The Icelandic Saga of the Atlantic Puffin, the “Little Brother of the Arctic”
By Hugh Powell; photographs by Chris Linder
July 15, 2013
Many centuries ago, a couple of trolls lived together in an out-of-the-way part of northern Iceland called Skagafjordur. They were big trolls even by Icelandic standards, and one night when they were feeling hungry they decided to wade out into the fjord and bring back a small island called Drangey, where seabirds nested in abundance.
It was late in the night when they reached it. The wife got in front and started to pull, and her husband got behind and pushed. They made good headway, but they forgot about that one thing that trolls always forget about: dawn. As the sun’s first rays slanted down, the two trolls turned into stone.
The legend doesn’t say for sure but it seems the seabirds were fine. When I visited Drangey, with a biologist named Erpur Hansen, we found it just as described. We motored across a silvery fjord, passed carefully beneath the troll woman’s left elbow—her husband had crumbled into the sea in the 18th century—and on to the island itself, which was positively shrieking with seabirds: Common and Thick-billed murres, Razorbills, Northern Fulmars, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Iceland’s most populous creature, the Atlantic Puffin.
Drangey itself is a squared-off hulk of a rock guarded by 400-foot cliffs, portions of which must be scaled by ladders. The broad summit is windswept and turfed with brilliant green grass. This is where the puffins make their burrows; all the other seabirds huddle in ledges on the cliffs, their eggs corralled between their feet. The sea has chewed a great curving amphitheater into one side of the island, and you can look down through the wheeling, stalling, darting seabirds at the blue water far below, and the tiny boat that brought you here.
In the 11th century this forbidding rock was the last hideout of Grettir Asmundarson, the great outlaw and hero of The Saga of Grettir the Strong. His life was one tall tale after another, and I kept crossing and recrossing his path as I followed puffins around the country. He trounced trolls, busted ghosts, scuttled Vikings, and composed poetry, but he was plagued with bad luck and he also robbed farmers. He lived on Drangey for nearly four years with his younger brother and a vassal, surviving on mutton and seabirds. In the end he was laid low by a cursed piece of driftwood, and he died among the puffin burrows.
We weren’t planning on staying quite so long. This was a quick visit during a frenzy of fieldwork Hansen calls the Icelandic Puffin Rally—a twice-a-summer trip around the country. The goal is to monitor breeding conditions for a species that accounts for one out of every four birds in Iceland. He gets fishermen to ferry him to the most beautiful seabird colonies in Iceland, and he checks nests using a “burrow cam” that a plumber friend invented.
It would be an idyllic job if the situation for puffins didn’t look so bad right now. For the past eight years there has been a nearly complete breeding failure across the southern half of the country. The puffin rally is Hansen’s effort to find out why, how widely it’s happening, and whether there’s any sign the nosedive is turning around. So far, he told me, the data suggest that warm ocean currents have ushered in a wave of competition that puffins simply can’t keep up with.
Hansen lives on Heimaey, in the Westman Islands, on the opposite side of Iceland from Drangey. It’s home to about 4,000 people and 830,000 breeding pairs of Atlantic Puffins, the largest concentration in the world. This is where the Icelandic Puffin Rally starts.
We stayed with Hansen for the first few days—two field assistants: an Irish Ph.D. student named Lucy Quinn; Yorkshire marine biologist Nick Richardson; plus photographer Chris Linder and me—in a neat white house with a bright-blue front door the exact shade of his favorite statistics textbook. Images of puffins and gannets are etched into the windowpanes.
Hansen is in his mid-40s and tall, with an athletic frame and dark hair starting to gray. He has green eyes and sharp features. As a result of doing his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri (with ecologist Robert Ricklefs), his English is even better than most Icelanders’, though his vowels betray a trace of accent: “The scientific name of the perfin is Fratercula arctica,” he said, for instance, as we peeked into puffin burrows in a Heimaey sheep meadow. “It comes from the Latin for brother, but it’s a diminutive. So, the perfin is our ‘little brother of the Arctic.’”
Puffin hunters on Heimaey were among the first to notice the breeding failures. By 2007 they were catching very few two- to three-year-olds (young puffins can be aged by the number of grooves in their bill). In 2011, with breeding success still flatlining, puffin hunting was suspended in the Westman Islands.
Meanwhile, a workaholic plumber in Heimaey had started tinkering with a burrow cam out of sheer curiosity. Marino Sigursteinsson was born and raised on Heimaey and started hunting puffins when he was 16. But at some point he began to see puffins as his friends, he said, and he stopped.
Puffin hunting has gone on for centuries in the North Atlantic. At first it was laborious and brutal. Men pulled incubating birds out of burrows with hooked sticks. But in the 19th century the art of pole netting was invented in the Faroe Islands, north of Scotland. Hunters crouch along the cliffs and catch flying puffins in long-handled nets. In favorable conditions, good hunters can catch 800 in a day.
Surprisingly, the new technique actually lessened the toll on puffin populations. Pole netting targets the tremendous wheels of flying puffins that form just off the colony cliffs. Thousands of birds spend hours flying in an arc out to sea, then banking and coming back low over the cliffs. The birds that do this are mostly adolescents. They have free time, and they spend it endlessly reconnoitering the cliffs, trying to learn what it takes to find a burrow and a mate.
As a result, fully 70 percent of the catch is two- to four-year olds, many of which would not survive to become breeding birds anyway. “The [breeding] puffins are out fishing,” Hansen said. “They don’t participate in the wheels, except one circle to see if the entrance is clear from gulls.” And then they vanish straight into their burrow.
In 2003, Sigursteinsson connected a lipstick camera via a stout rubberized cable to a battery on a waist pack. He routed the signal to a pair of gray plastic video goggles, and the burrow cam was born. Markings at 20-centimeter intervals on the cable help estimate burrow lengths (most are about five feet long). Infrared lights illuminate the burrow but are invisible to the puffins. By 2007, when Hansen met Sigursteinsson, the plumber was making 1,200 burrow inspections in a season—in his spare time. Sigursteinsson has since appeared as a coauthor on Hansen’s papers.
It was a bit of false comfort that during my stay I saw puffins by the tens of thousands. They stood on the cliffs in the afternoon with their bills on fire in the sun. They flew in blurred wheels of black wings and white cheeks. Or they tapped bills with their mates and set to work renovating their burrow entrances.
The burrows are as busy as ever, but precious few young puffins are coming out each summer. An annual August tradition in Heimaey is for children to go out at night and scoop up chicks that have left the nest but gotten lost in the town lights. It’s called “Nights of the Pufflings.” Sigursteinsson‘s children, in the 1980s, used to rescue 150 a night; the town total could reach 6,000. In 2011, he said, it was 10.
If conditions improve, adult puffins (which can live for 40 years) may still make up for these poor years. But already nearly a decade’s worth of young puffins simply don’t exist. Meanwhile the adults return to the cliffs each spring, and each time they’re one year older.
This is why the puffin rally exists. Before now, biologists made population estimates based on flat percentages of the number of puffins and number of burrows in a colony. With the burrow cam, Hansen can measure the proportion of burrows that puffins occupy, the proportion in which eggs are laid, the proportion of eggs that hatch, and the proportion of chicks that fledge. On a colony-by-colony basis, he can understand how puffins are doing, and at what point they are getting into trouble.
After a few days’ work on Heimaey the puffin rally hit the road. We drove up the west coast, skirting Reykjaholar, where Grettir the Strong once lost patience with a slowpoke ox and carried it home on his back. We visited colonies on Akurey, in Reykjavik harbor, and on a low crescent of rock called Ellidaey. Now we were in the Westfjords, where a negligent Grettir fell asleep in a field and allowed 10 men to pounce on him. He would have been hanged, but a farmer’s wife came to his defense.
Iceland is littered with folklore. Some is whimsical, some is stirring; some tales are very tall indeed. They seem to fulfill a basic human desire to hear stories of great hardships and great triumphs. They keep our great deeds from fading into oblivion, at least until later generations decide they’re impossible and stop telling them. But folklore also preserves the mundane details of life. It reveals the Iceland that has shaped Icelanders.
Vikings colonized the country in 874 A.D. The tales they told describe a land so desolate that people fought over driftwood and for the right to scavenge beached whales. They sat in farmhouses through dreadful winter storms, listening to the sound of trolls kicking their heels against the rafters. They gave names and stories to the smallest features of geography. You can type Drangey into Google Maps and see where Grettir spent his last winters. The country is so remote and self-contained that it can feel like it is the entire world.
At a windswept dock on an empty shoreline we met a round-bottomed fishing boat crewed by a father and son. It was low tide and we climbed down a ladder onto the boat. The father had an enormous black eye and the son’s arm was in a cast, but they seemed cheerful enough. The boat began to waddle toward our destination, a tiny island called Little Grimsey full of puffins and eiders. Hansen was wearing Ray-Bans and smoking slim brown cigarettes, which the men shared while they traded gusts of Icelandic. The language seems to have a shortage of vowels but a surplus of syllables. It’s said to be the closest you can get to what the Vikings spoke.
The low hills of the island were green and hummocky, and under each hummock was a puffin burrow. The sky was clear blue and the sun had been uncharacteristically bright for a week. “People living in the twenties had summers like this,” Hansen remarked. “People like me who spent their youth in the seventies, there was always rain, wind, and heavy snow winters. It was a crap youth, basically.” He and Richardson opened watertight cases and pulled out their burrow cams.
Watching them at work was like watching the parts of The Matrix where Keanu Reeves lies in his chair with his eyes closed. All you see are two grown men sprawled on the turf with blue anoraks pulled over their heads. Periodically, one rears his head like a zombie and cries out, “Lundi!,” which means he’s spotted a puffin.
But the view from the goggles is a different story. Each lens fills your vision with a gray-and-white image. Suddenly you are at the burrow entrance, an inch tall and heading in. The burrow sides arc up and out of view; you duck as the camera passes under roots. The infrared lights reveal nothing in the empty passageway. You catch yourself craning your neck to look around corners.
Finally, if you follow the right forks, a few dry pieces of grass appear at the edge of the beam. The passageway widens into a nest chamber. A few more centimeters and a puffin’s face materializes. After peering into the grainy darkness for so long, it seems inconceivable that the picture could be so sharp: the brilliant whiteness of the cheek; the clown-face makeup rendered in gray. The eye blinks. There’s the sharp curve of the bill, and the three neat grooves that indicate its age.
The bird just sits still; it doesn’t seem alarmed. From under the edge of one wing, you can just see a smooth curve of something whitish.
“Lundi and an egg!”
We continued clockwise onto the north coast. We passed Bjarg, where an adolescent Grettir caused headache after headache for his father. We stayed in Hólar, home to a 16th-century bishop called Gudmundur the Good, who attempted to bless the haunted cliffs of Drangey but was scared off by evil spirits. We had a breakfast of cod roe from a toothpaste tube and slices of lamb smoked in sheep dung. Hansen pulled out some Powerpoint slides and walked us through what he thinks is happening to puffins.
In a touch of ecological irony, the problem seems to be invading hordes. “This is the most likely suspect—the butler,” Hansen said, showing a picture of a slim, steely blue mackerel, a fish that has recently started to appear in Icelandic waters. “They are vacuum cleaners. Everything in front of them they eat.”
They’re here because of an oceanic “regime shift” called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which is pushing warm water and mackerel north to Iceland. Before 2007 Iceland had no commercial mackerel fishery; last year they caught 150,000 tons. In 2010 an estimated 1.1 million tons were swimming in Icelandic waters. With that many “vacuum cleaners,” there’s now intense competition for food, Hansen said, particularly copepods and other zooplankton. That puts the squeeze on sand eels, a small fish that forms the basis of the puffin’s diet.
By the time puffins have chicks to feed, in July, the mackerel have for months been eating through zooplankton stocks that used to feed sand eels (and, from time to time, eating sand eels as well). Fishery surveys show a decline in sand eel numbers. To raise their chicks, the puffins now have little recourse except to make more foraging trips, fly farther, and return to their burrows with less food. Most puffins haven’t even been trying, Hansen said. They abandon their nests—leaving an egg or even a chick behind—and hope for better luck next year.
As its name implies, the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation is a drawn-out affair. A full circuit from cold phase to warm and back takes roughly 70 years. The present shift began in 1996. “We just saw the temperatures rising, and they’ve been going up and up, and we have hit the records already”—possibly because of overall climate warming, Hansen said. “And this warm period has 20 years left.”
As in many ecological studies, the evidence against mackerel is frustratingly circumstantial. “If you really want to confirm a cycle you need three [iterations], and I am not going to have the lifetime to do that,” Hansen said. Mackerel’s appearance off southern Iceland at the same time as the puffins’ breeding decline could be coincidence. But during the last warm period, from 1920 to 1960, fishermen also found mackerel in Icelandic waters, and records show that puffin hunters caught fewer young birds then, too. And there’s a further coincidence: mackerel have not yet reached northern Iceland, and neither have the breeding failures.
We rolled into Skagafjordur a few days before the summer solstice. Here we met another father-and-son team, Viggó Jónsson and Helgi Viggósson. They wore smart black windgear with white piping, and each had the same square shoulders, square face, square jaw, blue eyes, and blond hair.
A long rock seawall protected the dock. Behind it was one of Iceland’s many hot pools. It’s called Grettislaug, after the time Grettir warmed up here after swimming four miles from Drangey to borrow some coals for his fire.
Out at the island I walked the grassy summit with Viggó and Helgi. Just under our feet thousands of puffins rested in their burrows, one wing crooked around one large egg. In the center of the island was a single-room hut with a turf roof where hunters stay during puffin season. Grettir probably lived in something similar, a dank, grass-roofed hut that would have smelled of smoke and mutton—basically a puffin burrow itself. I tried to picture the winters, when the cliffs went silent and the sun barely rose, and the men had to climb down the wet cliffs each day to search the shores for firewood.
Why raid cliffs for a bird that weighs barely a pound fully feathered? Going all the way back to the trolls, Icelanders ate puffins because in a land that had little to offer, they were abundant. After a while, a culture grew up around it. What does puffin taste like? I asked. “It’s very good when you smoke it,” Helgi said. “Or you can set it on the barbecue, or in the pan with cream,” Viggó added. It tastes like minke whale, he said.
With a bit of imagination, you can look at a puffin on a cliff edge, as it gazes off into the Atlantic, and see short, broad, red-haired Grettir confined to his lonely sea-stack. Grettir had good intentions, but he was a barbarian in a world that was civilizing under his feet. The country had recently converted to Christianity—even his enemies had had to hide the fact they’d used a curse on him. His world had made an abrupt shift, and he didn’t have enough luck or leeway to change.
As my plane left Iceland, I looked down at Reykjavik, the Westman Islands, the renegade volcano Eyjafjallajökull, and Eldey, where the last of the Great Auks died. Soon the cabin lights would dim and the movies would start: Hollywood sagas plugging new action heroes into the same old templates of heroism and villainy. I thought of that turf-roofed hut on Drangey, where Grettir’s enemies had broken in one arctic night in 1031. They found him cursed and deathly sick. It was up to Grettir’s own little brother, Illugi, to defend him as bravely as he could. But in the end, history moved ahead without them.
I don’t think the same finality will befall the puffins—after all, there are roughly 20 million more of them than there were of Grettir. But the North Atlantic is entering a new era, and none of us have much choice but to live in it.
“The Faroes got hammered two years earlier than us,” Hansen had told me as we sat in the sun on Little Grimsey. “I think it’s support for the mackerel theory. Iceland started selling puffins to the Faroes because their harvest was so low. Now northern Iceland is selling puffins to southern Iceland.”