Puffins are cute birds, so cute that people plan vacations just to observe them. Kathryn and I became such people, planning our vacation to Iceland in June to ensure we could photograph puffins. As we all know, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Our first five days in Iceland are in areas that do not have puffin colonies. Getting a little itchy we decide to make a stop at Dyrhólaey in Vik along the way from Arnarstapi to Hofn, normally a 7.5-hour drive. It was so windy, perhaps 40 mph gusts, that we couldn’t find a single puffin. We decide to emulate them and head for cover. We end the day with no puffin sightings. Skunked in Vik.
We are in Hofn for five days where we are mesmerized by Vestrahorn (Dramatic Vestrahorn). We photographed Vestrahorn from every angle in all weather conditions. On the fifth day it is time to try and find some puffins (other than nibbling on one in a restaurant). We ask the front desk clerk at our hotel where we can go to photograph puffins. He says the best place is a 4.5-hour drive North along the coast. It’s our last day and the weather looks frightful, more of the 40 mph winds we recently survived in Vik. It’s an easy decision – pass. There is also a colony of puffins an hour away to the west, but we would have to take a two-hour tour, most of the time on an open-air cart. $160 for this, in the wind, and rain? Pass. Skunked in Hofn!
We now have only four days left on our trip and haven’t had a single puffin sighting. Back in Vik for a three of these days, we are hopeful there is an improvement in the weather. Miraculously the clouds break, and the wind dies off. It’s a beautiful night! It’s time to get lucky. It’s time to see a puffin. After dinner (sans puffin) we make our way to Dyrhólaey, driving around and up the side of a mountain, where we see the road blocked by a makeshift fence. The sign clearly says the road is closed, both in Icelandic and in English. There is no way we could plead ignorance if we tried to pass. No one is allowed on the cliffs because it is puffin nesting season. Nobody blocked off a single road when we were nesting. We are frustrated. Skunked in Vik again!
There is one more opportunity to see puffins, a visit to the famous Heimaey Island, a place known for its many colonies of puffins. Up early for our one-hour drive to the pier, a 45-minute boat ride, and a 20-minute drive to the far end of the island. Here is where the puffins are, so the literature says. There is even a bird blind constructed solely to view the puffins (it is even called, Puffin Blind, pretty creative naming). This is going to be great; we can photograph the puffins without scaring them off. They won’t know we are here. We stood and peered out a small slit in the wall. There are no puffins, just a sheep. After 15 minutes of nothing but a sheep, we decide to try the cliffs at the very end of the island. Sheeped this time!
We make our way through fields of sheep and sheep shit, getting very near a cliff with a precipitous drop. We spot one in the distance standing in the grass. Shhhh! We make our way toward him (her?), crouching as we go. As we get close, we hit the ground and start an army crawl through the stuff sheep left behind. We don’t care, there is a puffin ahead. We crawl toward our prey. I take a photo and look on my camera screen. The puffin is way too tiny; I must get closer. I crawl some more and fire away. Again, the puffin is too small in my picture. I crawl even more getting as close as I dare. I take some rapid-fire shots, my camera sounding like a machine gun. Is the puffin deaf? Did I kill it? It just stays there, posing. I keep shooting and shooting. 200 photos later I think I have captured it.
We make our way around the island, stopping at spots known to have puffins. We spot some cliff-side. Again, we get on our bellies, leaning over a cliff with a 1,000 foot drop, and collect another 200 images. I have so many puffin images! I am so happy!
We got our puffins. We traveled over 4,000 miles and crawled through sheep shit to get these shots. What do you think? Was it worth it?