Heimaey, off the coast of Iceland, is the largest island in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. With an estimated eight to ten million puffins in Vestmannaeyjar, it is the location of largest puffin colony in the world.
While hitch-hiking around Heimaey, I was picked-up by the local tyre-salesman and joined him for his daily stroll around the deserted 60° slopes of the island. Initially I thought he was going to push me off the cliff and steal my camera, but he was more interested in spotting whales.
July 1st to August 15th is hunting season. The man showed me a hunting spot on the cliff face (below), which he could only access by walking down the cliff whilst hanging onto a rope. Tucked into this little nook, a hunter would use a big net with a super, long handle to steal the birds from their flight paths. This is called "sky fishing."
Thousands of these adorable birds are hunted every year – sometimes two to three at a time. Once they are caught, the hunters swiftly break their necks.
"The record for one day is 1,700," he said.
"How about you?" I asked.
It seems a bit cruel but it's necessary to control their numbers."See that," he said, pointing to an island of rock bursting out of the ocean. "Me and my friends rent it every hunting season."
Afterwards, he drove me to his house and showed me his long pole... I mean, his net (just look at the picture below and you'll know what I mean). He mentioned that his son had a business of skinning and selling the puffin meat.
"Are they difficult to skin?" I asked.
"No, you can peel the skin off in one piece. My son has become very good at it."
"Because the puffins have short wings," he said, "they need the wind to help them take-off and fly. This is why they live on the cliffs." Once in the air, puffins beat their wings up to 400 times per minute. Furthermore, their short wings are adapted for a special flying technique under water.
Every night in August, millions of newborn puffins leave their burrows in the the cliffs of Heimaey to fly over the north Atlantic ocean. They use the moon to navigate but they get thrown off by the streetlights, and many of them get disoriented and crash onto the streets of the town. So many children, led by their parents, roam the streets at night with flashlights, finding the young birds and launching them back into the air, saving them from the dogs, cats and imminent death. It's a really sweet tradition, but it doesn't stop the people from eating them once they're mature. And the raw heart of a puffin is eaten as a delicacy in Iceland.
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- The Blue Lagoon, Iceland