Water You Doing, Puffin Your Chest Out Like That

HON195 Student Post: Aedin McDaniel, General Biology Major; Honors Minor

Career Goal: Veterinarian

Water You Doing, Puffin Your Chest Out Like That

Oh, the adventures we have had in Iceland! Today was especially interesting—but only really after 12 o’clock.

This is due to the fact that we spent a good number of hours of the morning in the bus driving up to the northern part of the country to Sveitarfélagið Skagafjörður to have a number of interesting adventures, including a trip to Drangey Island. We left Geocamp at 8am and we arrived at our destination at about 1pm, so it was no surprise that everyone was a bit sluggish getting out of the car. Our various stops at N1’s along the way could only provide so much relief from sitting still for hours on end. We were all quickly rejuvenated when we heard that there were geothermal hot springs at the bay where we were going to be waiting for our boat. The ensuing stampede to the changing rooms left one with images of the running of the bulls (if the bulls were headed towards a relaxing soak in steaming baths).  Everyone seemed to enjoy the springs; one could listen for a cacophony of sighs and exclamations as we all settled down into the hot water. Personally, I felt like a lobster that had just been dropped in a crock-pot to cook. The lesson to learn here is that I apparently do not like hot water. Things did get slightly better when the hose providing cold water (in attempts to regulate the temperature of the hot springs) was discovered. But eventually the simplicity of familiar locations and temperatures were too much for people and so one by one, in odd intervals, we decided to go soak our heads in the small cove that was just over a small stone wall. The North Atlantic water was freezing, and a welcome relief from the college-student-crock-pot that the thermal pool had become. The seawater tasted like all the salt in the world was concentrated right in that area, and no one stayed very long in the ocean.

Eventually, we left the hot springs, changed, and waited for our boat to take us to Island of Drangey, an uninhabited cliff island that houses large colonies of birds. There wasn’t much to do in the area, but the views provided a welcome relief from being inside a bus and nobody complained. Eventually, the boat puttered into the harbor. About 25-feet long, it was comfortable fit for our squadron of youths (and adult supervisors of course). The boat ride was about 25 minutes and gave us some very pleasant views of the landscape as we sped away from shore.

The boat, the ship, the legend. This is the vessel that transported us to Drangey Island, very reliable, excellent for seafaring adventures.

This particular adventure of ours was one of the most anticipated of the trip, mainly due to the puffins that reside on the island. They leave late in the summer along with the other birds who leave at various times between July and August. The birds are probably the most noticeable aspect of the island.  The cliffs looming over the boat were filled with grooves and ledges with birds perched precariously on their precipices (try saying that five times fast). The puffins were the main attraction for most of us, but there were also a number of other birds that make their home on the island, including the black legged kittiwake, guillemots, and many varieties of geese and auks.

My best attempt at a national-geographic-style photo of a puffin. Ended up being a snapshot-of-bigfoot-in-the-woods photo of a puffin.

Our destination was the single pier on the island, where we separated and 15 members of the group began their climb up the cliffs. I chose not to climb up the cliffs and instead sailed around the island on the boat and got to observe numerous animals milling about in their natural habitat. This means that I will not be able to provide a description of what the climb to the top of the island was like. Fortunately, I decided interview one adventurous soul who did scale the cliff—Hailey Janelle.

The brave explorers, Indiana-Jonesing it up the hill to the cliffs to find treasures beyond imagination (and to maybe get some cool photos).

What was your favorite sight?

“…there was this little cliff on the back side it was like 180 meters down and you could stand…and look down and it was all open ocean and mountains. It was very deep and emotional; I had an emotional connection to the cliff.”

Did you see/experience anything that surprised you?

“Well, I mean, I don’t know! The whole island was so incredible, and the path to get up there. There were also a bunch of sketchy ladders (note: visitors don’t climb them); the guides go up there to get eggs, not puffin eggs, one of the other birds. The guides said they throw them off the cliff and then catch them in the boat. There’s also a house up there, I’d really like to stay there.”

Would you return?

“Yes, absolutely, I want to bring my dad. My mother wouldn’t go, but my dad might.”

My experience was a little different. After dropping off the people on the shore of the Island and watching them grapple their way up the steep hill with only a rope to help them, the rest of us set off in a boat around the island.


The water shone with the intensity of a lighthouse as we glided out of the bay. We soon learned from our guide that besides the plethora of birds that resided temporarily on the island, there were also a collection of other creatures that lived around the rocky cliffs we smoothly glided around. We soon got the chance to see some of these creatures poking their heads out of the water in the next cove that we went into. Seals! There were four or five of them in the little area immediately next to the stone dock we had dropped the others off on. The seals bobbed their heads and swiveled around in the water. They had the appearance of giant slippery dogs that you simply wanted to play fetch with. The excitement on the boat was immense, and tearing ourselves away from the sight of the water-dogs was an extremely laborious task.

Eventually we continued on, puttering around the island and gazing up at the towering rugged cliffs that loomed over us, black jagged rocks gazing at us from above. Or maybe that was the birds. There were quite a few on the island. We soon learned, as we curved around the side of the island, that the rocks aren’t the friendliest landmasses in the world. Hundreds of years ago, 14 boats were crushed beneath a landslide of rocks falling off the cliffs, killing all people aboard. We were told this story immediately after we passed the place where the incident had happened—very reassuring.

Jagged edges and towering cliffs-Drangey’s claim to fame.

As the boat made its way around the towering island we spied a total of nine seals (including the four from the first cove) as well as at the most amount of puffins I’ve ever seen in my life—nearly half a million reside on the island. It led me to be struck with sudden nostalgia for another boat trip that we took when we were still in Maine. We had sailed around on the mail boat in the Casco Bay. I also managed to spy one seal on that voyage too, though not with such clarity as this trip. The similarities between Maine and Iceland are staggering, especially when out on the water. After at least half an hour we went back into the cove that held the cliffs makeshift stairway.

The approaching view of the island (feat. heavenly beam of light)
A separate, smaller rock set apart from Drangey. A home for many birds (and much poop).

After the Captain brought another group back to shore, we stayed on the dock and waited for our group to rejoin us so we could recount our many adventures. While waiting on the dock we saw: a jellyfish, a snail, and even more puffins. We finally saw the long-lost members of our traveling troop at the top of the hill leading down to the water. As they were coming down the steep slope we also saw (in the opposite direction) the boat coming back to bring us to shore.  The way back was great fun as we all shared stories and photos and managed to get soaking wet from the sea air. The final hours of the day were spent waiting for our food in a restaurant or becoming accustomed to Bakkaflot, our accommodations for the evening.

Final evaluation: A pretty great day.