For the last few years, the Skelligs have become the most visited islands in Ireland, popularised by the intergalactic sagas of Star Wars.
However, any visitors boarding a ferry in Portmagee, Co Kerry, to make the 45-minute trip across the 12km of often turbulent ocean and focused on the Skellig pyramids may have missed an island just as impressive in its physical appeal.
Puffin Island (Oileán na gCánóg) doesn’t have a monastery like Skellig Michael — it was too close to shore for monks seeking an ascetic life — but it has its own majesty. Neither has it the wild gannetry of the Small Skellig which is home to 70,000 cacophonous gannets, but it has its own magnificent bird population.
Once the boats pass the extraordinary historic monastic settlement of Illaunloughan having left the village of Portmagee, with the signal tower defining Bray Head to the north, the open sea presents itself on exiting Portmagee Channel.
Just to the south lie a cluster of small unpopulated islands: Horse Island, Long Island, and Short Island.
Then comes the towering streetscape of modernist skyscrapers of Puffin Island. Mystical in the sea mist.
Along with Bolus Head it forms the second extremity of the arc that encloses St Finan’s Bay, which includes the starting point for some trips to Puffin Island at Boat Cove.
In fact, Puffin Island has its own headland, called Canduff or BlackHead. The island is only 250m from the mainland.
The island is nearly rent in two. At Poulacocka Cove on the south of the island, a vast chasm strives to reach its corresponding chasm on the north side at Blue Cove.
It has a number of satellite islands — in truth no more than reefs — Flax Island, Oats Island, and Cave Island.
All around its steep sides, lesser rocks have been named, giving further clues as to the character of the island — an aide memoire for intrepid fishermen: Carrignarone; Cormorant Rock; Bluecave Rocks; Bulligacrowig Rocks; Fishing Rock; Head Rock; Watts Rock, Gull Rock; Boar Rock; Cave Rock.
The dagger-shaped island is fairly sizeable, 1.6km to be precise, and it takes longer than you might think to circumnavigate.
There is no pier and landing requires the visitor to clamber over rocks before climbing to a plateau of thick grass.
The island was probably never inhabited, as shelter is hard to come by, though there is a good depth of soil in places which could have supported a few people.
A steep incline slopes to the peak at 145m, from where there are amazing views: 10km westwards to the Skelligs, east to St Finan’s Bay and north to the Blasket Islands.
Puffin Island is owned by Birdwatch Ireland and is a very important bird sanctuary. Several species including peregrine falcons, cormorants, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, oystercatchers, manx shearwaters, and European storm petrels throng the island at any one time: Gliding, nesting, fighting, shrieking, feeding, diving.
However, the eponymous puffin, with its lawnmower voice, is the star of the show.
Orange-beaked and orange-booted, black-winged, and white-bodied, they look like they were designed by a cubist painter experimenting with interlocking arcs and vivid colours.
With their pantomime frolics and funny flight patterns it is a species that has huge appeal for children. Burrowing into the grass slopes, they have thousands of nests on Puffin Island.
Numbers are estimated at 10,000 at their peak in May and June when they return from the other side of the Atlantic to lay just one egg. However, their numbers are in decline.
A recent international study which included UCC scientists and published in Current Biology concluded that the species is too fatigued to breed after migrating almost 5,000km across the Atlantic.
The European storm petrels and manx shearwater are nocturnal around the nest so they often go unnoticed, says Niall Hatch of Birdwatch Ireland.
However, to keep an accurate track of seabird numbers it is important that bird surveys are carried out, says Niall. The last one was in 2000 and a new one is long overdue, he says. Niall points out the best way to see the puffins is from a boat tour.
How to get there:
Willie Kennedy, Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry: 087 222 9787.
Trips must be approved by Birdwatch Ireland and a disclaimer signed. Photographers must get clearance from the NPWS.
Click here for more information.
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