What Photographing Atlantic Puffins is Like

Fagjun | Published 2017-11-14 08:06

When National Geographic Your Shot photographer Sunil Gopalan spotted a puffin going home with a mouth full of tiny fish, he knew he found something special.

A puffin in flight



Photographing wildlife must be amazing. Gopalan, in particular, mostly photographs birds, with the Atlantic puffin being no exception. He had always wanted to photographs these penguin-like birds someplace where there aren’t as many people. Thus, he chose Fair Isle, a small island off the northern coast of Scotland.


One morning on the island, as Gopalan was sitting down to breakfast, he spied a puffin that seemed to also be preparing to have breakfast. This puffin had a mouth full of small fish, the slick little silver bodies hanging out the sides of its beak. What Gopalan came up with was a stunning portrait of a bird going home to feed its young.

What’s for Breakfast

A puffin's breakfast [Photo by Sunil Gopalan, National Geographic Your Shot]



When Gopalan visited Fair Isle, mother puffins had already laid their eggs. Usually, puffins lay only one egg per nest, and these nests are built high up at the tops of cliffs and precipices. Interestingly, puffin parents take turns incubating the egg, instead of the task landing only on the female’s shoulders.


Feeding the newly hatched chick is also a team effort by mom and dad. Puffin bills are relatively quite spacious, enabling them to bring home quite a lot of fish, like herring and sand eels. The puffin in Gopalan’s photo is likely a parent on its way home to feed its very hungry offspring.


Though they’re birds, Atlantic puffins actually spend more time at sea than anywhere else. They’re amazing swimmers, using their wings underwater in such a way that it’s like they’re flying in the sea. Their feet are also webbed, making maneuvering in the water easier. Usually, puffins only stay underwater for 20 to 30 seconds, but they’re capable of swimming down to depths of 200 feet underwater.


So if puffins are prodigious swimmers, are they worse at flying? Actually, no. Puffins are just as agile in the air as they are in water. They can flap their wings up to 400 times per minute and can fly at a speed of 55 miles an hour.

Atlantic Puffins and the Sea

Photo by Sunil Gopalan, National Geographic Your Shot



It seems that puffins have more of a connection to the sea, and that actually does seem true. In fact, puffins only return to land in the spring and summer, and only to form breeding colonies. Most puffin couples actually reunite at the same spot each year when they return to land, though it’s unclear how puffins manage to navigate their way back to their homes. Maybe they use their sense of sight, smell, or hearing, or maybe they use magnetic fields or even stars.


Puffins are speedy birds, which makes them a challenge to photograph. To Gopalan, however, the challenge is what makes photographing these amazing birds worthwhile. He submitted his best portrait of the puffin with a mouth full of fish in hopes of being named the 2017 National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year.


While photographing puffins is a great experience, we also need to look at the survival of the species. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Atlantic puffins are susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change, particularly changes in the distribution of prey.

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