I could have stayed on the arctic ice for days. But the expedition team has other ideas. The next morning we wake to a cacophony of noise outside the ship. We go out on our balcony and the first thing we see is this
Penguins! But there are no penguins in the arctic circle. Or so we are led to believe
They sure as hell look like penguins. But they are not. These are Brunnigh’s Guillemots, which is way too much of a mouthful when you have been drinking, or even when you haven’t. So let’s just call them Guillemots. And the air is full of them
We have arrived at the Bird Cliffs of Alkefjellet, where 250,000 Guillemots breed. And most of them seem to be in full conversation mode right now. They make a harsh screeching noise, a bit like Bernadette Peters on a bad day, and when thousands and thousands of them do it at the same time it’s enough to get you out of bed and on to your balcony
I don’t wish to be personal, but they are rather short in stature and dumpy (they could be the passenger of the week). They have a black head, neck and back with a fat white tummy, short wings which they flap at a hell of a rate, and short little legs with great big feet that stick out from the bottom of their body. In short (sorry about that) they are not your usual sleek flying machine. In fact they are rather comical.
But that’s just above water. They come into their own underwater, where their short wings and big feet propel them to depths up to 500 feet
From the zodiac we can look directly up at the cliffs which tower above us. Every crevice is packed with birds. We are advised to keep our mouths closed when looking up, which is excellent advice as it seems to be raining guano!
They require very little in the way of living accomodation, which is just as well. There is no room for nests, so they don’t build them. They just let the egg drop (carefully) on the ledge. The egg is pear shaped so that if anyone accidently kicks it, it rolls in a circle rather than off the ledge
Once it hatches the chick has a problem. It daren’t move. There is nowhere to go but down.
And Mum and Dad have the job of making sure it doesn’t move. To do this they spend the next couple of months always facing the cliff face and not the water so that they keep themselves between the chicks and the edge of the tiny ledge
This is accomodation in its most basic form, but to the Guillemot it is prime real estate, as those predators that like a nice egg or a young chick have one hell of a job getting at them. Large gulls have some success, but the arctic fox cannot get to these ledges. However just a short way away is an area the arctic fox can get to. Here the Guillemots who have been unable to find prime real estate have to settle for a dangerous neighborhood where the arctic fox is always on the prowl
The chicks grow quickly and like most teenagers they soon become unhappy with their lot. Not enough space and too much parental supervision! They need to leave home – and there is only one way to do that. Pushing their parents aside they leap off the ledge. Well, they know how to make a staement.At this point they are only one third the size of a fully grown bird and unbelievably they can’t fly. So they really want out!
They spread their wings and half glide and half fall hundreds of feet, hitting the water with an ungainly splat. The father watches in horror and after a few minutes he flies down and joins the wayward child.
So the kid may have left home, but he hasn’t escaped altogther. Dad is still right there. And he has to be, because the next part of the journey is just as hard.
Dad and the chick face west and start paddling to Greenland. That is some 600 miles away, and the chick can’t fly. If that was me, I would never have left home.
Mum meanwhile has gone missing. Guillemots mate for life, so this is unusual. But Mum was in serious need of a break. She doesn’t return for two weeks, but then somehow she finds them paddling like crazy towards Greenland, and she joins them for the rest of the trip.