nature’s biggest treasure hunt. Like the story from a child’s picture book, each
August the children of Iceland’s Vestmannaeyjar Islands stay up late into the
night, roaming the streets. They are searching for pufflings – baby puffins who
have set out on their first flight from the nests in the cliffs above, only to
become disoriented by the town’s bright lights and crash land in the streets
the fledglings have been rescued by children who carefully collect the birds
like Easter eggs; taking them to be weighed the next morning at the local
aquarium and natural history museum, and then releasing them with their parents
by the sea.
It is a
charming tale that any traveller with a healthy wanderlust would like to
experience. But in the last few years, another story has emerged: the puffin
colony in the Vestmannaeyjar Islands has collapsed. The birds are not nesting,
few chicks are hatching and there is not enough food for those who do.
becoming a major attraction,” said Erpur S Hansen, director of Ecological
Research at the South Iceland Nature Centre.
“[But] this is the ninth year in a row the Vestmannaeyjar Islands hasn’t really
produced many chicks at all.” One of Iceland’s leading puffin experts, Hansen monitors
13 puffin colonies around the country.
In 2012, 1,830
pufflings were rescued by local children and brought in for weighing, a low
number considering that Vestmannaeyjar is home to about 600,000 birds – one of
the largest puffin colonies in the world. As of 5 September, just one bird had
been brought in for weighing at the Saeheimar aquarium.
for the population decrease goes back to 2005, with the collapse of the
puffin’s main prey, the sand eel. Warmer water temperatures are affecting the
timing of the production of the sand eel’s main food source – phytoplankton
(algae) and zooplankton (small ocean drifters) – leaving it out of sync with
the birds’ nesting season.
There is also
more competition for this food from an aggressive invasive species, the mackerel,
which has been drawn north to southern Iceland by the warmer water
temperatures. The result is fewer sand eels – leaving the puffins with less
food to be able to successfully breed and then subsequently feed both
themselves and their chicks.
Iceland, where the puffin has achieved iconic status among tourists, it is not
all bad news. Iceland has three different ocean currents surrounding it: the
warm southwest current, the mixed north current and the cold east current.
waters, the puffin populations in the north and east are doing much better than
the southern populations; the same phenomena that are causing the southern sand
eel populations to collapse is creating an abundance of food in the colder
waters of the north and east, and drawing travellers keen to see the birds for
One of the optimum
places to see them is the quiet hamlet of Borgarfjörður Eystri in the remote and pristine Eastfjords, a 70km
drive on a gravel road along route 94 from Egilsstadir, east Iceland’s main
just 130 residents, Borgarfjörður Eystri is well known locally for being home to the Queen of the Elves, a key
figure in Icelandic folklore. But among hikers, it is known for its 27 hiking
routes through pristine mountains said to be millions of years old.
is the puffins that draw the most visitors, with the town increasingly praised among
birders for its close access to the colony. You can get within a metre of the
birds, and in recent years, the sighting of a rare sole drake Steller’s Eider has
attracted twitchers from around the world.
From the centre
of town it is 5km along the coast to one of Iceland’s most accessible puffin
colonies, a small rocky outcrop near the town’s tiny harbour. Built in the
1970s, the harbour has been given Blue Flag status by the Foundation for Environmental Education in
recognition of both its effort to protect the local environment and its high
standard of safety and service facilities.
picnic tables, two specially built viewing platforms – one underneath the
cliffs and one that leads to the centre of the outcrop – bring you within
metres of kittiwakes, fulmars and the Atlantic puffin.
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.
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.
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
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
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.”