At last, in the Faroes, I got out on the sea almost immediately. Even though I had to fly to the Faroes, the airport happens to be a former British Army base a fifteen minute walk from the small harbour that served my destination. The Faroe Islands are a small scattering of islands in the North Atlantic, well connected by tunnels, boats and helicopters so that even a village of nine people does not feel cut off from the rest of the world. And this is where I headed to first of all. Not just because of the nine people, but because of the puffins, the gannets, the guillemots and the fulmars.
Being on the sea alters your perspective entirely, especially when towered over by preposterously steep and high cliffs, which in the Faroes often seem to have their heads in the clouds. There is nothing to do but gaze in awe at them – at their shape and angle, as if chunks of land have only recently been ripped out of the sea by a giant who got distracted mid task. And at the many thousands of birds who come to land on those steep angles to create new life.
There is a tale in this area, of two giants: Óli Rami from the island of Mykines and Þóri Rami from the nearby village of Gásadalur. They were fighting, and Þóri ended up under Óli. He pleaded with Óli not to kill him and promised in return three wishes. Óli Rami agreed and first asked for lots of driftwood. To this day there is a place named Viðarhelli on Mykines, meaning Driftwood Cave. But he found the driftwood ugly. Next he asked for lots of whales. Hvalagjá – ‘Whale Cove’- is also to be found on Mykines. But he found them ugly too. Finally he asked for lots of gannets, and these birds he loved. That is why they come only to Mykines in all of the Faroe Islands.
And come they do. I went to see them soon after I arrived. At first I didn’t realise quite what I was looking at – two nobbled stacks, each white point a bird at the peak of a trail of guano like thousands of comets launching upwards. All of them gannets.
They are doing well, partly as a bi-product of climate change. As mackerel moves into Faorese and Icelandic waters as the sea temperatures rise, the gannet population has plenty to feed on.
The adolescents launched off cliffs with widespread wings like a haphazard piano keyboard.
These angled cliffs allowed me to look in the eyes of some, and look almost vertically down on others – their bodies a white cross on a teal blue sea. Watching their elegant flight I almost missed what they were flying over.
A few days later, on a different island, I found one dead as if it had dived straight into the sand. What happened in those final moments of magnificence?