by Karen Lethlean

I’d been living in the big smoke for way too long. There had to be a better way than hours  spent behind a desk or outside the office amid strangers. Aside from the all-too-rare visits wandering unwelcoming shores my inner islander mumbled dissent. Gazing across the wide, inappropriately named Pacific to view a few scouring rock lumps did not satisfy. How long had it been since I stepped onto a real island?

A solution to being starved of island winds appeared in an insignificant advertisement requesting volunteers for the Seal Island puffin count and I wondered – should I?

On the ferry out to Seal Island, being tossed and jumped about, rain spitting sideways, we chugged out into a rising sea. Smells of brine brought on refreshing notions as salt air struck the back of my sinus spaces. Nostalgia swept in, imbued with the ferry crossings I enjoyed in a past life which involved commuting across Wellington Harbour.

“I felt my soul renewed, mended by something that blew in with the chill air.”

Here, rubbing shoulders with other volunteers, my nerves sparked. Why should I be so unsure? After all, we had been issued with waterproof clipboards and indelible ink pens. Maybe these sensations were just sea-sickness.

When we finally reached them, our accommodation buildings clung with tenacious energy to the shore just up from the arrival jetty. Weatherboard huts appeared fragile against solid rock and wind-tossed shrubbery.

Straight away I felt my soul renewed, mended by something that blew in with the chill air. Finally enjoying the solitude of a wind-swept island, I could, unless distracted, connect with recalled heritage. The calm murmur of an exhausted sea came with sunrise, after a wild night of crashing waves and wind-driven rain. There had been a spectacular lightning display illuminating the island from end to end as if the elements waged war on our huts. I wondered about safety, even evacuation procedures. Elements I’d never have considered during youthful explorations of such pebble-strewn shores, rugging up with thick full-body wet suits to surf the running storm waves on the far side of Wellington Harbour. Or many hours spent doing research, always on islands. Or the summers watching Albatross way south of home; even during my travel through the Indonesian archipelago when the boys were young and all wide-eyed.

With the boys now long gone in search of their own islands, I’d felt trapped in a void that work, the city, even Francis, couldn’t fill. I have to admit I had long been casting about for an object to hold my lust, hopeful that an intimate companion might emerge – but hadn’t thought it would be this clump of rock and tussock grass.

My panacea, this remote low-scrub, grass-and-granite island teemed with so many species of seabirds, that I felt curator in a wildlife park. I’d discovered how its boulder fields and ledges attract puffins, razorbills, and black guillemots. The ledge areas favoured by terns, the raspberry and grass thickets appealed to eiders, and the soft peat and glacial tills ideal for burrowing by Leach’s storm petrels. The rich fishing grounds offshore attracted populations of harbour and grey seals – which led to the island’s name.

Volunteers worked in three-hour shifts, with instructions to watch and record the birds’ behaviour. I felt like a voyeur as couples formed. Even though courtship and mating took place underground, surface fights, including disagreements and family squabbles, looked human. Here – a wife unhappy with what has been brought home to feed the babies, there – two men were out to impress likely partners, this – a disagreement between neighbours that could have been about fences or overhanging trees. Over here – the suspicious partner of a suspected cheater. Their banter only lacked a David Attenborough narration.

Why would I pick these interactions? I could see so much of my life reflected. Not in their waddling walk, but just the way nothing seems good enough for one or the other nesting partner. Was it really surprising that I picked those traits? No wonder I needed to get away. Then I remembered my role here amounted to nothing more than an observer. I had to remind myself that these little birds were not acting out my life.

The puffins felt like friends and were wonderful to watch, with their slightly quizzical look and brightly ornamental beaks – like the punks of the gull world. I hadn’t known the birds grew a more colourful beak during the breeding season and shed this each year like deer shed their antlers.

I want to change the name of this place to Steal Island – as, like a mistress, it had stolen a staid part of me, replaced that which had been pilfered with a puffin-beak rainbowed newness.

Karen Lethlean

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