seals, cliff- and burrow-nesting seabirds, wintering wildfowl and populations of house mice. Plenty of endangered and rare plants are native to this island, including birdsfoot trefoil, orchids, oyster plant, primrose, sea campion, sea pinks, sea thrift, tormentil and yellow flags.

Besides of the large population of puffins, approximately 47 other bird species can be spotted. Dun Cruit (the Harp Rock stack), is home to more than 6,000 guillemot, razorbill, puffin, kittiwake, fulmar, shag, skua and many more.

Facts about Puffins

Puffins are charming little birds that belongs to the auk family. They breed on coastal cliffs or offshore islands and make their nest in crevices among rocks or in burrows in the soil. They are sometimes called “clowns of the sea” due to their splendidly colourful beaks, bright orange feet and clumsy traits.

Here are some interesting facts about puffins:

  • A puffin’s beak changes colour during the year.
  • Puffins spend most of their lives out at sea, resting on the waves when not swimming. They only return to land to breed.
  • Puffins are carnivores and live off small fish such as herring, hake and sand eels.
  • Puffins mate for life (which reminds me of storks). They usually pair up with the same partner as previous years and return every year to the same burrow with the same mate.
  • Puffins don’t make nests, they dig holes using their beaks and feet. They prefer to make their burrows in earth or between rocks on steep cliffs so predators cannot easily reach them. The burrows are up to one meter deep.
  • A female puffin lays only one egg each spring. Pufflings stay in their burrows for 45 days. When they leave the island, they stay at sea for at least five years. They only return to the island where they were born when they are ready to become parents themselves.
  • Puffins live a long life, around 20 years or more. Their main predator is the great black-backed gulls which tend to take them from the ground or in mid-flight. Meanwhile, herring gulls pursue puffins to steal the fish they have on their beaks.
  • Puffins are excellent flyers and swimmers. When flying, they typically maintain an altitude of 9 meters. Thanks to their extraordinary wings which flap 400 beats per minute, puffins can fly at a maximum speed of 88 kilometres per hour. Meanwhile, they can reach a depth of 60 metres underwater.
  • Puffins are silent at sea.
  • Puffins can hold 12 fish in the mouth at once.
  • According to the RSPB, there are 580,000 puffins breeding pairs in the UK.

Isle of Staffa

Staffa is a volcanic island and is best known for its hexagonal basalt columns, and the Fingal’s Cave. Its hexagonal columns were formed millions of years ago by volcanic eruptions and a vast blanket of lava that spread into the Atlantic Ocean. Years of waves crashing against these columns created the magnificent Fingal’s Cave.

How to get there

The best way to go is to book a tour that includes Treshnish Isles Wildlife Tour. You can depart from different locations on the West Coast of Scotland or start the tour on Isle of Mull.

I booked a day tour from Oban, which includes the ferry to Mull, a bus transfer to Ulva Ferry and the Treshnish Isles with Staffa tour. There are few companies that operate tours from Oban: Staffa Tours, Turus Mara and West Coast Tours. I book this tour with Turus Mara.

The tour costs £71 per person and takes around 5 to 5.5 hours. It included over two hours on Lunga and one hour on Staffa. A day trip starts from Oban at 9.50am with return at 8.00pm.

Sailing to the geological wonder of the Isle of Staffa from Mull takes one hour and if you are lucky you will be able to see dolphins, whales, porpoise, basking sharks or White Tailed Eagles on your trip. Here you can find the famous Fingal’s Cave. Note that Staffa is more popular, as a lot more boats visit this island continuously throughout the day. The cave is a short walk away from the landing place across the basalt rocks. We did not have enough time to explore the whole island, but make sure that you at least climb to the top for some amazing views of dramatic rock formation and across to the mainland.

After Staffa, we took a short 15-minutes crossing to the Treshnish Isles. Once on Lunga be aware that access on and off the Island involves walking on small landing platforms, across wet field of rocks up to steep hills which makes alighting a hazardous experience.

On Lunga follow a little path winding up the cliff, where you enter a moss-covered plateau. There is a big colony of Puffins, standing over their dug burrows. Take time to explore the island and enjoy the sights and sounds of Harp Rock.

However, if you would like to spend more time to experience the unique bird life I recommend staying overnight on the isle of Mull and choosing the longer tour option from Tobermory. Longer trip allows up to four hours ashore on Lunga and half an hour to visit Fingal’s Cave. Trust me, if you like taking photos of the wildlife, then 2 hours on Lunga pass very fast. The tour from Tobermory costs £75 per person.

Another option is to charter a private boat from Oban, for example Costal Connection.

Practical Tips

  • Bring a warm layer, rain clothes, and waterproof hiking boots.
  • For taking photos, alongside your camera you would definitely need a long zoom. Even if you can get very close to puffins, they are quite small, with a long zoom you will be able to capture them while flying. Also, make sure you enable continuous shooting on your camera, so that you can rapidly shoot photos of puffins while flying. For the long lenses you will need support. If you don’t plan to take the monopod or tripod, find something to rest the lens on – a camera bag, for example.
  • Bring a packed lunch, some snacks, and water, as there will be no opportunities to purchase food during the tour.
  • When you visit a colony don’t get too close to the puffins’ burrows. You need to stick to the nearby footpaths to avoid potential collapsing of the ground and destroying their nests as burrows can often be at the edges of pathways.
  • Look for the pair performing billing, a behaviour where puffins rub their beaks together. This display often draws a crowd of puffins to share the excitement.

Nature lovers who takes the tour are rewarded by one of Scotland’s most delightful, wilderness corners. If you love to observe wildlife, take photos or just love to be in the nature, I would definitely recommend this tour.