Europa

Látrabjarg Cliffs

Puffin Rally to the
Látrabjarg Cliffs

On a road trip to Iceland's remote Westfjords, I explore the travel bloggers insatiable quest for novelty, and the decline of the iconic Atlantic Puffin. Includes an interview with puffin researcher Erpur Snær Hansen.

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e are driving north from Reykjavik, to the westernmost point of Europe — the Látrabjarg Cliffs of Iceland’s Westfjords.

The cliffs are a massive promontory, just a few degrees south of the Arctic circle, pointing towards Greenland. The granite cliffs slope vertically downward for up to 1,400 feet into the North Atlantic, and hold the largest colonies of nesting seabirds in all of Europe.

I had packed several cups of skyr; the stunningly tasty cultured cheese, for our long journey north. I immediately fell for the low-fat, high protein Icelandic food, reminiscent of thick yogurts. One of my great joys in travel is to form a ritual around a simple local food.

Iceland’s post World War II diet is heavy on hot dogs, road meats and gas station junk food. The restaurants are often insanely expensive. Skyr, with a few berries, is the antidote: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Reykjavik to Borgarnes

It’s remarkable to find how quickly you can leave the city of Reykjavik. Within minutes of driving out of the city center, it’s the suburbs. Minutes after that, a long road with little traffic, fewer towns. To our right, steep, treeless mesas, peppered with sheep and oystercatchers. To our left, inlets, bays and mud flats.

For almost all of its 1,100 year human history, Iceland’s population hovered around 50,000. Today, the island’s total population is 350,000 — a phenomenally low population for a geography about the size of New York State. Reykjavik, where most people in Iceland live, features a population about the same size as Killeen, Texas. 

Because of these low population levels, Iceland is to some degree a blank slate, with seemingly few stories for traveling writers to tell. It’s easy to fall for the idea that Iceland is encapsulated by the same stories we keep hearing about, as if there a bait has been dangled for us in front of the Icelandic Tourist Board.

Tourism in Iceland has boomed so quickly that it has also become a bit like a wild west of travel documenting; a frontier to rehash the same story over and over again.

One recurring story you hear almost constantly is: I went to Iceland and ate a daring, gross and controversial food.

I am perennially repulsed by this trend in travel. Imagine the meaty head of Andrew Zimmern, (Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern), gullet open to the sky, swallowing something rare for the camera. A reminder of how unnecessary eating gross foods for a smart travel audience is. 

In Iceland, however, weird and gross foods often cross a distinct line of ethics, which travel bloggers gleely cross, often while downplaying that line in their writing, or even explicitly crossing it to shock their audience. When travel bloggers and tourists consume Minke Whale, Atlantic Puffin or Greenland Shark, for example, aren’t they crossing a firm line of global conservation ethics?

 

Leafhopper in the Jefferson Park Wilderness

Low tide flats in typical scenery from Reykjavik to the Westfjords.

The Ethics of Eating Puffin in Iceland

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ravel blogger Candie Walsh writes in her blog, Free Candy, “On one of my final nights in Reykjavik, the Obesity Gods intervened.”

In her home province of Newfoundland, Atlantic Puffin is treasured and revered. “In fact, it’s a heavily protected species of the most adorable order,” she writes.  “Hunting puffins in my home province is treason. Obviously I had to eat one in Iceland.”

The explicit statement of understanding that the species is threatened is a common theme among travel bloggers talking about their daring cuisine in Iceland. 

“Surprisingly, the puffin was delicious...the puffin was prepared in such a way that you’d hardly know you were eating one of the most adorable creatures on earth.”

Responding to commenters, Candy Walsh advertises her wild and crazy ability to eat. “I’m a heathen...Hahaha. I will apparently eat just about anything!”

Like any travel blogger around the world, Candy knows that seabirds have a precarious path to survival. Throughout North America, from Panama to Canada, we protect our rocky offshore islands vigilantly. We know that their manner of nesting in cliff and island colonies puts them at a particular risk. With so much input and education about the fragility of seabirds, it is impossible for us not to know the line the behavior crosses.

The Ethics of Eating Whale in Iceland

When weighing whether it’s okay to eat whale in Iceland, travel bloggers repeat the conclusion that the controversy surrounding whale is simply whether the animal is endangered; Ultimately, whales are just another animal, and a quick internet search on whether the species can be ‘sustainably harvested,’ is enough to satisfy the travel blogger advertising to their international audiences that they too can also eat whale.

There are a few animals which modern civilization has deemed morally repugnant to kill and consume. Obviously, among this short list is all the great sentient mammals. We find human flesh morally repugnant, as we do the flesh of the great apes, the elephants and the cetaceans.

But then how did Lauren Monitz of iExplore come to such a different moral conclusion? She writes, “Often served raw, I also sampled whale tartare with a fine blueberry sauce that tasted like ahi tuna albeit refreshingly fruity thanks to the topping.”

Like with Candy, Lauren dismisses the moral weight, a way of telling her international readers that they too can ignore the moral implications of eating whale: “It was in fact one of the better dishes despite obviously being discouraged by animal activists who regularly campaign to get the protected creature taken off menus.”

The Ethics of Eating Greenland Shark in Iceland

Travel bloggers visiting Iceland love to eat a fermented shark dish called Hákarl, or fermented, rotting Greenland Shark. They refer to it as a traditional Icelandic dish, and a ‘Reykjavik delicacy’. Others call it Iceland’s national dish. They cite the weirdness of it, and the excitement of trying a dish that tastes like rancid urine, on account of the poisonous, ammonia-rich flesh of the Greenland Shark---the large, docile shark pees through the fabric of its body to stay warm.

Icelanders will tell you that the idea that Hákarl is a national dish is a bit of a fabrication. Through most of the twentieth century, it was virtually unknown to most Icelanders, who would have nothing to do with it. Others will tell you that it would be served only once a year in certain seaside towns, usually as a Christmas tradition. Its existence in grocery stores and fancy Reykjavik restaurants has appeared alongside the recent boom in tourism.

Kiki, of The Blonde Abroad, calls Greenland Shark all those things at once. She writes, “Rotten Shark...is a traditional delicacy in Iceland that dates back to the time of the Vikings. While it might not be at the top of your must-eat list, it has always made practical sense in the kitchens of Iceland.”

Kiki shares a large photo of herself with a grossed out face, eating the shark. And a youtube video, that also shows her being grossed out during a bold act of consumption.

The problem with Greenland Shark is a different one from both puffins and whales. If Icelanders eat a small amount of shark bycatch as a holiday delicacy, it is a local act that is harmless to the species. But, everybody knows the dual stories of how fishing sharks devastates their populations and the story of the speedy decline of Orange Roughy, the fish popular on dinner tables around the world in the 1980s. Because the fish grows slowly, lives deep in the ocean and matures late, nobody realized they had nearly decimated the world supply of the species until it was nearly too late.

The Greenland Shark, similarly lives for hundreds of years: it is the world’s longest living vertebrate, and slowest moving of all fish, and, as a mysterious deepwater denizen, we really don’t know how many, or how few, are left. We literally have no concept of their remaining population. While we often hear that most Greenland Sharks are bycatch, the rise in demand from the tourist trade puts more pressure on the annual catch of a species now designated by the IUCN as near threatened.


Russell Lake, Jefferson Park Wilderness, Oregon

Eurasian Oystercatcher foraging on tidal flats on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula near Reykjavik.

Borgarnes to Búðardalur

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rom Borgarnes to Búðardalur, Highway 1 crosses through inland terrain. Some of the terrain is forested with birch and conifers, a reminder of Iceland’s pre-human past, when over thirty-percent of the island was covered in trees.

In this inland wilderness, the ubiquitous sheep and horses are a reminder of the near absence of native mammals. Arctic foxes are the island’s only native land mammal; knowing this puts a damper on our desire to spot for wildlife while driving north.

My son and I will sometimes make up stories while traveling together. The history of skyr is somewhat bland, and certainly not as exciting a backstory as rotten urine shark. Skyr production was a technique common in Scandinavia when Iceland was discovered, but later forgotten everywhere but here.

So, my son and I invent a more Instagram-friendly backstory for skyr:

The skyr squirrel, named for its ability to escape raptor predation by sliding down a snowy slope on its hind-haunches, was common in the interior of Iceland up until the eighteenth century.

Fernando, a wealthy Spanish trophy hunter, took up employment among the whalers of Northern Europe, making his way north to Iceland, where his hope was to bag the island’s greatest mammals.

Upon finding only non-native sheep and horses, he grew weary, turning his bloodlust on the common skyr squirrels, which he discharged by the thousands. Luckily for trophy-less Fernando, he found delectable the milky-white substance that erupted when that musket-shot struck the skyr squirrels. Pleasant was the slightly sour, slightly sweet yogurt-like substance, which he made into a local commodity, exported to Denmark by the barrel.

But, little did he know, the skyr squirrels were on the verge of extinction, just like the Passenger Pigeons of North America. 

My son has learned about Passenger Pigeons in school, and we have seen a rare stuffed specimen at our local science museum. But today, we talk about the specific way in which the species declined so rapidly.  Passenger pigeons are believed to have been the most populous bird in the world prior to the 1800s. When they crossed the sky in their millions, they would blacken it. The spectacle of this mass of life, moving like an interstellar starling undulation, was one of the great natural spectacles of the planet.

On September 1, 1914, Martha, the last of her species, passed away at the Cincinnati Zoo.

But how did the species go from billions to zero in two decades? Passenger Pigeons were tasty creatures, and after the Civil War, a network of roads and railroads allowed a network of hunters easy access to their entire range in the East, Midwest and Canada. They killed them in every way possible, sometimes by just waving a stick or a net in the air. Sometimes by torching their roosts or simply by blasting a pellet into that mass of black.

The exact cause of their quick demise is unknown, but the general belief among ornithologists is that they had adapted to live in as ultra-social creatures in super-huge groups. Imagine a bird that lives like humans in Manhattan. Once their numbers were hunted to a point of just a few million left, their advanced social structure - their population dynamics - could no longer function.

My conversation with my son, on the road to Búðardalur, prompted me to want to learn more about whether there were similarities between the Atlantic Puffins of the North Atlantic, and the Passenger Pigeons.

 

Jefferson Park via the Park Ridge Trail

The carcass of a US Navy Douglas C-117D sits on the property of the Hnjótur Farm, near the Látrabjarg Hotel. The Hnjótur Farm makes up most of the village of Örlygshöfn, just south of the emerald and turquoise waters of Patreksfjörður fjord.

Interview with Erpur Snær Hansen

I caught up with seabird researcher Erpur Snær Hansen, director of the South Iceland Nature Research Center, whose research into the decline of Iceland’s puffins has begun to reverberate on the world stage. With access to time series unheard of in other bird populations, Hansen and his colleagues have begun to piece together the correlations between the puffin’s prized fish; Silvery Sandeels, warming seas, and overhunting of the species for Reykjavik’s ritzy tourist restaurants.

 

Erik: How did you get involved with puffins and seabirds? 

 

Erpur: I was a birder at age 11, and later, I built up an interest in science with plans to become an ornithologist. I moved into seabird research, Trying to answer questions like, “Why do they raise only one chick, and what determines their growth patterns?”

In Spring 2007, I was asked to give a talk in the Westman Islands, because they were worried about persistent chick death in the colonies. I had a good background, because I had studied puffins for my honor’s thesis, on their habitat selection.  

 An intense decline in seabird chick production had started in 2003 and peaked in 2005, involving not only puffins, but most Icelandic seabird species, which constitute about twenty-five percent of North Atlantic seabird biomass.  We really needed to understand the key factors of the decline. They were keen enough to hire me, and I began working to find out what was going on. 

I started out in Iceland’s Westman Islands. Our methodology was to use infrared illuminated video cameras to peer into their burrows. We learned a lot in these three years.  

We received a grant together with sandeel researchers at the Marine Research Institute, which demonstrated that the sandeel stock collapsed in 2005, and one puffin year class after another disappeared from the puffin harvest.

We expanded our methodology developed in the Westmans to twelve colonies throughout Iceland in 2010. The research is funded by the trust, which is financed by the annual hunter permit fees.

The idea was that we would visit each colony twice each year. First, in early June to see how many eggs were laid in our study burrows, and again in late July to check the same burrows to see how many chicks remained. We also photograph adults carrying food in July. This is the Icelandic Puffin Population Monitoring Program, or less formally what we call the Puffin Rally. This is exhausting work, in particular, a lot of travel. We travel about six-thousand kilometers by car, and then from there a variety of boat and airplane travel. 

 

Erik: What are you finding in the burrow? 

 

Erpur: That differs between both regions and time. The puffins have been doing moderately fine in the north; in the Westfjords and in northeast Iceland. In the South and East, they have been faring poorly, and taken together, not well enough to sustain the whole Icelandic population. The West started out like the south, but have been improving considerably in the last 4 years and sandeels are being seen again in the last few years. Things have improved in the Westmans, although the sandeel is still scarce.

 

Erik: In Iceland, where puffin iconography is ubiquitous, does this make you a celebrity?

 

Erpur: Puffins are one of the main reasons people are visiting Iceland. Seeing them is a huge industry for us. Special tours to see puffins all over the island are extremely popular. The Atlantic Puffin is actually ranked the number one bird globally in terms of people’s favorite bird. 

Does that make me a celebrity? No, but of course, with everything that is happening now, I was reporting our results to the media.


Jefferson Park via the Park Ridge Trail

The bill of the Atlantic Puffin is designed to hold several fish at once. The fleshy yellow roseate at the base of the puffin's beak is a stretchy material that allows the seabird the ability to open its beak very wide, to enable catching more fish and for communicating.

Erik: Let’s talk about puffins when they are at sea. What is their life like?

 

Erpur: We have participated in a multicolony international collaborative program named SEATRACK, deploying geologgers on the Atlantic Puffin, together with ten other seabird species in order to map their winter distributions. Icelandic puffins have a triangular migration pattern, they head into the Labrador Sea in fall, stay there until the end of the year when they move south over the Atlantic ridge centering on the Charliecr-Gibbs fracture zone, and in spring, they head north.

The Charlie-Gibbs fracture zone in the Atlantic ridge is rich with prey in winter and is a mega hot spot for sharks, whales, as well as many seabird species of the North Atlantic It’s a fascinating place, with summer conditions in the middle of winter and undoubtedly the reason for the large size of many seabird populations in the North Atlantic.

 

Erik: And what about when they come back to Iceland?

 

Erpur: After a completely pelagic existence like other ‘true’ seabirds; they come back in the middle of April to meet up with their mate. 

Puffins have monogamous relationships for life. We say that puffins have a pretty low ‘divorce rate’ - seven percent. For example, if the mate dies, or if they have breeding failure.

Between Iceland and Norway, there have been sharp declines, which is why Atlantic Puffins were put on the IUCN red list in 2015.

I am able to study puffins backwards in time, because we have data on the harvest records in the Westmans Islands going back to 1880. Eighty-percent of the puffin harvest is composed of three year classes that are 2, 3 and 4 years old. Since the effort has remained relatively constant, the harvest in any given year reflects how many were born 2-4 years before. 

This gives us one of the longest and perhaps the most interesting time series of birds, as the data show that puffin chick production has a very strong correlation to sea temperature. When sea temperatures are warmer, fewer puffins are harvested, and vice versa. 

We know that temperature is key, and temperature in the Atlantic follows a seventy year cycle termed the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation or AMO, characterized by 35 warm years, followed by 35 cold years A warm period started in Icelandic waters in 1996 with temperatures peaking in 2003. In Icelandic waters, the warming is greatly intensified by contemporal contraction of the Sub-Polar Gyre, a circular current system, which opens for great flow of warm and saline Atlantic seawater northwards. 

In the process our waters warm by about one degree Celsius, in less than a decade the same warming as predicted by global warming for this century using the IPCC A1B1 “business as usual model!” 

The polar currents coming from the north mix with the warmer waters and thus create three marine ecosystems. We have essentially a natural laboratory of extreme temperature variation gradient. That’s exactly where our study colonies are located.

 

Erik: The puffins are declining because their primary foodsource, the Silvery Sandeel, are in decline?

 

Erpur: The sandeel is one of the most commercially harvested fish in the North Sea, and is studied by a number of specialists. There are a number of exciting hypotheses for their decline and how this relates to seabird declines. One hypothesis is that the sandeel’s first winter survival is negatively related to temperature by increase in their Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR), leading to a premature depletion of their fat reserves, prior to the onset of their zooplankton food in spring. They die of starvation during these warmer years.

Another, complementary hypothesis is that in warm summers, the sandeel´s elevated BMR wastes energy, instead of building energy (fat) reserves and growth. We don’t always have warm and cold summers in conjunction. In 1948, for example, summers cooled during an otherwise cold winters AMO period, which allowed the sandeels to really strengthen, judged by the increase in Puffin harvest. In 1996, we started to see the reverse of this, and sandeel numbers declined very rapidly, much more than in the last warm period in the 1930´s. Oceanographers are modeling to see if global warming will buffer against the cooling of the AMO cycle, essentially terminating the cooling period. 

If this warming trend continues, the puffin colonies here will be a shadow of their former past. In the north, the colonies would remain. We would have a northern coast with current numbers, and losing more than half of the rest of the populations. This IUCN red listing is really about this: If you would have been here in the 1980s, you would have seen so many birds! Now there is nothing like that! The puffins haven’t even socialized normally in the troubled colonies in the last decade. These social birds are known to spend a lot of time communicating with each other, they don’t have the time to hang around anymore. They need to put all their attention on acquiring food.

What is happening differently during this warm period now, I think, is that the algae blooms that normally occur in March and April, happen much later. The sandeel eggs are hatching about the same time as the algal bloom. The algae are grazed on by zooplankton, which is the prey of sandeels. If there is a delay in the bloom timing, we have what is termed a trophic mismatch. Basically the sandeel prey show up so late that they are already dead from starvation. 

Puffin chicks have been fledging in September, rather than in late August. 2019 is however the sunniest year on record, creating a massive algae bloom that you can easily see from space. There is a huge amount of food in there. So there are a lot of variables out there.

Sandeel numbers are expected to increase when you have a good bloom year: early and intensive blooms benefit the the entire food pyramid.

We have satellite data since 1998 that shows that the blooms have been really late in the last decade or so, and one could expect that to increase with global warming: more evaporation and more clouds in our region, and consequently, less sun. That delays and reduces the blooms.


Russell Lake, Jefferson Park Wilderness, Oregon

Traditional Southern Westfjords fishing vessels on display on the grounds of the Hnjotur Museum.

Erik: How does the hunting of puffin for tourists play into their decline?

 

Erpur: Between 1995 and 2017 there has been a ninety-one percent reduction in the Icelandic puffin harvest. Interestingly, sixty-six percent of this decline, or two thirds, occurred before I advocated for a moratorium in 2008. 

The puffin harvest went from over 200,000 to about 30,000 annually, and the prices went up. Now the restaurant business is selling most of the catch to tourists. Chef Hrefna Sætran has a couple of the most exclusive restaurants in Reykjavik. She was asked on Facebook in spring 2019 why she was selling an endangered animal in her restaurants. she replied: “While it is legal to hunt them and sell, I am selling them.” 

The problem is the legal aspect of it. The government plans on addressing the issue in 2020 with a new law. But today, the ‘traditional hunting loophole’ has been interpreted to be exempt from the sustainability clause in the law, anyways. The problem is that landowners regulate the hunting on their land—- they are in many cases also the hunters, thus regulating themselves. It’s up to the landowners, who are allowed to hunt their land during the hunting period without limits.

Since the populations are doing okay in the North, the hunters there have used that to justify their continued hunting, despite the fact that the whole population is doing poorly. They are earning a lot of money from this—greed is put above the welfare of the species.

 

Erik: Are other seabirds in Iceland having the same problem of reproductive failure?

 

Erpur: Yes, we think of the puffin as a model species. Most of the other seabirds, the auks, the fulmars, and the kittiwakes, they all eat the same prey. Most seabird populations in the North Atlantic are going down. Counts show similar declines are happening to the other species. 

 

Erik: Travel bloggers say there are 10-15 million puffins in Iceland as a justification for eating them. Two questions. One, is this number accurate or outdated? Two, if there were billions of passenger pigeons, is millions of puffins a safe number to take from the sky?

 

Erpur: These numbers they quote, they are getting from Icelandic tourism sources, which are all wrong. Today, there are about 2.7 million Puffin burrows in Iceland, and about seventy-four percent are active at a given time, so there are 2 million breeding pairs in our country. This comprises the production unit of Iceland’s puffin population. Let’s say that you have almost the same number of immature birds. That ideal represents the maximum population: about 6 million individuals in total.

Since the population is not maintaining their numbers, but declining, the principle of long lived – low chick productive output life histories applies, that any hunting adds to the decline. In seabirds, the killing accelerates the decline. People who only see the millions of individuals and do not think how many are needed to maintain the numbers are illiterate in population dynamics and have no valuable contribution to make but to pseudoscience.

 

Erik: Is there a fear of the Passenger Pigeon syndrome?  

 

Erpur: When the sand eels collapsed, there was definitely peril for the puffins. But this hunting on top of that is not sustainable. It’s certainly not helping, and it is not ethical. We manage our fisheries well for the most part, we are looked at fondly by other countries for how we manage them, at least we had more success than many others. Sure, we fucked up a few times with capelin and halibut. We biologists are saying that all wildlife should be treated like we treat our fisheries, that will be the nature of the new law bill.

These Puffins are much more valuable alive than hunted, providing revenue year after year. They bring Iceland serious tourism money. That’s millions of euros each year. That is a lot of foreign currency pumping into Iceland because of the puffin.

 

Erik: Is puffin a traditional Icelandic delicacy, or an old starvation food in isolated coastal villages?

 

Erpur: Puffin was initially a just part of normal food. They were harvested as soon as the settlement of Iceland. This was often the only meat people had until spring. Puffin was a sustenance food until between World Wars. After that, the hunting became a ‘traditional sport’ using a polenet called háfur.


A View of the Látrabjarg Cliffs

Evening looking over the Látrabjarg Cliffs. Puffins burrow on such treacherously steep slopes here, they are safe from the Arctic Fox, which are wise to steer clear of the famously steep cliffs.

Búðardalur to Flókalundur

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he village of Búðardalur, at the very end of mainland Iceland, is known mostly for the nearby Eiríksstaðir, the homestead of Erik the Red and the birthplace of his son Leif, who went on to explore North America five hundred years before Columbus anchored in the Bahamas.

From Búðardalur, we’ll be driving across the Westfjords Peninsula, one of the most exciting pieces of geography on Earth. Our final destination will be the furthest western point in Europe, even though, like Americans with Leif and Columbus, Europeans disagree.

When I told a tableful of Europeans that we were headed to the westernmost point of Europe, they pointed to the fact they all learned in school: Portugal’s Cabo da Roca, a peninsula just went of Lisbon, is Europe’s westernmost point.

But this commonly held fact is misleading, and wrong, on several points. 

Cabo da Roca is indeed the westernmost point of the Eurasian landmass, that is a point to which no one disagrees.

However, the question is not about a landmass or a continent, but an area, a place, specifically, Europe. Europe is not a continent. While it is often taught in school that Europe is a special case continent; in which the Caucasus mountains somehow separate it from the other half of itself, most geographers see Eurasia as one big thing: Europe and Asia are the same large landmass. From a biological perspective, this is certainly the case. When we look at the mammals and birds and plants of the region, we recognize that the history is one.

Europe, then, is better defined as a place with distinct shared human history and culture.

Nobody doubts that England and Ireland are a part of Europe —they share language borne from mainland Europe, a common culture and history, but Portugal’s Cabo de Roca is actually further west than the most western points of these islands. Only Iceland, which shares a common history and language to mainland Europe, is further west than Cabo de Roca.

Well, that’s not quite true either. Monchique Islet, a rock jutting out from the westernmost point of the Azores Islands of Portugal, is much further west than Iceland. Although, as a remote island that actually sits within the North American plate, it can’t be categorized as being part of the place called Europe, even though it belongs to a European country. This is the same as saying that Hawaii, Guam and American Samoa are all part of the United States, but they do not fit into the definition of being part of North America.

So by this evening, we hope to reach the westernmost point of Europe.


A view of the Patreksfjörður fjord

A view of the Patreksfjörður fjord a few minutes before midnight.

Flókalundur to Látrabjarg

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riving along the southern coast of the Westfjords is dizzying: The spectacle of the geography, the immensity of it, is confounding.

As we head west, the sense that we are at the edge of something feels very real. The geography becomes more surreal, often bays are shrouded with rocks in peculiar linear formations.

Treeless slopes grade steeply into vast inlets. And something unimaginable this far north in the world: white sand beaches and clear turquoise shallows. Arctic Terns, gulls and sandpipers abound along rocky shores, and at one point, a viciously precise Parasitic Jaeger crosses in front of our car, tailing a gull at high speed. 

We stop to check in briefly at the 9-room Látrabjarg Hotel, one of a handful of structures in the area, before heading the final forty minutes to the Látrabjarg Cliffs. These cliffs are known as the largest tourist attraction in the Westfjords. The fact that there are only fourteen cars in the parking lot is a testament to the isolation of the region.

Right next to the parking lot is the Bjargtangar Lighthouse, the very westernmost point in all of Europe. From here, we can see hundreds of gulls, fulmars and kittiwakes; an explosion of bird life at the top of the largest seabird cliff in Europe.

We walk along the path that rises along the sloping edge of the cliffs, watching the spectacle of seabirds speeding along the water below.

As late evening approaches, the puffins begin to ascend onto the cliffs after a day of fishing. We sit just feet from a group of three of them, hobbling around a burrow. What singular creatures! Tiny Mannequins in masquerade. They are also, as travel blogger Candie Walsh stated, adorable. If you’ve seen the porgs of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and sense their cuteness resembles that of a puffin, it’s not coincidental. The porgs were a last-minute fix to the ubiquitous puffins on set. The miniature aliens were CGI’ed over the plump seabirds, who remained unafraid of the busy sets.

As the sun grows weaker, we rush back to the Látrabjarg Hotel, just in time for our meal. “My father’s best friend caught this cod this afternoon. We have prepared it with a tomato compote and local herbs.”

Jane and I agree, the fresh fish is one of the finest meals we’ve had in our lives, and after a long day of continuous road travel, to have this quiet meal at the edge of the world, looking out over a turquoise bay, is an exquisite end to our puffin rally.

The owner’s son comes out and says, “And for desert, we are serving Skyr!”