Riders on the STORM
Puffins – they laugh in the face of 200km/h winds!
Its first steps are tentative. After all, its legs aren’t used to steady ground. This young Atlantic puffin has spent four years on the high seas – without once returning to dry land. It has seen waves higher than a house and flown through 200km/h winter storms. It has dived through salt water colder than ice. “And it has found the love of its life,” says Stephen Kress.
The American ornithologist has been observing the colonies of puffins in Newfoundland for more than 30 years. He has dedicated his life to researching the species, “because these animals symbolise the meaning of life like no other living beings.” Every year the same couple pair up in the same colony. They burrow a hollow on the edge of a steep cliff, furnish their home with seaweed and feathers, and raise a single chick there. The houseproud parents keep it warm and clean, and fly tirelessly round the clock to catch small fish with which to feed their nestling.
But after five to six weeks something weird happens, something virtually unheard of in the bird world: the young puffin crawls out of its hollow for the first time in its life, topples over the cliff into the sea – and vanishes. Little hatchlings who have never seen the sun, never learnt how to catch fish; whose wings are too weak to carry their bodies, whose feathers have never got wet; these young things now tumble into the bitterly cold dark blue water, paddle out to sea and never look back. It’s as if they are born to be called into the Atlantic. And as if their elders know how powerful this call is, for they stand motionless next to one another at the entrance to their burrow, watching their offspring leap into the unknown.
The North Atlantic is considered one of the most dangerous oceans in the world, even in summer. But in winter it is nothing less than a hellish nightmare of monster waves, fields of pack ice and blizzards. What happens to the chicks out at sea? “It might sound unbelievable,” says Kress, “but they learn to catch fish and sort them in their mouths. They acclimatise to the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field and get the hang of navigation. They spread their wings and become surprisingly fleet fliers.”
Four years pass before the animals reach adulthood and become acquainted with the puffin they will spend the rest of their lives with. Together the new pair retreat to their colony to raise their own single chick, before watching on proudly as it follows the call of life.