Famed for its spectacular panoramas of bizarre lava landscapes, blazing shows of northern lights, and magnificent, explosive geysers, Iceland is increasingly becoming a hot spot for worldly wanderlusters. But I didn't go to see the volcanoes or geothermal spas. I went to see the night, and to see what the night would bring. I went in search of pufflings.
Yes, pufflings, as in baby puffins. There is a small cluster of islands, Vestmannaeyjar (Westmann Islands), just three hours south by ferry from the main island. The largest of these islands is Heimaey, famous for two things: the 1973 volcanic eruption that spewed lava continuously for five months, and its annual puffling rescue. Icelanders become somewhat blasé contending with volcanoes, but rescuing these little birds has become a tradition they take very seriously and proactively, a tradition that has already passed down through many generations of islanders.
There are millions of puffin burrows on this island, and you can literally trip over or stumble into one of them. These birds were on Heimaey long before people started living here, and their routine remains the same, with only minor adjustments. During the summer months, adult puffins fly out into the ocean and bring back fish for their brood. But at the end of the summer, their work is done and they retire to the open waters for a winter's rest. Forced to hunt for themselves, plump young pufflings emerge from their burrows to take a tentative attempt at an inaugural flight and head for the bountiful waters.
Unfortunately, as the island's human population grew, so did its effect on the ecosystem. Roads were paved, houses built, and docks established. All these infrastructures required light, so now during the two fateful weeks at the end of summer when pufflings emerge, these lights look astonishingly like moonbeams reflecting off the open waters. Instinctively, pufflings fly toward the "moonbeams" to help guide them, but instead of landing on buoyant, food-rich waters, they tumble on hard, unforgiving, dangerous land.
At best, puffins are awkward flyers; at worst, they're incapable of flying at all. Puffins (let alone pufflings) cannot take flight from land. They must run and bounce off the buoyant surface of water or glide off from a cliff. Once they land in town, they are landlocked until rescued. From the moment they alight, a race begins to find them before wild animals, speeding cars, or starvation get to them first.
When I was still in Canada doing research for this trip, I couldn't find much information about this event and contacted any Heimaey resident I could get an e-mail address for. Purely out of desperation and passion for ensuring I could partake in this wondrous, magical event, I resorted to a mild form of e-mail harassment. "Where is the best place to stay on the island to find the pufflings?" "When is the best time to come see the pufflings?" "Can I find pufflings near your guesthouse?"
Surprisingly, I got responses from everyone, who more or less replied with polite, short messages of this variety: "Yes, you can come to my house and see the pufflings. They are in my garden." In hindsight, my questions were ridiculous. Replace the word squirrels for pufflings in the above questions and you'll understand: they were everywhere.
My first night out I went with my guesthouse hosts, Thorgeir and Thorgen Richardsson. They had recently moved back to Heimaey with their four young children and were introducing them to puffling rescuing as well. That excursion doubled as a tour of the island. We went everywhere in search of pufflings. We went to the school, the churchyard, the docks...anywhere with bright lights and hiding spots. Thorgeir knew them all well, and she was incredibly adept at reading the shadows. I was much more clumsy in my efforts and only caught pufflings after they got tired of running or were finally cornered in a doorway. I chased these birds through back yards and alleys and parking lots and gardens. And I was not alone. Every few minutes, we would come across another group of people and exchange information on puffling sightings and peek inside each other's boxes to compare numbers. After catching only five that night, we returned home at 2 a.m. to give the birds a rest before releasing them later that morning.
The few photos I saw on the Internet of pufflings being released always depicted a very young, very blond child hurling a bird into the air. Sometimes you would see a child swinging it underhanded between his legs before flinging the poor bird. I always thought it was a most inhumane way to send off a creature that had already endured so much hardship in its brief life. If I ever made it to Iceland and got the chance to release some pufflings, I promised myself, I would do it much more gently and show these children how to treat the birds graciously.
Here was my chance. The next morning, Thorgeir bundled us all into the car and drove us cliffside to a stunning location with a gorgeous, swirling bay below. We brought the boxes out and the pufflings started squawking and flapping: a good sign that they were healthy and in a feisty, fighting mood. Thorgeir reached into the box, lifted one out, and handed it to me. I took it tentatively but firmly, grasping the puffling around its pudgy girth, under its wings. With all the children watching in amusement and excitement, I held the puffling with outstretched arms and let the bird's wings catch the wind until I could feel it lifting a bit from my hands. With the next breeze, the puffling flapped its wings harder and I gently lofted it up into the air. And then it dropped like a sack of herring onto the ground.
I was stunned. It was stunned. The children, however, were hysterical. The puffling recovered before I did and started running. The children started running after it, and all I could do was watch, horrified, as it was chased to the edge of the cliff then back to the car, where it hid underneath until Thorgeir managed to coax it out. She grabbed it firmly and, with a strong, heaving lob, launched it into the air. We watched it fumble a bit as it was arcing down into the bay, until it eventually used the momentum of its release to catch the wind, unfurling wings in time to glide smoothly onto the waters below. The next day we went to the beach to do our releases. Working from sea level was safer for all of us.
Heimaey's city council has been recently considering the introduction of a puffling census. Anecdotally, it seems the pufflings are fewer in numbers, smaller in size, and weaker in strength than in years and generations past. The ones I saw and the few I caught seemed very plump and healthy, but I had also heard from others about pufflings that were too weak to give chase or too tired to fly and swim very far. Conditions are ever-changing and their environment evolving, but the islanders will always be there to figure out a way to get the pufflings back on course so that one day, as adult puffins, they can find their way back home to Heimaey.
ACCESS: Icelandair flies to Keflavíƒ k via major eastern U.S. cities. Its Web site (www.icelandair.com/) will give you current deals and explain more about the Take a Break option, which allows you to stay in Iceland for up to seven nights on your way to or from Europe. It's a surprisingly cheap way to get to Europe, especially to Iceland itself.
Once at Keflavíƒ k Airport, catch a bus into Reykjavíƒ k's main bus terminal. From there you'll have to take another bus to the port city of Thorlakshofn, which connects by the Herjolfs ferry to Heimaey, running each way once daily. This is a two-hour-and-45 minute ride famed for crossing rough waters and inducing seasickness. If you prefer, there are also daily flights to Heimaey from Reykjavíƒ k; call beforehand ( 481-3300) to check the schedule, as tempestuous changes in weather are typical.
You can bring a car onto the ferry, but the island is small and most easily explored on foot. There is no public transit on the island, and only one taxi company in operation. Neither are really necessary at all, as Icelanders are quick to offer a ride if it appears you're going their way.
There are a few campsites on the island but a profusion of guesthouses offer a variety of accommodation, ranging from farmhouses to B & Bs to dormitories.
Iceland's tourism board (www.icelandtourist.is/) is friendly and a wealth of information. Again, you won't find any specific information on puffling rescuing on the Internet or in any of the literature, so just plan your trip for Heimaey/Vestmannaeyjar. You can contact a tourist office on the island at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (354) 481-3555 or (354) 481-2694, or visit www.vestmannaeyjar.is/.
No matter how you get there or how long you stay, be sure to budget some time and kronas on your last day for the Blue Lagoon. Airport buses from Reykjavíƒ k to Keflavíƒ k Airport are timed so that you can stop at this famous spa for a few hours before resuming your trip to the airport. A most civilized way to end your stay in Iceland.