It was my fifth trip to Newfoundland and I’d still never seen a real one.
Their images graced hats, coasters, posters, photos, paintings and postcards. I’d seen carvings and statues, earrings and necklaces, belt buckles and tea towels. On the rock, puffins – small black and white seabirds with large, red, back and yellow beaks – were a hot tourist feature. I’d just never managed to lay eyes on a real one, in the flesh and feathers.
This visit, I determined, would be it. My husband and I wouldn’t go home until we’d found and photographed Newfoundland’s most famous feathered friend.
We started in St. John’s, at the Admiral’s Adventure B&B in the old battery neighbourhood, where houses cling precariously to the cliffs overlooking the sea. Birds of all sorts wheel over the waves. Surely, we thought, one of them must be a puffin.
“Nope,” said Bruce Peters, owner of the B&B. “I’ve seen lots of puffins in my day, of course…just not here.”
Bruce was only the first of the many people we asked who assured us that they’d seen hundreds, all over Newfoundland, but coincidentally, never where we happened to be at the time. We began to suspect a puffin concealing conspiracy.
The smiling gentlemen outside the drugstore in Carbonear were encouraging.
“Puffins? See ‘em all the time. Just not today. And not here. You’d have to go over the bay,” one assured me, while the other insisted that puffins aplenty could be found south of St. John’s – back where we’d come from.
“Oh sure,” said the man cooking fish cakes at the Mad Rock Café in the small village of Bay Roberts, “I see puffins all the time. When I was a boy, my mother used to cook a pot of them for Christmas dinner.”
Had we uncovered the terrible truth of the puffin paucity? Had they all been eaten?
“You crazy t’ing!” snorted his wife. “She never cooked puffins. Those were terns.” She smiled, as if to clear up any confusion. “We called ‘em mers, but they were terns.”
Ah, perfectly clear.
But had she seen any puffins?
“Never. But my father told me he did.”
A startling pattern began to emerge. Men always told us they saw puffins on a regular basis, while women swore up and down that they’d never laid eyes on one.
“Puffins?” laughed the woman in the gift shop as she straightened the display of puffin spoons, hand towels and soap. “Where would I see one of those?”
Only in a tiny museum, in a remote fishing village on the Avalon peninsula, did we find a woman who promised a sighting.
“I’ll show you a puffin.”
Up we climbed to a second floor gallery of treasures, where, tucked between rusty anchors, fish hooks, nets and old marine maps, was one, dusty, slightly moth-eaten, stuffed puffin.
Not quite what we’d had in mind.
The town of Elliston, on the shores of the Bona Vista peninsula, was our last stop. Home to a puffin island sanctuary, it was our last hope.
“Puffins?” said the visitors centre lady, shattering the pattern, “Oh my loves, yes! We’ve had ‘em there all morning.”
We raced to the shore, and ran along the slippery pathway overlooking the island.
And suddenly, there they were. Black and white and stunningly gorgeous, their huge, colorful beaks gleaming in the spray. As hundreds of them sailed by us, we reveled in their existence!
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and there are puffins too – you just have to know where to find them.