I wish I could tell you we had great holiday in Shetland earlier this summer, but as the Platypus Man never tells porkies I’ll simply say that it was, sadly and for all the wrong reasons, an unforgettable experience. We were there 17 days, and it rained on about 14 of those. On several days it didn’t stop raining at all, while a bitter wind from the north made us wish we’d packed our thermals.
Shetland is an island group at the northern extremity of the British Isles. It’s much closer to Norway than to London, and it’s a different world up there. We’ve been before, nearly 30 years ago, and when the sun’s out it’s strangely beautiful in a stark, barren, pared-back kind of way. In June 2019, however, we barely spotted the sun at all. Gloom and despondency settled upon the Platypus Man and Mrs P, and we bitterly regretted not going somewhere more congenial, like Antarctica, or maybe Everest base camp.
But of course every cloud has a silver lining, and in this case it was the puffins. Shetland is one of the best places in the UK to see the Atlantic Puffin, and although their numbers are falling steadily due to the impact of climate change on the fish that make up their diet, they are still present in good numbers.
Sumburgh Head, at the southern tip of Shetland, has an easily accessible puffin cliff. We went twice, and on both occasions a miracle occurred: the rain stopped and the sun came out, though the wind buffeted us mercilessly, howling like a banshee and tugging roughly at our hair and coats like an old woman stroking a cat.
Mrs P and I are seasoned birders – bird-nerds, some might say – and enjoy nothing more than spending time watching birds of all types. The average Brit is less keen, but I defy anyone not to be enchanted by puffins. Some people call them sea parrots, others cliff-top clowns, but what’s in a name? They are, quite simply, the most iconic and instantly recognisable of this country’s seabirds.
And they came in their droves to the cliffs at Sumburgh, ordinary folk who’ve probably never done a day’s birdwatching in their lives, to be captivated by the puffins. Some of the birds are so close you can almost touch them, and they seem to pose for the camera. It’s difficult not to take a good photo of a puffin.
Everyone loves a puffin, wants to see them, wants to get up close and personal with them, wants a selfie with them. It was just the same when we visited Newfoundland a couple of years ago. In coastal areas, wherever the birds were known to nest, the conversation between ordinary tourists was dominated by one subject: where is the best place to see a puffin?
In coastal Newfoundland, as at Sumburgh Head in Shetland, one thing is beyond doubt: it’s all about the puffins.