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Day 15 - July 26, 2008 - Hornbjarg and Vigur Island, Iceland

By Brent Stephenson, Orinthologist

Noon position: 66 degrees 30.6’ N and 022 degrees 57.0’ W
Weather: foggy to start, clearing early morning, then blue skies and mild, wind increasing in afternoon

The Prince Albert II headed in towards the foggy towering cliffs of Hornbjarg in the early morning. As we approached the cliffs, the fog began to slowly clear and we started to see the beautiful green of this isolated and wild coastline.

We waited for the coastline to clear of most of the sea fog and then began a slow close cruise along the cliffs. Of course the highlight of this was spotting the various bird species that nest along the cliffs, with Northern fulmars and kittiwakes being common and Atlantic puffins, common, black, and Brunnich’s guillemots and Northern gannets being less common. We all gathered on the outside decks to enjoy the mild conditions, blue skies, and wildlife and scenic spectacle. Both myself and our “guest ornithologist” Dick Filby were out and about and able to point out and identify the birds for the guests.

Mid-morning, as we headed towards Vigur Island, our Special Guest Lecturer Jón Sigurdsson gave a presentation on the wonderful nature and history of Iceland. He outlined the settling of Iceland, early life in such a harsh environment, and how people have come to cope with it. This was followed with “Fruschoppen” on the Pool Deck, enjoying Sauerkraut, sausage, suckling pig and beer on the open deck was an enjoyable way to end the morning, with spectacular views of the Icelandic coastline and clear blue skies to boot! Of course lunch was to follow…

As we headed further west along the coastline, many of us spent time out on the open decks trying to spot whales, with probably 20 or more Minke whales being seen as we cruised the waters of the Westfjords and entered Isafjaroardjup Bay. Although not being very cooperative, the whales were seen surfacing and were clearly feeding on small fish and crustaceans, as were flocks of kittiwakes that were tell-tale signs of the food and marine mammals beneath the surface.

Anchoring not far off Vigur Island mid-afternoon, the scout boat headed out to assess the conditions and meet with the locals that live on the island. We all then headed across to the island in the Zodiacs and were stunned to see the sheer numbers of Atlantic puffins that call this island home. Around 50,000 breeding pairs of puffins inhabit the island, along with thousands of Arctic terns and black guillemots. Other species seen whilst on land included common eider duck, Arctic skua, white wagtail, redshank, and purple sandpiper. But the puffins sure were the stars of the show. Many had already finished breeding, having successfully raised their single chick to leaving the nest, and these birds were most obvious as adults loafing on the water or around the entrances to the burrows along the grassy slopes. However, there were still many adults feeding chicks, and these birds could be seen flying in to the colony with fish held in their bills. It was just an amazing spectacle to see the comings and goings, and we were constantly on-guard from attacks by Arctic terns, holding short sticks above our heads to prevent their sharp beaks from making contact with our heads! The island guides, members of the family that lives on the island, also outlined the island’s history and their continued harvesting of puffins for food. Around 10,000 puffins are harvested per year and sold to restaurants and cafes in Iceland. This may seem barbaric, but the Icelandic people have eaten puffin for centuries, and despite the continued harvesting, most populations of puffins in Iceland seem to be stable or increasing. In fact, the population on Vigur Island continues to increase despite this harvest.

We were also given afternoon tea and cakes at the houses, and able to post mail from the small Post Office on the island before heading back to the ship. Despite an increase in the wind speed, we mostly made it back to the ship dry and were able to quickly shower and change before a recap and briefing with the Expedition Team.

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