The Puffins are So Far Away [Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim]

Get your rant drink ready. There’s a rant a-coming. And it’s a real doozy. Thank God this is still a personal blog, because my opinion is really hanging out today.

rathlin sign ballycastle

You may remember my friends Knox and Claire. They are friends of mine of the Morocco Trip variety and wrote a little back and forth about Malta a couple of weeks ago. Well, we reunited again a couple of weekends ago for a much-anticipated expedition to see real-life puffins on Rathlin Island.

Rathlin, on the Antrim Coast, is home to an RSPB bird centre. Every year from mid-April until August puffins return there to breed more rainbow-billed balls of feathers. This has been on my must-see list for about a year.

Getting There

The island is only a few miles from the coast and is accessible by a ferry, which leaves from Ballycastle. It runs fairly regularly; coming in both fast and slow-boat-to-China varieties. There is a car ferry, but this is for local access and deliveries. It can only accommodate 2-3 cars on it. ‘Tis a tiny car ferry.

rathlin fast ferry

rathlin car ferry


Ferry: Rathlin Island Ferry
Cost: GBP12 per adult/GBP6 per child
First sailing from Ballycastle: 8am
Last sailing from Rathlin Island: 5.30pm
The website states you have to pre-book online. We didn’t and still got on the ferry OK – there must have been plenty of tickets left. If you really, really want to go and would be sad to miss out, I suggest you book online and not risk it. The ferry is not very large.

rathlin harbour

The Puffin Bus

The Puffin Bus is… just a bit weird. It runs ad hoc from the ferry to the RSPB bird centre 4.25 miles away. We would not have paid the GBP5 return if Knox were not the walking wounded.

puffin bus

Most of those on our ferry over decided to take the bus up to the bird centre. Quite the crowd had formed around a square on the road labelled ‘BUS’. When it did arrive, and being polite, we let the families on ahead of us. This was probably the wrong thing to do because one woman, clearly wrapped up in her own self, seemed ambivalent to the fact that if she were to put her young daughter on her knee we would have enough seats for all. But that didn’t happen, leaving the bus one seat short. At least the bus did not leave me behind. It is the ONLY bus after all. So I got to sit on Claire’s knee for 4 and a quarter miles. We arrived at the bird centre with her legs thoroughly asleep.

sign rathlin island

Aside from my general dislike of the other visitors. The commentary en route was just a bit ‘meh’. Every few hundred metres the driver would stop, turn off the engine, and tell us some local anecdote or other.  The stories weren’t even particularly interesting. He told us things like “that is the primary school. It has 9 students,” and “those rocks are basalt.” Rathlin Island has a really rich and exciting history, but you will not learn about it on this bus. Strangely, Knox LOVED it. She thought it was really quaint. I, however, have found more entertainment in clipping my fingernails. Maybe this ride depends on the person?

You should also be aware that this rickety school bus is the ONLY transfer. The alternatives are hiking or renting a bike. If you are going to choose the bus, take it from the ferry to the reserve and walk back, or buy a return ticket. Do not try buying the one-way ticket from the RSPB reserve lest you be obnoxiously warned off the bus.

Now, this really suited ticket-holding me. Those who did not already hold tickets were made to wait until us ticket holders got on. It was great! I got a seat going back! One to myself. A Claire-free seat (sorry Claire). But I did feel for those made to wait. There is nothing ANYWHERE to say that you will be refused bus entry if you did not take the bus up in the first place. But that is what will happen to you.

Two older, but capable, women are trying to ascend the stairs ahead of me. They walked from the ferry to the RSPB, but wanted to catch the bus back down.

“No. I need to get my passengers on first,” says the driver, arms out, in a slightly confusing tone that implies you should know what he is on about.

The women look perplexed. But they want to buy tickets and thus become a passenger! The driver has to say it two more times before they get down from the bus and are shunted away by the group of 30 or more who are pressing their way onto the bus.

I was not surprised to see that exchange. It features prominently in the negative reviews on TripAdvisor. Perhaps more annoying, the woman with the daughter is back. And she puts her little girl on her knee so an old woman can sit next to her. WHY COULDN’T YOU DO THAT ON THE WAY OUT YOU B****. Karma, I’ve never needed a favour from you so badly.

Additionally, the bus does not run until the last ferry. So remember to plan for that if you want to stay into the early evening.

rspb bird centre rathlin island

The RSPB Reserve

“What about the puffins?” I hear you ask. Oh! I almost forgot about them in my red-eyed rage about the bus. When we reached the reserve in the early afternoon we had two hours to explore before we needed to catch the dreaded bus back in time for the 3.30pm ferry.

RSPB Website
Entry: GBP5 per adult

When we bought our tickets, we asked if the puffins had arrived and the girl vaguely responded that she had ‘heard’ they were there. This was ominous. After we descended to the viewing area, next to a gorgeous lighthouse, we found out there are about 80 puffins currently in residence. When we spied their little orange feet in flight, we were absolutely delighted.

Us being delighted!

Us being delighted!

Sadly it was not very photo friendly for joe-public. For the most part, our best puffin view was through huge binoculars. I felt a bit like Ron Weasley and his Omnioculars. Here is my best shot. It’s a puffin – I swear to you.


It was absolutely freezing down in the viewing area. Most people did not linger. We huddled in a corner to eat our packed lunches, took quick peeks through the binoculars and then darted for the lighthouse tour (just to legitimately spend a few moments indoors).

The guides were all very friendly and helpful. They pointed out the puffins and ensured that no one left without a glimpse. Had it not been so cold, we would have spent a lot more time just watching birds in flight.

There are tens of thousands of birds at the RSPB bird centre. Mostly guillemot with flecks of Razorbills and Puffins. Claire and I thought it was a bit like the gannet colony at Muriwai, New Zealand. Thousands of guillemot, crowded around their nests on the rocks. The little puffins however, had burrowed into the lower cliffs making them a lot harder to spot.

Still, I am so glad I saw some. Now I just need to visit a place where I can get a close up!

egg shell rathlin island

On the way back to the ferry, we took a stroll along the beach. It really does have a beautiful, rustic coastline. The water is a clear aquamarine – you can see right to the bottom!

kelp house

Now THIS is somewhere I would love to spend more time. The precious couple of minutes we spent sitting on the stones watching a pod of seals roll about in the shallows was brilliant. And all this time I thought the puffins would be the highlight of this trip! This walk back alone is the reason I would recommend a day trip to Rathlin Island.

seals rathlin island

I don't know this guy, but he sure looks relaxed.

I don’t know this guy, but he sure looks relaxed.

rathlin beach

Final Impressions

Rathlin Island itself is a pretty decent day trip. If I did it again I would only go on a fine weather day and prepare to walk my little socks of – skipping that strange bus. The coastal views are beautiful but the island itself lacks a certain je ne sais quoi (wow, I go to Paris for 5 days and come back Frenchified). I got the impression it would be a bit soul destroying on a wet weather day because the landscapes are the only draw card. It’s a one bar, one hostel kind of island.

With this in mind, Rathlin would really suit slow travellers, walkers, and birding enthusiasts. I’ll be straight with you and say it is not worth squeezing into a tight timetable. Rathlin runs on island time there is no such thing as ‘a hurry’ there. So go to get away – not to scramble.

Finally, pack your jacket. Even though we had glorious sun the wind was biting. Especially around the bird centre.



7 thoughts on “The Puffins are So Far Away [Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim]

  1. Thanks for the very raw and real review. It looks like a glorious day. You can’t tell it’s cold from your photos until you see the hair flying wind in the photo of the three of you. I love a good puffin and would have been up for the adventure too. But, probably disappointed had I not brought a heavy and long lens to capture the little guys.


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