We’d seen them from afar on a schooner in Husavik. We’d seen them on the menu in Reykjavik. We’d seen them as soft toys, keyrings and postcards, but we hadn’t seen a real one up-close for ourselves. So where better than on Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands), home to the world’s largest puffin colony, to try our hand at shooting a puffin of our own…… for a photo of course.
Puffin hunting – in Vestmannaeyjar
I’m on a cliff side, clambering over loose rock, when I begin to wonder if this has become an obsession. But we’re so close now it seems silly to turn back. Every now and then we’re thrown off balance when inbound birds slice through the air above our heads, wings flapping at 400 bpm, fresh fish dripping from orange beaks. Then they quickly disappear into tufts of grass up high ahead of us. I know there’s a colony here, but I don’t know if we should go any further.
“Dad, it’s very slippy here,” says Hannah, my little hunting partner, gripping tightly onto my hand. She’s as keen as me to see a puffin up close but as we venture further and further around the cliff I’m more and more aware about the need to think about our safety too.
Cute a million times over
We’re in Vestmannaeyjar (The Westman Islands), just 10 miles off Iceland’s South Coast, home to one of the world’s largest Atlantic puffin colonies. Just a few years ago scientists estimated there could be up to a million nests and four million puffins in the colony, so even though there are well founded fears the colony is in serious decline I figure we should be able to spot at least one.
In years gone by, before concerns about the colonies were raised, locals would hunt puffins each summer, for food not photos. There was a time when puffin was an important source of food for islanders, and it’s still eaten here fresh, smoked or salted, as a speciality especially around festival time. But it’s not essential to survival and concerns for the puffin colony mean that for the last two summers puffin hunting has been banned completely in Vestmannaeyjar.
Not so easy to spot
But all we want to do is see one, not catch one or eat one. But even that’s not as easy as you might think. Apparently they hang out off shore when the sun shines as it gets too hot in their burrows. And they only live ashore in summer, heading offshore to winter sometime mid to late August. So maybe it’s too hot or maybe we’re too late, maybe most of the birds have gone.
We cling to each other and tufts of grass as we make our way slowly further around and up the cliff. We’re on some kind of sheep trail now, passing empty burrows. There’s a few birds swooping in and out over our heads but I’m losing hope of getting that magic puffin shot, you know the postcard picture of a cute, cheeky, puffin or two, patrolling their burrow, guarding the chicks inside (cutely known as pufflings).
Colonies in decline
Scientists like Erpur Snaer Hansen have been studying puffin colonies in Iceland for years and think there’s been a breeding crisis in Vestmannaeyjar stretching back seven or eight summers. In 2011 only one fifth of the puffins laid eggs, many of them were abandoned and many pufflings died from lack of food, leading to real concerns the colony may collapse. It’s not good news for my photo mission. Perhaps I shouldn’t be trying to get this close anyway.
As the path gets more treacherous, I decide to beat a retreat. I guess these cute little birds are wiser than we know, building nests in inaccessible places where even puffin hunters may fear to tread. It’s hard to think of a colony of millions of birds as being vulnerable but even the largest eco systems are more fragile and vulnerable to change than we may think. It’s not the first time there’s been puffin trouble here. Around a century ago Westman puffins were almost extinct due to over harvesting. Back then it took a 30 year ban then a change in hunting practices for the colony to recover. Today some locals say it’s not hunting that’s the primary cause of colony decline but some other change in the eco system. But scientists say it’s not clear cut and whatever the cause hunting is banned.
Much more than just food
You see the puffin is about more than just food here. It’s not just on the cliffs and in the burrows. It’s in the shops as cuddly toys, on posters, postcards, paintings and knitted jumpers. It’s painted on pavements and signposts. It’s more than just a bird; it’s a symbol of the islands, an icon of Iceland, a tourist attraction. A product. And whether you see it or not for real, you won’t miss it.
But I do. I don’t want it on my wall, or floor or tea towel. I want to shoot it.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We’re spending summer 2012 crossing Northern Europe by car and ferry to visit Iceland and The Faroes. We’re exploring the wilder parts of these adventure islands on mini biking expeditions, and researching and reporting on other attractions and activities on offer to adventure seeking families as we tour other parts of the islands by car. We’re grateful to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for their support in getting us and our vehicle to Europe and onto Iceland and The Faroes, enabling us to bring you this season of posts. And to Berghaus and Thule who have helped equip us for the journey.
You can follow our progress LIVE on The Family Adventure Project Punkt and get some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of our journey.