03 September 2012

In the Land of the Puffins

The Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), off the southwestern coast of Iceland, are home to the world's largest puffin colony.  Anyone taking a ferry ride from the mainland to Heimaey - the largest and only inhabited island in the archipelago - is at least somewhat drawn to it by the promise of puffins.  Us included.  The front deck of the boat was closed off. So, standing outside meant approaching backwards.  We saw the mainland move away into a silhouetted sliver and then disappear entirely.  Then, it was just sea until islands began to pop up, out of nowhere, on either side of the ferry.  Cliff side streaks of white bird poo were our first signs that we had arrived in the land of the puffins.
Some of the islands look like the little round scraps that would confetti a tabletop if you hole punched a photo of the alps.   A grassy peak with a lone sheep on top of it smack dab in the center of a body of water.  We had no idea how Lamb Chop got up there.  At least two of Vestmannayer's uninhabited islands have a single building set atop or nestled into the side of a hill.  That white dot on the left side of the island above is one.  We thought, initially, that these were maybe the homes of the world's most romantic loners - or possibly its devoutest monks.  But they are actually puffin hunting cabins which are rented out to groups of dedicated huntsmen within the six week season each year. Needless to say, they have to pack reserves. 
The main island of Heimaey has 4,000 inhabitants who receive around 6 million visiting puffins per year. This used to be quite the boon for residents, a food source arriving in bulk. Puffins were the diversity in an islander's diet of fish, fish and more fish. There was a period at the end of the 19th century when the birds were harvested for their down, too, which was then sent off to Denmark to use in bedding. While lucrative, this put a big strain on the Atlantic puffin population and the practice was banned. All hunting was called off for 30 years. Today, the Atlantic puffin's conservation status is ruled as "least concern," meaning they are far from endangered.
Still, like so much wildlife in the world today, the puffin population have been showing some signs of decline and, as a result, hunting the birds has been prohibited for the last two summers.  Most people chalk the dwindling breeding numbers up to changes in the eco system, over-fishing of the puffins' food sources (small fish), and the introduction of new predators such as domestic pets.  Whether hunting plays a role or not, it's better to just err on the side of caution and cancel the season for a few years.  Or maybe for good?
Any hunting that does take place is done using a method borrowed from the Faroe Islands.  "Sky fishing," involves grabbing a puffin right out of the sky with "fledges," a kind of oversized lacrosse stick.  Their neck is then broken by hand.  It's actually very humane - and only non-breeding puffins are caught.  You can see a huntsman in action in the above Heimaey building art.
Puffin art adorns plenty of buildings on Heimaey.  The people of Vestmannaeyjar have a special relationship with their birds.  The yearly arrival of the millions-strong colony is an event, a tradition and a cause for celebration.  This is the only time in a puffin's life that they set foot on land.  Aside from this breeding period, their entire existence is spent at sea.  As they arrive in Vestmannaeyjar, the birds meet up with their mates.  Some are known to meet midflight and go right at it.  Honey, I haven't seen you in so long!  Puffins are monogamous, except in the rare case that no eggs are produced for a few seasons. Then, the puff daddy goes out and finds himself a new puff mommy.  (Ever think the problem may be with you, bub? Look at him, so smug in that tophat.)
The domestic life of a puffin is undeniably endearing.  Aside from the whole swoon-worthy mating-for-life thing, they also act as true partners in their time together on land.  The male puffin is mainly responsible for building their nest, burrowing a hole into the side of a cliff or finding a rabbit hole to repurpose. The female lines the spot with grass and leaves to make it more comfortable.  Then, once the single egg is laid, the couple share incubating responsibilities - and, once hatched, feeding duty.  Then, the little puffling is mostly on its own, braving the world outside its nest for the very first time during the night.  Its natural instinct is to use the moon to guide its flight, but some get confused by the bright orb streetlights of Heimaey.  So, every year, a "Puffin Patrol" goes out onto the streets and finds the confused little pufflings, bringing them back to the water's edge and sets them free by hand.
Breeding season was just coming to an end as we arrived on the island, but we still got a glimpse of a few stragglers.  After seeing their image on just about every souvenir possible throughout Iceland and in street murals and pub signs in Heimaey, it was both more and less exciting to see them in person.  It's a lot like seeing a rainbow.  You know exactly what one looks like, you know what environment you're most likely to see one pop up, but it's something so attached to drawings, symbols, cartoons, iconography that spotting a true one in nature feels predictable, but lucky somehow. 
"Do you hate it when people order puffin?" Merlin asked... after ordering puffin.  "No, no," the young waitress answered, shaking her head on top of which about a mile of blonde hair was piled.  "When they are young, they are cute.  But when they get big..." she scrunched her nose.  Four deep brown puffin breasts were served alongside a candied pear and some roasted potatoes.  They looked like beef liver, even more so when one was cut open to reveal an intense pink.  It definitely didn't shout "poultry," but then again neither does duck.  The texture was also similar to liver, but the taste was a cross between duck and venison.  You know, in case you were wondering.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful pics and facts again. I worked as a english/swedish/german guide on Heimaei fifteen years ago. And I cought puffin, I ate it, I rescued them together with most of the oyher villagers when the young puffins where distracted by the lights of the village when they shoul learn to fly and go to see and krashlanded in the village instead (because of the lights). But most of what you tell is intresting facts.
    By the way, I shoud have recomended smoked puffin :-) And the big festval they have every summer :-)

    ReplyDelete