Keeper of the puffins

In April, Dingle resident Catherine Merrigan, 58, will pack her bag and travel across to Skellig Michael, the spectacular rock and UNESCO World Heritage Site, where she spends six months of every year as an island guide and warden to over 8,000 breeding puffins, which arrive there in the spring, covering every available ledge on the island. There are only three guides on the island at one time during the summer, all living in small wooden cabins high up on the side of a cliff, each furnished with a bed, gas cooker and fridge. Water and food supplies are brought over from the mainland, if weather allows. Catherine tells West Cork People how her role is akin to living in a live David Attenborough programme. “It’s tough, it’s raw, but it’s also very special and I love it,” she shares.

A native of Wexford, Catherine left home to travel when she was 17, spending the next decade working on sailing and diving boats around the world and learning about different cultures and creatures as she went.

After taking up the post on Skellig Michael in 2000, she has since been dividing her time between Dingle, Skellig, and sunnier climes during the winter months.

Always feeling a great draw to the natural world, a connection that was nourished by her late grandmother, Catherine has been fascinated by Skellig Michael since first setting foot on the rock. Although isolated there, she is never lonely or bored. No day is ever the same. “I call it Sky TV, it’s constantly changing,” she says.

In the morning she is often roused by the puffins, the pitter-patter of their tiny feet as they walk into the cabin offering a soft awakening. They are curious and playful creatures, poking their bight orange beaks into her wardrobe and under the bed. “One day I was doing yoga outside the cabin and one walked across my tummy,” she laughs. These affectionate and funny creatures make good company. “I quite literally hang out with the puffins all the time,” she explains.

Puffins are sometimes called the ‘clowns of the sea’. “They remind me of little Charlie Chaplins walking about the place,” says Catherine, who has snapped thousands of photographs of their antics over the years.

Puffins can be territorial and feisty too. “One of my jobs is to break up puffin brawls,” she laughs, describing some of their fights as “ferocious. Beak to beak and rolling downhill.”

With 15 boats visiting the island every day during the busy summer season, Catherine’s role is to inform, giving talks and tours, as well as to safeguard the puffins and their burrows. “Some people are so touched by the place that they cry,” she shares. “I love seeing people’s reactions to the island and the puffins.

“You could also step foot on the island and not see one puffin,” she adds. The chicks are hidden inside the burrows until their parents return in the evening. “It’s an incredible sight, watching the sky fill with circling puffins before landing,” shares Catherine, who says they’re not the best fliers. “They’re kind of like a wind-up toy,” she laughs “and sometimes they land on each other’s backs.”

Every year a puffin returns with the same partner to the same burrow. “A pair has only one chick each year. They come back to the island to lay their egg after spending the winter diving for sprats in the North Atlantic Ocean near Canada,” explains Catherine.

While it provides much beauty and wonder, the natural world can also be a hard and uncomfortable place. “It can be tough, you know, when you see gulls flying in and ripping apart puffins. It breaks my heart,” shares the island guide.

Catherine does her best to help injured birds or chicks that get thrown out of a nest. “I have successfully reared puffin chicks, bringing them to the sea in the dark of night to avoid predators.”

When she’s not caring for the puffins, Catherine is out and about with her camera, rarely missing a sunset or sunrise. Music is in her blood – she’s a descendant of Chief Francis O’Neill from Bantry, the great collector of Irish music – so it’s no surprise that on occasion she’ll sing or even play her flute to an appreciative feathered audience.

When the season draws to a close in October, Catherine will return to Dingle, where she keeps the Skelligs in her sights in-between facilitating movement and music workshops in local schools, hospitals and care homes. When she does fly the coop, you might find her in the Canaries or West Cork.

Mary O'Brien

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