Nature’s biggest treasure hunt
With their orange, duck-like feet, black-and-white penguin body and bright red, parrot-like beak, puffins have an irresistible charm, despite their ridiculous appearance when airborne.
Frantically flapping, the birds truly appear to be struggling to stay in the air. Their wings rise in feverish protest as if they are running late for the last bus, and when coming into land their bodies sprawl like a skydiver before their clown feet absorb the blow.
One of the larger, but more difficult colonies to access is at Papey Island, located off the coast of eastern Iceland and accessible by boat from the fishing village of Djúpivogur. Privately owned, Papey Island is home to third largest colony of puffins in Iceland, with more than 100,000 breeding pairs.
Daily boat tours allow visitors to get up close to the birds in their natural environment. It requires great patience to sit still on the cliff edge among the hilly tussocks that are used as puffling burrows. But when the puffins get used to human presence, they return to their normal routine, landing close by, their beaks brimming with slivers of transparent- and silver-covered food that contrast brilliantly with the bright red of the beak.
In the past, Papey’s puffin colony was an important local source of meat, eggs and feathers. Nowadays, the bird is the most hunted species in Iceland for its meat – an increasingly contentious issue given that the populations in the south are struggling.
In the Vestmannaeyjar Islands, the puffin situation became so critical that hunting was banned in 2011 and 2012. In 2013 there was a limited hunting season of only five days in July, but they are still hunted in the north, something Hansen said he opposes.
“In the north they’re saying ‘we can hunt because our birds are doing fine’ – just closing their eyes to the obvious fact they’re part of a bigger problem,” Hansen said. “The birds produced in the north are not making up for the losses in the total population.”
Part of the issue with the puffin hunting season is that the birds are now fetching a high price as a culinary delicacy. And as tourism explodes in Iceland, it is set to be a continuing problem. While there is one set of tourists attracted to Iceland to see the birds, there is another set embracing the novelty of eating them in restaurants.
But Iceland’s cuisine is no stranger to controversy. Whale meat is also served in many restaurants, leading to the International Fund for Animal Welfare to develop a “Whale Friendly” sticker to help identify establishments in Iceland that do not serve whale meat. Hansen said he would like to see a similar system put in place to raise awareness about eating puffin: “If people knew what was happening in the population they’d think twice.”