Icelandic Saga: Puffin Quest

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When last I wrote about the 2009 National Geographic Student Expedition to Iceland, we were clambering up the margin of the world’s third-largest glacier. Our next stop: Ingólfshöfthi, where Ingólfur Arnarson—the Viking who founded Reykjavik—wintered over in the year 874 (give or take a few) before heading west to settle what would become Iceland’s capital city.

The cliffs of this eerie headland loom far from the Icelandic mainland across a glacial outwash plain of fine grey and black sand.

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Or not: Often, fog or clouds render Ingólfshöfthi invisible in the distance.

To reach the promontory, we climbed into a tractor-drawn wagon and were pulled across the seemingly endless sands.

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Soon, only our tracks were visible behind us. We rolled on…

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… and on…

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… and on…

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… until, finally, we arrived at the base of a steep sand dune blown up against the rocky bluffs.

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We climbed the sandy slope…

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… and were rewarded with eerie, astonishing views of the surf crashing on the sand hundreds of feet below …

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… of Ingólfshöfthi itself …

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… of the tractor and wagon that brought us (against a strange and desolate backdrop) …

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… and of a monument to Ingólfur, whose single dark winter out here exposed to the ferocious North Atlantic winds is difficult to imagine.

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A hike around the island’s circumference brought us to the cliffs…

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… where a colony of thousands of puffins typically gathers this time of year to bear and raise chicks, or “pufflings”—just one per couple per season. On my three prior summer trips to Ingólfshöfthi over the last few years, migratory puffins had carpeted the cliffs, some standing around …

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… some flying, or making brave first attempts to do so …

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… and many with their beaks draped in tiny fish. (They hold them in place with raspy tongues and spikes on the roofs of their mouths.)

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During our visit, however, the cliffs were nearly bare, with just a few stray puffins and chicks nestled among the rocks.

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“You should have seen them last week,” our tractor-driving guide informed us. “There were too many to count!”

Where did they go, I asked, and why? “Hmmmmm, out to sea?” he replied. “No one knows the mind of the puffin.” Check.

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We lurched, rolled, and raced back down the sandy bluff, into the waiting wagon, and back to a more familiar reality. Farewell, puffins.

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Next up from Iceland: Iceberg lagoon.

Photographs by Ford Cochran