Birdwatching cruises

photo by: Robin Corcoran/USFWS

The Port Townsend Marine Science Center has partnered with Puget Sound Express whale watching company to offer these seasonal birdwatching cruises around Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge since 1994, providing a view to the changing community of birds and mammals using the sanctuary. Today these cruises go around either Protection Island, part of the Protection Island Aquatic Reserve, or Smith Island, part of the Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve.

Nearly 70 percent of the nesting seabird population of Puget Sound and the Straits nest at these two islands, just outside of Port Townsend, including one of the largest nesting colonies of rhinoceros auklets in the world, as well as the largest nesting colony of glaucous-winged gulls in Washington. Protection Island contains one of the last 2 nesting colonies of tufted puffins in the Puget Sound area. About 1,000 harbor seals rely upon the island for a pupping and rest area.

Depending on the time of year, some of the more common species we see include California Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Heermann’s Gull, Rhinoceros Auklet, Double-crested Cormorant, Common Murre, Red-necked Grebe, Pigeon Guillemot, Brandt’s Cormorant, Pelagic Cormorant, Sanderling, Black Turnstone, Surf Scooter, Ring-billed Gull, Tufted Puffin, Caspian Tern, White-winged Scoter, Harlequin Duck, Black Oystercatcher, Brant, and Red-necked Phalarope.

As every birder knows, no guarantee can be made on the species that will be sighted on any outing, but chances are very good that they will be spotted.

These cruises are hosted by seasoned naturalists and PTMSC interpreters, who provide excellent commentary on the natural history of the island and the birds and wildlife sighted.

Bird migration cruises

Offered in the spring and fall, the Bird Migration Cruises offer a unique opportunity for an idyllic natural science adventure, enabling people to gain a better understanding of our marine ecosystems and interrelationships which abound in these waters.

Common Murre
photo by: Wendy Feltham

Saturdays, 1 – 4 p.m.

  • April 6, 13 and 20
  • October 5 and 19
  • November 2, 16 and 30
  • December 14 and 28

Puffin cruises

Each summer Protection Island comes alive as thousands of seabirds arrive to breed and raise their young, including rhinoceros auklets, glaucous-winged gulls, pigeon guillemots, black oystercatchers, two kinds of cormorants, and of course the tufted puffin.  

In recent years more puffins have been returning to Smith Island, so depending on the greater population the captain will ultimately determine which island is best to visit for any particular tour.

Although we can’t guarantee a sighting on every outing, the chance of spotting a puffin is very good. 

Tufted Puffin
photo by: David Gluckman

Saturdays, times vary

  • June 1, 8, 22 from 3 – 5 p.m.
  • June 29 from 7:30 – 9:30 p.m.
  • July 6 from 7:30 – 9:30 p.m.
  • July 13, 20, 27 from 6 – 9 p.m.
  • August 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 from 6 – 9 p.m.
  • September 7, 14 from 3 – 5 p.m.

These cruises are either 2 or 3 hours in length, depending on the boat. Saratoga is a faster boat so reaches the birding destinations more quickly. You can learn more about Red Head and Saratoga on the Puget Sound Express website.


Tickets are $95 per person.
Children 2-10 years of age are $75.
Tickets for PTMSC members are $75.
Please note: 1 member discount per membership card.
Become at PTMSC member!

General information

The three-hour cruises depart from the Point Hudson Marina. More information about Puget Sound Express, their boats and more can be found on their website. The route is at the captain’s discretion.

Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge

Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge’s 364-acres is covered by grass and low brush, with a small timbered area, high sandy bluffs and low sand spits on two ends of the island. This combination of bluffs and sand spits provides excellent habitat for nesting seabirds and the waters around it offer a marine buffet.

The Refuge website is a great resource for the birds and other species you could see on a birdwatching and wildlife cruise.

Protection Island Aquatic Reserve

Located at the start of Admiralty Inlet, Protection Island Aquatic Reserve’s nutrient rich waters and areas of shallow bank are unique because of the immense tidal exchange and upwelling where Puget Sound waters meet the Pacific fed waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve

Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve covers 36,308 acres of state-owned aquatic land from the Whidbey Island shoreline westward around Smith and Minor Islands. It is the largest in DNR’s reserve system and contains the largest bull kelp bed in Washington State.

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