There’s a storm off the Lofoten Islands, its force threatening to overwhelm our little Zodiac boat. But this morning, it’s not wind and water being whipped into a frenzy: the storm in the air above us is a whirlwind of flying, swooping puffins.
Located within the Arctic Circle, the toothily cragged island of Bleiksøya is a seasonal home for one of the largest colony of puffins in northern Norway. Eighty thousand nesting pairs breed here each summer, borrowing the deep underground burrows that rabbits have dug into the grass-covered soil — there each female lays a single egg.
Noah Strycker, the resident ornithologist on our Quark Expeditions ship while it journeys through the Norwegian Arctic, sits at the Zodiac’s helm with an expensive telescope that seems permanently attached to his shoulder. Aged 30, Noah has a world record for spotting more species in one year than any birder in history, and is often accosted by passengers who want his help identifying their photos of unknown birds. They cry out eagerly when fulmars ride the wind outside the window of our observation lounge; lean in to get a better look at Noah’s projected slides of pufflings (puffin chicks); and when he tells us there’s no official collective noun for puffins, we shout ideas. “A confusion!” “A circus!”
Out on the water, Bleiksøya’s birds haven’t heard we’re expecting a theatrical performance. Our convoy of Zodiacs putters past huge scoops of rock — like a giant’s hand has moved through butter — and on towards Bleiksøya’s grass-tufted cliff face. Puffins bob quietly on the water, their orange flippers hidden until they skitter along the curled waves in our wake. Higher up, my eyes adjust to camouflaged puffins perched among the tufts, pecking under their feathers or standing to attention like sentries. As soon as I trace one puffin’s take-off attempt, another’s landing nearby distracts me.
“Puffins like familiarity,” Noah says quietly. He explains they mate for life and always return to the same nest. Unfortunately, their clumsiness means they often miss their landings on their first attempt. As I contemplate 80,000 puffins getting their landing site wrong and circling the skies for a second attempt, I realise the birds are now moving too fast to focus on. With no pattern to their flight paths, black wingtips crisscross wildly in front of each other like tiny, stocky monochrome torpedoes, peppering the sky with black dots. The water changes texture as the puffins dive-bomb the surface, hunting for fish: liquid that’s dark, silky and rippling; becomes choppy, murky and awhirl with seaweed and grit. All eight of us lean back in the boat, tilting our faces skyward and laughing when the occasional bird almost barrels straight into our heads. It’s joyous, carefree and bizarre: unlike anything I’d have expected from a puffin.
The swirling vortex around us is accompanied by a soundscape of softly beating wings and what sounds like croaky, murmuring laughter. Like little old men with smoker’s coughs, they cackle their way home as I lie back in the bottom of the hard boat with my mouth open, unconcerned about the danger of falling puffin poo — and that’s when the perfect collective noun comes to me.
An ‘improbability’ of puffins. Surely that’s the best way to describe this cloud of clown-like birds? They’re ungainly and clumsy, yet in their circling hordes they’re also unexpectedly beautiful. Despite a single line of puffin poo streaking my waterproof trousers, I’m starting to understand why Noah loves birds so much. And we haven’t even seen a puffling yet.
Flora Baker was the winner of our 2015 Travel Writing Competition. Details of the 2017 competition will be announced in February.