Nature’s biggest treasure hunt

Threatened by warmer water temperatures and their status as an Icelandic delicacy, experts are fearful for the future of the country’s puffin population.

It is 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 below.

For decades 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.  

“It was 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.

The reason 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.

However in 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.

With colder 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 themselves.

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 transport hub.

Home to 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.

However it 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.

Lined with 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.

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.”