Trip report: Eyjafjördur, Iceland
'Persist, endure, follow, watch...' whispers the ghost of the naturalist, J.A. Baker, in my ear. I'm doing none of those things. I'm not sublimating my paltry human self into something greater. I'm worried, worried that I'll miss the shot, or that a large Russian will stand in front of me or that I will get sea spray on my lens or that the car keys have slipped down inside my gigantic fleece lined jumpsuit which is keeping out the Arctic blast. In fact, I think my teeth are gritted, judging by the mysterious ache in my jaws that I notice later when I attempt to masticate an Arctic char, I think my teeth were gritted for quite a long time. Our Captain, Simon, is however, unflappable in the pursuit of 40 tonnes of humpback.
You see, whale-watching is like the Cistine chapel or Jerusalem's Temple Mount. We don't want just to see, we must be moved. So here I was in Eyjafjördur, a whale's fart South of the Arctic circle. There is out here theoretically only the calmness and solitude of horizons, a cold blowy otherworldliness, but its making me nervy, as are the Russians galloping around on deck like Sleipnir, Odin's 8 legged horse. There is Brynjar, our steely eyed whale spotter with Arctic Tours, aloft on the top of the wheelhouse. We are 43 in number and we are insatiable for whales. '94% success rate,' I mutter to myself. It's a 'Halvreki,' as they say.
It happened quite quickly. A fine shining cloud of spume. A small hooked dorsal fin, the black back, gleaming like an airship, the spine knobbled like a dragon's tail down to the tail and there it was - the great ragged flukes rose to an 'oooh' from on deck. Vanished slowly back into the deep, ever so slowly, like a tipping truck. Fifteen minutes later, a pair passed in close, inspected our propellor and departed.
Brynjar had given names to his favourites: 'The Finless Bitten Fluke,' 'The Magic Johnson,' or 'The Dream' who every time the boat approached, slapped his fin on the surface. The humpbacks were his favourite because of their unpredictability. 'You never know what they're going to do,' he said with pride as he barbecued pollock and cod back at Dalvik. The boss of Arctic Tours, Freyr Antonsson showed me footage of a whale interacting with the boat. Individuals were identified by their different fluke markings as they migrate south to Mexico and West Africa. The population in Icelandic waters is thought to be up to 1800 individuals. Other whales in Shuddering Bay include Minkes, Fin Whales, Sei Whales, Pilot whales, dolphins, porpoises. He said a pod of 15 orcas were sighted in the fjord and whales were not seen for days after.
Christo, our young guide with North Sailing, who took us out into the famous Skjalfandi or Shuddering Bay in an old Icelandic sailing vessel to look for whales and puffins (we saw 4 whales and several hundred puffins,) told us these great behemoths could sing for up to 4 hours, and that their songs got passed around from mouth to mouth, remixed from population to population. They can dive up to depths of 500m. The Bowhead whale for example can live for 200 years. In 2007 a carcass was discovered with a weapon fragment lodged in it which dated back to a patent filed in 1879. Though they are listed as 'Least Concern' on the red list nowadays, global warming could prove a threat greater than the harpoon ever was. The retreat of the Arctic ice which provides cover for krill briefly is providing the whales with a great bonanza. The gigantic blue whale with a heart as big as a car engine is thought to be currently increasing in size as the krill become more numerous, but this perhaps is a short lived Indian summer. With the ice gone, the krill too will suffer. What song will they sing then?
Midge Lake, or the world's smallest whirlpool
Lake Myvatn, 70 km inland from Akuyeri, (pronounced Mee-vat which translates worryingly, as 'midge lake') is best known for its multicoloured, vociferous duck population, 13 species of which come to its shallow warm waters to breed and gorge on algae and flies. Barrow's Golden Eye, Long-tailed Duck, Great Scaup, Harlequin Ducks, Divers and Slavonian Grebes all come here to gorge, loll, scratch, flirt, yodell, grunt, growl and complain about the neighbours. Bird watching in many ways is the opposite of whale watching, it is a light pleasure. You can just sit in a bog and let things go by. Overhead, the Snipe 'drum'.
The majority of Iceland's breeding birds are migrants with their secretive double lives. Consider, for example, the mileage of the tiny Red-necked Phalarope. Their travel itinerary makes mine look like a trip to the frozen section in Tesco's. There was quite a famous bird tagged in Shetland who clocked up 16,000 miles round trip. He headed west, not east like most birds, straight into the bad weather, came out unscathed somewhere around Peru.
On the lake and the heaving waters of the Laxa, I watch the females spin around like tops in tiny circles making little whirlpools to stir up food. That is the phalarope - always cooking up a storm. They are barely a few grams, freighted with neither oil nor great literature through which we can hone our perceptions of them. The males are drab creatures, all duty and egg incubating whilst the girls are out living for the moment. Their fire comes to the fore on a dull grey day. Because they spend most of their lives out at sea feasting on plankton blooms, humans don't figure much in their world with the wonderful result that they tend to ignore you. They squeaked and hustled around my head. 'Odinshani' in Icelandic - I assume means Odin's chicken. Stage left, a Black tailed Godwit appeared, a bit swaggery on his stilt legs, a bit Lord Peter Whimsey. Out on the lake a duck rolled onto his side and scratched himself placidly like a dog in the sun. I was raftered on my waterproof jacket in the middle of a bog, going down slowly like a sinking ship. Hooper swans grazed in a green field.
Sigurgeirs, the museum of the drowned bird collector, Sigurgeir Stefánsson, is a strange glimmering theatre of hundreds of stuffed birds, the largest known collection in Iceland, and is also good place to look for ducks and grebes.
Game of Thrones was filmed here. Jon Snow's Beyond the Wall soujourn with the Wildlings was filmed at Dimmuborgir on the north side of the lake where the thrushes are tame.
I followed the bubbling torrent of the Laxa north back to Shuddering Bay past beautiful volcanic islands dotted with willows, buttercups and angelica. The land alternated between lava boulder fields, juniper, heather, small willow and bog. Returned to Narfastadir Guesthouse, an old sheep byre. Sat watching Redshanks from my window.
The Diamond Circle is a place sprung from the pages of an H Rider Haggard novel. I was in this odyssey accompanied by an opera singer, Gisli, from Saga Tours, whose grandfather was a shark fisherman from the island of Hrisey, famed for its semi tame ptarmigan population. He was a suitable companion for such an upheaval of lava and craters around Hverjfall. Everywhere is ochre and bubbling mud pit and borehole. Iceland sits upon the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, divided by the Mid Atlantic Ridge which is two seismic plates pulling apart at 2 centimetres a year. This continental uncoupling results in a series of eruptions that range from the biblical to the merely flatulent. But even the spooky black moonscapes are colonised around the edges with purple lupins, great magic carpets of which colonise almost everywhere.
We went west to Asbyrgi and its 100m high cliffs carved out by Sleipnir, Odin's 8-legged horse where the fulmars cackled like the Huldenfolk. At Hverir, the land metamorphosed into weird, unearthly orange yellow ochres, sulfur, vents and bubbling mud. Dettifoss, the waterfall, spumed. A moon the size of a blue whale's bladder heaved itself clear of snow capped mountains. Icelanders don't seem to sleep in the summer. Between the hours of midnight and six we went to 2 museums. It seemed quite normal at the time!
I drove to Hvammstangi to do a boat trip to see the local Harbour Seals. 'Seal pups ingest 60,000 calories a day through their mother's rich seal milk,' said Kjartan, our guide - an energy drink only blue whale milk beats – a blue whale calf gains 200 pounds a day, or 9 pounds an hour! Best time to watch seals is at low or half tide on a sunny day when the sea is out and they sunbath on the rocks. I counted 17 but 'on a good day you can get up to 90 here,' said Kjartan. Icelandics used to prize seal pup flesh as being the best, the herald of the end of long winter.
Down at Farm Bjorg on the mouth of Skjalfandi Bay, there is a colony of eider ducks on an island, but the Laxa is running too high and Conny, my kind hostess tells me that most of their eggs seem to have been eaten by mink and their numbers were down to only about 150 pairs from 500 in previous years. Her husband, Hlödver, collected the down at the end of the season from the abandoned nests. 60 nests make about 1 kilo.
You'll come for the whales because they always steal the show. But remember little Odinshani. An ochre stripe is all her wealth, but she carries that ochre stripe through storm and raging wind, across vast tracts of heaving sea, an Icelandic saga all in her own league.