On my recent trip to Iceland I spent two days on the main island of the Westman Islands, Heimaey. I did not know much about this island before my visit, but I can say that this place is full of friendly people who are truly a community.
The only way to get to the island is by ferry, and after arriving and checking into the hotel we went to walk around the island. Shortly after we set out a car pulled over and a woman got out and asked if we speak English. She asked if we wanted to see puffins and stated she had some in the car and we were welcome to get in the car and join her in taking these puffins to be counted.
Now, let me say, in most places I would not get into the car of a stranger. But this is Iceland. Not only Iceland, but a small island of Iceland only accessible by ferry. So I figured why not.
We got in the car with (I hope I am spelling her name correctly) Vigdis, her son and her son’s friend. She began to explain to us a fascinating tradition on the island. During this time of year baby puffins – also called pufflings – would coast into town in search of food.
However, there would be no food and they are in danger of not only starvation but also other city dangers. So, during this time of year the brave and noble children of the town are allowed to stay up late and catch the pufflings and then take them to be counted, weighed and measured and then released back to the sea so that they can find food and survive. There were currently three pufflings in the back of the car that had been caught.
We arrived at the center to count the pufflings. They are taken out of their boxes and then the children who caught the bird proudly take their picture holding their bird.
I also spoke to one of the employees at the center, who explained that they had noticed the puffin population on the island decreasing several years ago so they had established this process in order to not only help the puffins, but also see if there was any correlation between weather conditions and the puffin population over time. They are studying to see what type of conditions may cause a change in the number and size of the pufflings born that year. This year is a good year and the count has been record breaking!
After this, the next step is the most fun one, in my opinion. We drove to the local golf course which had a platform looking out over the ocean. There were many children coming back and forth with their cardboard bird boxes. We went up on the platform and I was asked if I would like to release one of the three birds the children had captured. Of course!! I watched the two expert children to see the proper bird releasing form. Hold the body, loosen the wings, and then throw the bird up and out so that it can swoop gracefully to the sea.
When it was my turn, I followed the instructions and hoped like crazy the bird would not crash into the cliffs directly below us. Thankfully, he coasted gracefully down to the sea and is hopefully snacking away happily now. I am so appreciative for this very unique experience.
The next day, we had a puffin and volcano tour with Ebbi from Eyjatours. And hey, guess what? He showed up with a puffling in a box!
Ebbi was great and took us on a tour of the island and provided us with a good amount (as in, more than I can remember) of the history of the island. He also introduced us to the island sport of Sprangan. This is the art of swinging from a rope on a cliff in order to obtain bird eggs for eating. He gave us a demonstration and I can honestly say he looked like quite the expert to me.
He also told us about the volcanic nature of the island and that one of the newly formed Westman Islands is the newest island in Europe!
I truly enjoyed my visit to this island. The people were so friendly, and the puffin experience was totally unexpected and totally amazing!