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Issue 93 - Puffin. Breathe out. Better?

Scotland Magazine Issue 93
June 2017


This article is 17 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Puffin. Breathe out. Better?

Nic Davies visits the Treshnish Isles to investigate the phenomenon known as Puffin Therapy

It's called ‘puffin therapy’. In the widest sense, it's the peace of mind and relaxation that many people find comes from intimate encounters with wild animals of any shape or size. Indeed, a recent global survey called ‘The Rest Test’ (in which 18,000 people from 134 countries took part) found that being out in nature is second only to reading as our most restful activity.

Specifically, it's the feeling of wellness experienced by visitors to the beautiful Treshnish Isles following close encounters with the charismatic birds known as Atlantic puffins. For many wildlife aficionados, a trip to this stunning archipelago is an absolute must during puffin season, which is generally April to early August.

The Treshnish Isles are made up of several islands and can be found to the west of the Isle of Mull. The islands play host to myriad species of bird life and, in the case of the pair of islands known as the Carnaburgs, a human history of over 5000 years.

However, the star of the wildlife show is undoubtedly the dominant island of Lunga. Although fulmar, guillemot, razorbill, shag, great skua, and kittiwake provide the avian support acts (be sure to visit Lunga’s Harp Rock colony), at the top of the bill, at least as far as the tourism industry is concerned, is the puffin. And what a bill it is.

Just like its close cousins around the world, the Atlantic puffin displays breeding attributes that humankind find remarkable and endearing. The names given to this species across the world reflect this view. In Italy, it's the ‘pulcinella di mare’ (a name inspired by the Commedia dell’arte character more commonly known as Punch), the Spanish name, frailecillo, means 'little friar' (in reference to the bird's black and white plumage, which resembles monastic robes) and in the Scots dialect it's the Tammie Norie (a label attached unkindly to those thought stupid through appearance alone).

The puffins don't care, of course, though this degree of anthropomorphism has undoubtedly helped change their status in the UK from that of a convenient food source to that of an iconic animal whose precarious future sums up the concern recent generations have for the health of our seas. Fully protected in the UK, the bird is still hunted and eaten in Iceland, something visitors to puffin colonies may find
hard to swallow.

Many people are surprised to see how small puffins are in real life, a revelation second only to the joy experienced when they discover the birds' disconcerting tameness. Photographers who have lugged huge lenses to Lunga seem somewhat out of place as other visitors compose their own puffin selfies with just their phones.

Having noticed the difference between the temperament of those people about to visit the puffins and those same folks returning from the colony, the head of marine tour company Turus Mara, Iain Morrison, has developed the concept of 'puffin therapy'. A veteran of nearly 45 years of transporting puffin fans, Iain explained: "Some visitors step from our boats onto Lunga with trepidation, but you can’t see their faces past their huge beaming smiles when they return two hours later having been puffinised. People undoubtedly find a deep connection with these trusting emissaries of the wild. Worldly worries are forgotten during our visits. If mindfulness had feathers, its name would be ‘puffin’.”

He has also noticed an increasing number of visitors from all around the world, all of which are keen to experience the delights that the West Coast of Scotland has to offer and the many hidden treasures awaiting discovery. Some puffinistas are flying incredible distances just to get a glimpse of these colourful characters. Ke Yan and her partner Ding Hu, from Changsha City in China, were told by friends how wonderful this area is. "We came to the Treshnish Isles to see the puffins. Many people in China believe puffins are related to penguins but, having seen them for real, we can now see they're completely different. They are still very cute though,” says Ke Yan. As for the beneficial effect on the mind and soul, she agrees. “The puffins definitely have a calming, relaxing effect.”

With a life spent mostly at sea, puffins arrive to breed in April and generally leave by early August. The early season involves socialising, pairing up with long-term partners, clearing out and arguing over vacant burrows, and settling down to raise a single egg and delightfully named ‘puffling’ within. The remaining season is spent taking turns flying to sea from the high cliffs in search of small fish such as sandeels, while dodging the many threats close to home. For example, skuas and gulls will often attempt to steal the puffins' hard-won cargo or, worse still, pluck the whole bird from the air. Landfall is immediately followed by a mad dash to the safety of the burrow.

Visitors are discouraged from walking among the puffins because their fragile burrows can run for several feet underground and are susceptible to crushing by careless footsteps. Resist the temptation, sit adjacent to the burrows and the birds may come to you. Indeed, Iain Morrison has noticed that puffins seem to take the arrival of predator-unfriendly human visitors as a signal to come ashore — a reassuringly symbiotic win-win for both puffins and people.

All this and more is there for visitors to enjoy on Lunga. Any visit is sure to be a truly memorable wildlife spectacle that, even at two hours long, flashes by all too quickly. However, help is at hand this year as Turus Mara has launched a new twice-weekly 'Big Bird Trip', which affords enthusiasts a puffinacious four hours on the island.

A trip to Lunga usually also includes a landing at one of the world’s geological wonders, the nearby island of Staffa. Indeed, it was Staffa, or more specifically the gaping volcanic feature named Fingal's Cave (See: p.77), that first drew visitors to visit this area.

Boats set out daily from several locations around the Isle of Mull and trip times vary depending on point of departure. Landing may occasionally be difficult on Staffa, but Lunga is less problematic. Boat skippers will always do their best to give guests amazing views of Staffa, even poking the boat’s bow into Fingal's Cave on the calmest days. While sailing from island to island the tour boats also offer an excellent platform to watch for whales, dolphins, basking sharks, eagles, and Atlantic grey seals. Visits to the seals’ regionally important 'pupping beaches' run with Turus Mara from September.

So if the stresses of the modern world are becoming tiresome, consider a sit down session with a technicolor Treshnish therapist. Between April and August, the doctor is in.