Saturday, 18 October 2008

Diving With Puffins

My introduction to underwater bird watching took place on Skomer Island off the Pembrokeshire coast, and this is where I have done the vast majority of my work with sea birds. After a move to West Wales five years ago I soon started to visit this special place on a regular basis with fellow artists David Cowdry and Andrew Evans. It didn't take long for me to be drawn to the clear waters of North Haven and Dave and I were soon swimming amongst the great rafts of puffins, razorbills and guillemots. The puffin, which charms and amuses thousands of visitors to Skomer each year, can then be viewed as it transforms into an efficient underwater predator. The unlikely looking evolutionary success story that on land is a waddling comic becomes a graceful and powerful swimmer hunting down small fish. When you snorkel amongst puffins the comedy initially continues, their plump white bellies set off by those impossibly orange legs as they paddle to and fro, head dipping in the hunt for prey. They have all the appearance of a child's clockwork toy until, with a slight acceleration in their paddle and a lean forward, the birds dive, leaving a great silver trail of bubbles behind them. The puffins appear more buoyant than either the razorbills or guillemots and it always seems more of an effort for them to get beneath the surface. When a raft of birds dives in unison the effect is spectacular and marks the comics metamorphosis into the stars of an underwater ballet with the birds reflecting so much light that they appear to be lit from within. Thanks to the generosity of the former Skomer warden Juan Brown and his partner Jane I have snorkelled in North Haven again and again and I don't think that I will ever tire of spending a bright summer day watching the auks do what they do best. After a good day in the water I drift off to sleep with my head filled with images, always in silvery light, and dream of painting six-foot canvases that will show people the wonder of it all.

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