Take a walk through the Arctic town of Vardø, and you might spot one of its bird murals. Or pick up a map at the local hotel, and it will guide you to the bird hides and wind shelters around town. Or, if you’re especially dedicated, rent the floating bird hide that sits just off the shore – 1750 kroner (€213) for four hours – to get some close encounters with eiders, shags, and a plethora of other seabirds. Then there are the brawling puffins.
“Have you seen the puffins?” asks Tormod Amundsen. “You know they fight. People think they are all cute, but they are the fight club.”
Amundsen is flipping through a slideshow of pictures at his computer. Around his desk the walls are covered in photos showing black, blue and green feathers, orange beaks, yellow crests and red feet.
They are trophy shots of the incredible bird life his company, pro-nature architecture firm Biotope, has helped to expose around the Arctic community.
“People think they have to go to the Amazon to see spectacular birds, but you can go to the Arctic,” says Amundsen. “It’s a well-kept secret.” In five years their work has been to lift that veil, making the tiny nearby island of Hornøya a must-see for international birders.
Since Biotope started building the industry, Vardø has become a birding paradise, but it wasn’t always that way. A few years ago it was a fishing village in decline. It was being sized up for oil and gas development, and its main tourist attraction was a small fortress, the northernmost in the world.
But all along, just on the horizon was its real treasure: a rocky island swarming with hundreds of thousands of birds.
“Before [Biotope] there were only two species of birds in Varanger - big birds and little birds,” says Amundsen. “Now people know there are over 270 species.”
The island is at the meeting point of the taiga, coastal, and tundra ecosystems, and is the easternmost island in Europe, east even of Istanbul. This unique location brings in a huge variety of exotic birds. Majestic king eiders, adorable puffins, and rare migrants like the golden oriole or the pallid harrier today draw visitors from around the world, and all the town needed to do was recognize the value of their own backyard to attract a thriving tourist industry.
The idea for Biotope was born from Amundsen’s background in architecture, his keen interest in birding and a partnership with fellow birder and architect Elin Taranger.
“We wanted to be architects that did pro-nature stuff, not at the expense of nature,” says Amundsen.
The firm set about providing the basic infrastructure for ecotourism on the islands of Vardøya and Hornøya: hides, paths, bridges, and even an outhouse tucked in below the bird cliff. They saw building proper paths as a way of ensuring that birders would cause minimal, predictable disturbance to the nesting birds as they moved through the ecosystem.
’”The better your facilities, your hides and your paths, the more used the birds get to humans,” says Amundsen. Biotope carefully designed the paths with natural materials like burlap and wood, which would blend in and decompose over time.
The track weaves in and out of rocky outcrops, joining the rugged shore with the grassy plateau above. Visitors who want to extend their stay on the island may even find a bed or two free in the old lighthouse keep on the island’s highest point.
The gradual construction of birding facilities on the island has led to a steady increase of tourism through the area. The town’s only hotel estimates that, since February, two of every three of its guests have been in Vardø specifically for birding.
Two kinds of development
By promoting Vardø as an environmental jewel in the high north and demonstrating the unique opportunities that come with nature tourism, Amundsen hopes the growing oil and gas industry will keep its activities at a safe distance from the area. Hornøya is already protected as a nature reserve, meaning that no harvesting or development can occur on the island itself. But that doesn’t prevent commercial enterprises from springing up around it.
“Vardø is a great habour that can be used for oil production,” says Ole Klaudiussen, senior consultant for Vardø ProMor AS, a local business promotion organization.
There are no designated oil projects slated for Vardø yet.
“Everyone is waiting for oil to be found,” says Klaudiussen. For now, the area is in a holding pattern, but oil seeking expeditions are being conducted and, if a source is found, Klaudiussen is confident development will begin.
“If you want to build an oil base, [the Varanger Peninsula] is not the place,” insists Amundsen. Biotope wants to encourage growth in Vardø, but growth that doesn’t harm the fragile ecosystem.
Vardø is caught in a clash between two nearly mutually-exclusive industries: ecotourism and petroleum resource development.
“There will be some impact on what today is untouched nature…when you start drilling or ship traffic,” says Klaudiussen. “But there are regulations and I don’t think the impact will be that much.”
The expected disturbance stemming from oil production would be minor compared to what could happen if there were a spill. That could mean disaster for the nesting birds, many of which spend a great deal of time in the water, and all of which ultimately depend on a healthy ocean for survival.
The economic benefits from oil and gas make it an appealing industry for Vardø to try to break into, but if nature tourism proves as successful as Biotope believes it can be, there may not be a need to drill in Vardø.
“We are making a solid product out of a natural resource,” Amundsen says, and the uptick in visitors seems to support his claim. Despite the promise of renewed economic vigour through the development of fossil fuels, Amundsen and the architects at Biotope would rather build a bird hide than an oil rig.
“We need more focus on birds than oil and gas.”