Today is our last day in Vestmannaeyjar, the small group of islands off the south-west coast of Iceland. We’ve had a great time here and the fabulous weather has unbelievably continued.
This place hosts the largest puffin colony in the world, and in August, the baby puffins (endearingly called pufflings) are abandoned by their parents once they are ready to be on their own, and finally leave the nest once they get hungry enough to motivate them to move. They often leave in the nighttime and look for the sea, which they apparently find by looking for the reflections of the stars in the water. The city lights confuse them, though, and many of them end up on the streets of the small town here, Heimaey. The children of the town look for them each night, chase them down, pop them in a box and bring them home for the evening. In the morning, they take them to the beach and hurl them into the air. Needless to say, we wanted to get in on this, and our visit was largely motivated by a desire to see the pufflings.
We arrived on Friday in a tiny little plane (about 18 seats). That night, we went out with no flashlight and no box and figured we were doomed to failure. However, after a short while, we ran into an English man and his son who were staying in our guesthouse and had a flashlight. We hooked up with them for the rest of the evening. It turns out that they actually live in Reykjavík and he’s a rather famous person here; he illustrated some books about Icelandic folklore that are in every tourist shop here. Anyway, we wandered around for quite a while and were on our way home when I saw something drop out of the sky in my peripheral vision. I ran over to where it fell and saw that it was a little puffling! They seem to only be able to fly if they’re jumping off a cliff and get a head start, so the best they can do to get away is just waddle around and flap their little wings, so he was pretty easy to catch. The English guy found a ratty old box in a fishy-smelling dupster and we put him in there, quite pleased with ourselves, and headed home. A few minutes later, we came across a baby seagull in the middle of the main drag. All the kids are only interested in getting puffins, so no one was rescuing him. We had acquired another box along the way, so I picked up the seagull, too, and now we had two birds to look after for the evening.
We put them on the table in our room and they were pretty quiet at first. It was a bit hard to get to sleep, though, because we kept thinking “we have a puffin in our room!” At 5:45, they decided that they’d had enough and started pecking and scratching at their boxes. We eventually gave in to them and brought them down to the beach. The idea is to grab the bird and swing him a few times between your legs using the pose that children (and I) use for bowling. We were going to start with the seagull for practice, but he wasn’t having any of it. Finally I wimped out and just turned his box sideways so he could walk out himself. He swam off quite happily. The puffin had a really low crappy box with no flaps. We were just using another piece of cardboard as the lid. I think he heard the waves crashing and had just the motivation he needed, so once I lifted the lid, he was out of there before I could grab him. He ran down to the water and swam off, and literally within 10 seconds of getting in the water, he was diving for fish and coming back up far away from where he went down. It’s amazing what good divers they are.
On Saturday, we climbed the “new” volcano here. It erupted in 1973 and covered 1/3 of the town in lava and all of the town in deep ash. It also came very close to closing off the mouth of the harbor here, which would have been devastating to the economy here, as they catch 15% of Iceland’s fish here. The firemen stopped the flow of lava by spraying cold seawater on it 24 hours per day. Apparently the harbor was actually improved by the added shelter that the lava flow provided. It’s still hot in the volcano. You can walk around in the crater, where it’s 470°C just one meter below the surface.
On Saturday night, we looked and looked but didn’t find any pufflings 🙁
On Sunday, we walked and walked and walked. Our feet are really ready for transplant after all the walking that we’ve been doing. At night, I convinced Ian that he really did want to go out at midnight for pufflings. We saw two of them about half a second after someone else saw them, so we were feeling pretty cheated and were heading back home when suddenly we got two in the space of a minute. There’s a shipyard right by the harbor and it seems like a good place to go. We were very pleased with ourselves and vowed to get the release right this time.
After being smart enough to leave the birds in the hallway for the night, we went out this morning to release them. Walking down to the harbor they were scrambling about all over the box. I felt quite guilty for the trauma that we were imposing upon them, but if they weren’t rescued, they’d die of exposure or starvation. You see plenty of evidence of puffin infant mortality around this town. On the way down to the beach, a guy pulled up next to us in a truck and asked us to take his puffin, too. We think he must have found him on his boat or something. So now we had three.
This time, we did the release correctly and got a few decent pictures of us throwing the puffins out to the water. When you let go of them, they are high enough that they can fly a bit, and get about 50 feet out into the water before they land. Ian managed to put a bit of spin on the one he threw, so we have a picture of the poor thing belly up in the air. He landed with a bit of a splash, but was fine. All in all, a fun morning.
This afternoon, we decided to go horseback riding. Ian has never been on a horse and I haven’t been on one for a long time. Icelandic horses are really beautiful and gentle, so it was an especially nice way to ride. We went with two other people and the guy who owns the horses on a 2.5 hour ride, or so. It was a lot of fun. Now we are really dusty and smell of horses, but we had a great time. We must have looked very silly with bicycle helmets on while riding down the road on horses.
Once again, I’ve rambled on and on. Tomorrow morning we’ll head back to Reykjavík on the tiny airplane. Then we just have one more night there before we head back home. It’s been a great vacation.