The cliffs and coastlines of Iceland are well known for their stunning array of bird life. From Atlantic puffins to Arctic terns, kittiwakes to common eider, its avian inhabitants make Iceland a must-see for many a wildlife enthusiast.
For locals, the presence of the cliff-nesting birds also facilitates a centuries old Icelandic tradition – seabird egg collecting. Photographer Terry Whittaker has documented this historic (and mildly hazardous) tradition, and tells us about the experience.
‘I’ve been working on seabird issues in Iceland for a couple of years so I came across the practice quite early on, but finding someone doing it and willing to be photographed took a while. My daughter lives in Iceland and one of her seabird researcher friends knew Jón’s wife. So she set up an introduction.
Fisherman Jón Arnar Beck is 38 years old and has been collecting seabird eggs for the past 8. Usually assisted by friend and fellow fisherman Sæmundur Einarsson, Jón may use modern safety harness and radio equipment, and he’s lowered and raised mechanically now by a 4X4, but the essential method of collecting cliff-nesting seabird eggs hasn’t changed much in a thousand years.’
Documenting this subject brought challenges…
‘One of the more difficult aspects of this shoot was getting a clear view of what was happening. I could get long lens shots of Jón descending and ascending the cliff but a lot of the egg collecting happens on the more sheer parts of the cliff and below overhangs. Jon kindly let me fix a GoPro camera to his helmet to get a more intimate perspective of his task. He would only do this on some of the “easier” parts of the cliff as even a small camera like the GoPro ads to the weight and balance of all the equipment he is carrying. I had one climb to do stills and another for video with the helmet camera. A lot of the images were lost as it started to rain and Jón had to keep looking up for orientation and to make sure the rope isn’t dislodging rocks above him.’
A Part of History
The harvesting of seabirds has been continuous Icelandic tradition since early settlement and is mentioned in Norse Sagas. Although no longer necessary for survival, cultural ties to the harvesting of seabirds are strong and vigorously defended.
The cliffs where Jón collects are divided into sectors which are allocated by the local authority in return for a number of eggs to be given to the community. Each sector is harvested 2 or 3 times as the eggs are laid before being left alone for the birds to hatch and raise the next clutch.
It’s mostly kittiwake, common murre (guillemot) and thick-billed murre (Brunnichs guillemot) eggs that are collected from the cliffs. Elsewhere in Iceland other seabird eggs, mostly gulls, are also collected. I saw him occasionally pick up fulmar eggs but he told me only older Icelandic people eat them and they’re not particularly popular. It’s guillemots eggs that make up by far the bulk of the harvest. Unfortunately the eggs of common guillemot and the seriously declining Brunnichs guillemot are identical.
A Team Effort
‘Sæmundur Einarsson helps Jón by operating the 4X4 truck that lowers and raises him on the cliff face. They are in constant contact by radio and it’s a very responsible job. Here Sæmundur is sorting the eggs into species. The smaller, more delicate kittiwake eggs go into cardboard cartons and the guillemot eggs, of which there are many more, into the big plastic boxes. Later these eggs will be washed and candled to make sure they are fresh. Because I was photographing this alone, I had to film Jón being hauled up the cliff from a vantage point some distance away and then run along the cliff top to get them sorting and boxing the eggs. The whole process is over in minutes and I was determined to film/photograph everything exactly as it happened, with nothing set up or staged.’
From Cliffs to Customers
Once the eggs have been collected, sorted and washed they are ‘candled’ to make sure they don’t have developing chicks inside. Most of the eggs are collected very soon after being laid, so almost all are fresh, but he checks every egg just in case. Jón then gives some to the local community but sells the rest. His mostly go to the main town in the east of Iceland, Egilsstaðir.
Looking to the future?
There is very little research to determine the long-term effect this has on the seabird populations but the general consensus is that given how long this harvesting has been happening, it is sustainable. However, given the threats to north Atlantic seabird populations, particularly from the effects of ocean warming on the abundance and distribution of their food, particularly sandeels, there have been calls for a moratorium on seabird hunting and egg collection in Iceland.
Jón himself feels that the government will probably put an end, first to seabird hunting, then egg harvesting within 5 years. Although strongly attached to the cultural tradition of egg collecting, Jón told me he would stop voluntarily if he felt it was no longer sustainable. I wanted to document this tradition as well as I could while I had the chance, as it feels there is little likelihood of it continuing beyond the next few years, and it could be stopped tomorrow.