Within walking distance of the oldest lighthouse in Iceland, I visited Valahnúkamöl Cliffs; and what caught my eye initially had me think that I spotted a joke of some kind — but it was no joke at all. In fact, it was rather serious.
An Auk-ward Moment of Remembrance in Iceland
Amidst the vast other worldly landscape of rocky brown sand — part of it used as a makeshift lot where cars are randomly parked with no rhyme or reason — by the rough sea was a green sculpture which stood alone.
The green sculpture was that of a Great Auk, whose height was typically 30 to 33 inches and weight at approximately eleven pounds. The following text is from an information sign which stood nearby.
For some years Todd McGrain has been focusing his strengths as a sculptor towards the creation of memorials to birds driven to extinction in modern times — including the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, the Labrador Duck, the Heath Hen, and the Great Auk.
Through the generous support of private benefactors, institutional support and private funds, he has now completed the Great Auk Memorial. His ambition is to permanently place this memorial at a site with historic significance to the bird and where it will have a meaningful impact on the way we interpret the land. This sculpture is to be a gift to the community of Reykjanesbær.
Garefowl, Penguin, Pinwing, Gordo, Moyacks, Great Apponath, Geirfuglar, Wobble, Binocle — these are some of the names given the Great Auk by people who lived on the coast of Europe, north of Iceland, Greenland, to Newfoundland and down the eastern seaboard of North America. Swift and agile swimmers, able to dive to great depths, the Great Auk lived most of its life at sea.
By 1800, the last population of Great Auk found refuge on a remote island off the coast of Iceland. In 1830, a volcanic eruption pulled the island beneath the waters of the sea leaving the fragile population adrift. The remaining few took refuge just off the southwestern tip of Iceland on Eldey Island, within easy reach of man.
The last documented pair of Great Auks was killed on Eldey Island on June 3, 1844. The photograph shown above is Eldey Island offshore, which the sculpture of the Great Auk appears to be facing.
“The Great Auk was wanted for more than its meat”, according to this article written by Samantha Galasso for Smithsonian.com. “Its feathers, fat, oil, and eggs made the original penguin increasingly valuable. The down industry in particular helped propel the bird to extinction. After exhausting its supply of eider duck feathers in 1760 (also due to overhunting), feather companies sent crews to Great Auk nesting grounds on Funk Island. The birds were harvested every spring until, by 1810, every last bird on the island was killed.”
There are no facilities and no admission fee to enjoy the Great Auk sculpture at Valahnúkamöl Cliffs, where you can stay as long as you like, as it is technically open 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. I intend to write about my visit at Valahnúkamöl Cliffs in a future article, which will include photographs. This is definitely a place worth visiting.
The demise of the Great Auk is yet another reminder of the importance of the conservation of species by human beings. Earlier this year, the last male northern white rhinoceros died in Kenya on Monday, March 19, 2018 at 45 years of age.
The consequences of the extinction of a species is not always fully known — but we as human beings need to be more careful about how we treat our planet…
…for our very survival as a species in the future could very well depend on it…