As a kid I used to travel with my fingertips across a world map. Growing up in Germany’s industrial Ruhr Valley after the war, I looked at charts of the most remote regions in the world while imagining what it must be like to visit these places. Places that had less pollution, were less populated, had plenty of wildlife and didn’t have to fear a Russian invasion.
As if attached only as an afterthought, the Westfjords peninsula is connected to the rest of Iceland by an isthmus that is only 7 km wide. Wild, remote and with a steadily declining population (only 2% of Iceland’s residents live in the Westfjords), this part of Iceland truly meets my insatiable need to be away from civilization.
With a population of less than 4,000 residents, the town of Ísafjörður represents the biggest community in Westfjords. It is located along the second largest fjord in Iceland and survives from fishing, tourism and … the sale of eiderdown. But I didn’t come to stroll through the streets of Ísafjörður or collect down from the eider ducks’ nests, I came to visit the tiny island of Vigur. I wanted to take photos of my favourite bird: the puffin!
It takes a 45 minute boat ride from Ísafjörður to reach this special place. Vigur is only 400 m (1,300 ft) wide and 2 km (1.24 miles) long, but it is home to large numbers of arctic terns, black guillemots, eider ducks and puffins. The same human family has lived on the island for generations. They greet you warmly as you arrive, lead you on designated paths across the island and serve you rhubarb pie and the best coffee you have ever tasted before you leave. Vigur Island also features the smallest post office in Iceland.
Taking pictures of puffins is not easy. They are quite shy and have the tendency to hide in their burrows as you come closer. Puffins are clumsy flyers. They prefer to take off when a breeze can lift their heavy bodies, making flying less strenuous. I have done some research on puffins. Here is what I learned:
- Atlantic puffins spend a solitary life at sea for most of their lives; they only come to shore to mate and raise their young.
- Puffins choose a partner for life; they mate and produce only one egg every spring.
- Once the juvenile puffin has left the nest, the parents leave the island and separately go back to sea only to find each other again during the following spring at the same location and the same burrow.
- Young puffins spend the first few weeks of their lives inside the burrow, where they are being fed by their parents; when ready, they find their way to the ocean (by walking or hopping), take to the water and don’t return until they are mature enough to mate (4 years).
- Puffins only display their orange beaks and feet during the mating season; once at sea, they molt and shed the orange from their bodies which become darker and less visible to predators.
- Puffins tend to eat young herring up to 7 cm (3”) long; they can catch and hold in their beaks several fish at a time; they find food within 100 km (60 miles) from shore and tend to return to their nests in swarms; this seems to be a protective behaviour as returning in large numbers will confuse predators and make it difficult for them to single out individual victims.
- Puffins can fly up to 80 km/h (50 mi/hr); because of their roundish body shape and relatively short wings, puffins have to work hard to get air-borne; when taking off the water, they launch themselves by running across the water while vigorously flapping their wings; the short wings have the advantage that they can be used as fins while diving; puffins can dive to a considerable depth and stay under water for up to 1 minute.
- Puffins always return to the location of their own birth; their distribution ranges from Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Spitsbergen to England; the puffins’ conservation status is classified at “least concern”.
- While the number of puffins in Iceland and Norway are impressive, there is concern about their future; the puffins’ greatest weaknesses are their territorialism and apparent lack of adaptive ability; with increasing water temperature, the herring will be wandering further north, keeping the puffins looking for food; early observations have shown that puffins do not adapt easily by finding alternative food sources, they starve to death rather than switching to a different fish species.
With close to 900 exposures of bird life in my camera, I leave the island of Vigur reluctantly. I wish I could stay – not only because of the rhubarb pie. This place is magical when the sun shines as it did when I visited. The snowy mountains on the other side of the fjord, the seals in the crystal clear waters, the angry terns attacking from above and the anxious puffins – all were relieved when I left. I can’t blame them. After all, even my brief presence in this otherworldly place diminishes the very thing that I yearn for the most – unspoiled nature.