We are unaware when indigenous people first visited Funk Island. We know that the Beothuk made annual summer visits to collect Great Auk eggs which no doubt held considerable spiritual as well as nutritional significance for them. These summer visits were based on extraordinary navigational skill, knowledge of changing sea conditions, and endurance. To date, we have accessed little of this knowledge.
In the late 1800s, a canoe paddle and some arrowheads were found in the easternmost gully on Funk Island –traditionally referred to as Indian Gulch. We know of one contact between the Beothuk and settlers at Funk Islands. A crew of five men from Tilting on Fogo Island were collecting eggs and when Beothuk in two canoes approached the island they were fired upon and some were thought to have been wounded. By the early 1800s, owing to conflict with settlers and disease, the Beothuk like the Great Auks became extinct.
The Portuguese and surely the Basques were well aware of Funk Island and its avian inhabitants as indicated by the first known European name of Funk Island – “Y dos Aves” [Island of Birds], which appears on a Portuguese chart of 1503 by the cartographer Peno Real. The Basques used sightings of Great Auks on the water as indicators of arrival on the New World fishing banks.
Jacques Cartier upon reaching the North American continent, following the arduous trans-Atlantic voyages in 1534 and 1535, landed at Funk Island. Cartier highlighted the island’s significance for mariners. In marked contrast to the bare-boned often inaccurate accounts which were the vogue of New World explorers, Cartier penned lucid descriptions of the island’s myriad seabirds. By emphasising the relative ease with which flightless Great Auks could be herded into boats to provision hungry crews, he established Funk Island as the continent’s first fast-food takeout.
Funk Island became a haven for trans-Atlantic mariners and local fishers, and the exploitation of seabirds for fresh meat, eggs and bait continued through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
It was, however, the slaughter for down feathers by resident crews in the late 1700s that sealed the fate the Great Auks. By the early 1800s, they were gone from Funk Island and the waters of Newfoundland. Gone but not forgotten the iconic Auk became an international symbol of conservation and wildlife preservation.
After the Great Auk’s extinction and in pursuit of their remains, the first natural scientists visited Funk Island during the 1800s. Since the 1950s research investigations have been ongoing by a privileged few scientists through to the present day.