27 04 2009


A rare image of Marcel Marceau being attacked by a tropical fish  (Puffin, Vik, Iceland)


Plenty of people throughout history have died for their art. Whether slipping from a scaffolding while painting a fresco, inhaling too many emulsion fumes, portraying an ogre-like monarch as an ogre-like monarch or simply being a stand-up comic to a silent and unamused crowd, dying goes hand in hand with art. I’m not sure that my travel photography qualifies as art, but I almost died for it once.


Even in the middle of summer, the cliff tops of Iceland are often shrouded in low mist and driving rain. People trekking the tops must not only be properly equipped with raingear, but they are also warned to be especially cautious that the swirling mists don’t obscure the cliff edge – thereby leaving them intimately acquainted with the crashing waves below. However, any meteorological inconveniences or inherent risks are worthwhile as these cliff tops provide the best views of Iceland’s puffins.


Before trekking through the fields to reach the nesting sites, our guide called us together. With the wind howling and heads hunched, she bellowed that we had to watch out for skewers – large territorial sea birds with a penchant for attacking anything that ventures too close. She said we would walk in single file with her in the lead waving her walking stick in the air….and off we set.


Having had more than a few close encounters in Africa – and one in a subway car when I came between a tired office worker and an empty seat – I couldn’t imagine that a skewer could be more troubling than past scares. I did vaguely recall seeing wildlife guru Sir David Attenborough hunched on a cliff top while dive-bombed by a large sea bird, but really, it’s a bird after all. Surely Sir David’s reaction was driven by theatre and drama and not genuine fear.


We were halfway to the cliff edge when the bombardment began. The skewer swooped angrily from nowhere, talons extended. It soared down, wings pivoting like a tightrope walker’s balance pole, eyeing up the weakest link in our human chain. With a deft wave of our leader’s walking stick, the bird twisted and screamed past, swinging high around like a fighter jet on a strafing run and prepared for its next assault. We hunched as it wheeled towards us. The guide wielded the stick again, and once more it veered upwards and repositioned itself for another attack.


Reaching the far side of the danger area, we carefully peered through the mists at the puffin nests along the buffetted cliff face. Spying the plump little seabirds with their white mime-artists’ faces and multi-coloured beaks was more than reward for our efforts, and we busily snapped away with our cameras. The visit over, we turned and headed back across the killing fields to our minibus. However, just as our trek began I spotted a puffin perfectly framed by a large rock. I dropped down and crawled around to find the perfect angle before taking a photograph that I instantly knew was a winner.


By the time I got up, my group was miles away and under assault. I realised I was tail-end Charlie: the poor sap in the movies that gets eaten by the swamp monster, abducted by the serial killer or sucked-up by the UFO without anyone noticing. I sprinted across the grass, ducking and diving as I came under attack. The skewer, undeterred by a hiking stick, dived lower and lower. I zig-zagged across the open ground hunched like a laden busboy and eventually reached the safety of the carpark.


“Oh,” the guide remarked with surprise as I emerged, breathless and ashen-faced. “I didn’t realise you weren’t with us.”



Photo and post: Simon Vaughan © 2009