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Auks: One of the World’s “Extinct” Creatures

Auks: One of the World’s “Extinct” Creatures


Auks: A search for what remains of the world’s extinct creatures

By Michael Blencowe

The last auks: An intriguing story and fascinating adventure.

On the evening of June 2, 1844, eight oars propelled 14 men from the sheltered bay of Kyrkjuvogr on Iceland’s south-west coast. By morning they had reached Eldey.

The world’s last known pair of great auks watched as they approached. With the weather deteriorating, landing men on Eldey was going to be dangerous, but not impossible. Brandsson, Iselfsson, and Ketilsson scrambled onto the treacherous rock, instantly spotted their quarry, and started scaling the sloping ledge.

Brandsson went after the closest bird. It was quickly cornered and caught.

The second bird was running.

Ketilsson lost his nerve, but Iselfsson hauled himself up. Guillemots and razorbills cackled and scattered, taking flight as the great auk fled along a precarious ledge that rose to a sheer drop.

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Just ahead, the freedom of the open sea beckoned, but something was holding the bird back. Iselfsson’s strong hands closed around the auk’s neck. There was no struggle, no sound, just a sigh, and the auk’s eyes closed forever. The two strangled birds were slung on board. The wind was rising, the breakers were crashing against Eldey – it was ‘Satan’s weather,’ the men said.

The boat cleared the surging waves, the sea calmed, the men rowed home. Back on the mainland, money changed hands. The birds were sold, skinned, and shipped to a dealer in Denmark. Ketilsson would later tell that he had found an egg that day, but it had been cracked. And so it was left there, the life leaking from it, on a lava slab on Eldey.

The Natural History Museum of Denmark holds 14 million objects in its collections.

A new exhibition, ‘Precious Things,’ showcases 78 of their most beautiful and valuable treasures. In the gift shop, I buy my ticket and guidebook. As I try to decipher Danish, I pass a 17-meter (56-foot) diplodocus and some of Charles Darwin’s barnacles and then enter a low-lit maze of corridors skeletons, artwork, and Hans Christian Andersen’s snail collection.

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