The Joy of a real life soap opera

AS a rule we aren’t fans of soap operas, although I am a long-term albeit occasional fan of The Archers (I wouldn’t win any Archers Addicts quizzes!) But over the past few weeks we have joined the large number of people around the world who have been transfixed by a real-life soap opera. This isn’t a starry show with huge permanent sets and melodramatic plots, cliff-hanging from one day to the next. It is an everyday story of seafishing feathered folk, and of one little individual called Joy.

We have been watching with fascination the slow transformation of a ball of soft grey fluff into a recognisable seabird. Thanks to the wonders of digital photography and the dedication of a group of scientists and rangers who are spending the summer marooned miles off the north eastern US seaboard, the early life of a puffling (a baby puffin) has become a riveting story for countless bird-lovers.

There is something irresistible about puffins. Partly, of course, it is that unique rainbow-coloured beak, but it is also the sturdy and distinctive black and white shape. It’s the rather ungainly way they stomp across the ground but the dexterity and speed with which they fly and glide and fish over the stormiest and rockiest of seas.

Thanks to the miracle of a tiny video camera installed inside a burrow on this little island in the north Atlantic, we have learned what a baby puffling looks like, how it starts to move around its little rocky home and the slow process of developing from a ball of fluff as light as thistledown and much the same colour to an almost fully grown puffin that will soon be ready to fly and fish.

The puffling has a name – OK, maybe that’s a bit anthropomorphic and maybe serious scientists shouldn’t name the creatures they study, but when you spend months in their company on a rocky outcrop in the ocean, or when you peek into the PuffinCam day after day, you do begin to feel a (virtual) relationship with this little creature, and some computer-generated number would seem a poor way to identify her. So she is called Joy.

We check in on her several times a day, thanks to the wonders of infra-red camera technology. A few weeks ago, she divided her time between sleeping and squawking for food, just like any baby. The noises around the puffin burrow are loud and various – there are many guillemots and other seabirds on the island, all co-existing in a place that is as remote and safe as you can get in our over-populated world – but we have got used to Joy’s insistent and demanding calls.

Gradually Joy began to move around, and sometimes recently she has actually left the burrow. Occasionally she seems to be looking at the camera, with her little black eyes appearing to gaze directly at you, the person sitting by the computer thousands of miles away.

Over the past couple of weeks she has started to undergo a metamorphosis that is as amazing as any in nature – changing from a puff(in)ball to an almost puffin. We have watched her pecking and pulling at the fluff, as the feathers begin to come through. Her mother, who is a devoted parent, spends long periods helping her and we imagine the conversations as Joy squeaks and shakes her head. “Ow, that hurt. Stop it! Ooh, it itches. Make it stop, mummy!” – and the like, just as a toddler protests when you brush his or her curls or insist on scrubbing off the mud from the garden.

Her beak is thickening up from the thin little beak that we first saw pointing out of the fluff. There are just the tiniest hints of incipient colour, but there is a long way to go and we shall continue to watch her progress.

What is fascinating about this PuffinCam and little Joy is that what we see is happening in real time. It is unedited. There is no producer back in the studio looking for a story and selecting bits of film to fit the plot that has been planned to maximise the responses of a sensation-hungry television audience. There is no commentator to tell us what we are seeing or to manipulate our emotions with pregnant pauses and theatrical gasps. What happens will happen.

The first time she was missing from the burrow, we began to worry that she had been attacked and eaten for some big bird’s supper. But then the familiar grey fluff-ball pushed through the gap in the stones and she was back and shouting for her tea. If she had not reappeared we would never have known what had happened.

What we are watching is life as it happens. One day she won’t be there and she won’t come back. At that point, hopefully still a few weeks off, we will wish her well and hope that the scientists who succeeded in ringing her a few days ago, can track her progress. Perhaps next year, when we revisit the PuffinCam, we will watch another video by the senior ranger and hear that they have seen Joy and that she now has her own burrow and her own ball of fluff.

In the meantime, we will continue to watch her in her tiny world and hope that we will be privileged to see the completion of the metamorphosis from grey fluff to stomping puffin with huge colourful beak. Now that’s what I call reality television!

Fanny Charles