Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Search of the Elusive Puffin

When we had our honeymoon in Scotland in 2004, I had a short list of things I absolutely wanted to do:
  • Go to a distillery.
  • Take a trail ride.
  • See puffins.
We went to not one but two distilleries. I spent a delightful albeit terrifying 90 minutes on the back of a speedy thoroughbred, racing through the hills and sheep fields near Kingussie.

The puffin seeing was not as successful. We skipped a trip to Handa Island, figuring we'd get to see puffins on our trip to the northwestern-most point in Scotland: Cape Wrath.

I suppose we might have seen puffins at Cape Wrath, assuming we'd been able to see more than five feet in front of us. The area was socked in by the sort of fog you'd think only exists in spy movies - thick, oppressive, and vaguely menacing.

We were able to take the boat across to the Cape and the bus ride up to the lighthouse, but it was something of an exercise in futility. We couldn't see the lighthouse until we were within a few feet of it. The only wildlife I saw was a one-eyed trouser snake, which I glimpsed when I blundered around a corner where a cyclist was using the Great Outdoors as a toilet. (There was a pack of cyclists on the trip and I guess one of them was meant to be 'guarding' the loo area but was derelict in this duty.)

Seeing puffins went onto my lifetime to-do list, but I always seemed to miss out. Peter got to see them when he took his photography trip to Iceland. Last year, I thought I'd get to see them on Skellig Michael, but weather prohibited the trip twice. So you can imagine how excited I was when I planned to take my family on the boat tour at the Cliffs of Moher.

When the morning of the boat tour arrived, it was raining and a little misty. My hopes of seeing a puffin plummeted. On the boat, I eventually made my way to the bow, which gave a much better view. Plus, one of the crew, Sean, was hanging out there and pointing out the sights. When Sean pointed and shouted "Puffin!", I craned my neck to follow his finger, only to have him retract his statement and declare the bird was actually a guillemot.

Disappointed, I still kept my eyes peeled for the tell-tale white and orange face. Before long, Sean pointed and shouted "Puffin!" again, only this time, it was the real thing. The puffin was swimming about 10 feet from the side of the boat. It paddled along and then, in a smoothly practised gesture, took off into the sky and flew away.

Excited doesn't even begin to cover how I felt. I had no idea they swam along on the top of the water. I don't know why I the thought had never occured to me, since I knew they had to dive to catch their dinner.

The most surprising thing about the puffin was its size. Much like when you see Van Gogh's "The Starry Night" in art museum, puffins are much smaller than you thought they were, but otherwise they measure up to expectations quite well.

Besides their cute little faces, I was also amused by and taken with their little orange feet. One of the puffins dove down under the water and I could see his bright little feet for longer than I could see his body, like they were waving good-bye as he plunged deeper and deeper into the dark water.

Sometimes, when you've waited so long to do something, the experience doesn't quite measure up to the myth you've built up in your head. I'm happy to report that finally seeing the elusive puffin was even better than I'd hoped.
Ed note: Peter took the picture above in Iceland.

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At 25 June 2008 at 07:57, Blogger Babaloo said...

They do look cute. I've never seen one in real life. Well done on persevering and finally seeing one!
And yes, Starry Night is smaller than I expected. :)

At 25 June 2008 at 12:51, Blogger Kaycie said...

How adorable!

At 25 June 2008 at 14:42, Blogger laurie said...

that is a wonderful, funny, sweet picture.

and what a great story of perseverance and belief. i've never seen a puffin, either. i think i would remember.

and i am quite sure this is the first time anyone has compared a puffin to a van gogh painting.

At 25 June 2008 at 16:54, Blogger Noelle said...

I've never seen a puffin. And before 5 minutes ago, I've never wanted to see a puffin.

At 25 June 2008 at 20:03, Blogger -Ann said...

Babaloo - It's well worth it to see one in real life.

Kaycie - So cute, it hurt, in fact. :)

Laurie - Just seemed like the right thing to do - compare one of my favourite birds to one of my favourite paintings.

Noelle - It was well-worth the wait, although I hope you don't have to wait as long as I did.

At 26 June 2008 at 13:08, OpenID conortje said...

Make sure you do get to go to Skellig Michael at some point though - it's an incredible experience. Sadly the puffins had already gone home when I was there.

At 26 June 2008 at 18:42, Blogger -Ann said...

Conortje - Oh yes, I'll be trying again for sure. I've been washed out 2 more times this year, but I think we may try again on my birthday.


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