Eldey Island, where the last pair of Great Auks were killed in 1844.
The island, which lies about 15 miles off the southern coast of Iceland, is home to one of the largest colonies of Northern Gannets in the Atlantic. (photographs by Todd McGrain)
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 to 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.
In the spring, auks came with their life-long partners to mate on the isolated rock islands of the North Atlantic. Flightless and awkward on land, the Great Auk was extremely vulnerable out of the sea. Although it had been hunted for thousands of years and was an important fresh meat source for early explorers, its numbers began to decline significantly in the 1500’s as it was overexploited for sale in the fish markets of Europe. In the 1770’s, its numbers were decimated as men corralled the birds by the thousands, and, using some of the birds bodies as fuel, boiled the auks to harvest their black feathers.
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.
Todd McGrain’s memorial to the Great Auk is located on Fogo Island, Newfoundland.