Trip report: Iceland
Fiona Halliday goes in search of marine and bird life in Eyjafjördur, Iceland, a region just south of the Arctic Circle
'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 worried that I'll miss the shot, or a large Russian will stand in front of me, or I will get sea spray on my lens, or the car keys have slipped down inside my gigantic fleece lined jumpsuit which is keeping out the Arctic blast. In fact, my teeth have been gritted for quite a long time, judging by the ache in my jaws. Our Captain, Simon, by contrast, is unflappable in the pursuit of 40 tonnes of Humpback Whale.
Whale-watching is like the Cistine Chapel or Jerusalem's Temple Mount. We don't just want to see, we want to be moved. So that’s why I’m in Eyjafjördur, just south of the Arctic Circle. Out here there is calmness and solitude, a cold blowy otherworldliness, but it’s making me nervy, as are the Russians galloping around on deck like Sleipnir, Odin's eight-legged horse.
Brynjar, our steely eyed whale spotter from Arctic Tours, is aloft, on the top of the wheelhouse. We are 43 in number and we are insatiable for whales.
When the whale comes it happens quite quickly. A fine shining cloud of spume, a small hooked dorsal fin, the black back gleaming like an airship, the spine nobbled like a dragon's tail down to the tail. The great ragged flukes raised an 'oooh' from on deck. Then the whale vanished slowly back into the deep, like a tipping truck. Fifteen minutes later, a pair passed by closely, inspected us and departed.
Brynjar has given names to his favourites: 'The Finless Bitten Fluke', 'The Magic Johnson' and 'The Dream', who every time the boat approached slapped his tailfin on the surface. The Humpbacks are his favourites because of their unpredictability.
“You never know what they're going to do,” he says with pride, as he barbecues pollock and cod back at Dalvik. The boss of Arctic Tours, Freyr Antonsson, shows me footage of a whale interacting with the boat. Individuals are 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 1,800 individuals. Other whales in Shuddering Bay include Minkes, Fin, Sei and Pilot, and there are a variety of dolphins and porpoises. Antonsson says 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 four whales and several hundred Puffins,) told me these great behemoths can sing for up to four hours, and that their songs are passed around from mouth to mouth, and remixed from population to population.
They can dive up to depths of 500m. The Bowhead, 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 gives 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 currently thought to be 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 the whales sing then?
Midge Lake, or the world's smallest whirlpool
Lake Myvatn, 70km inland from Akuyeri, (pronounced Mee-vat and translating worryingly as 'midge lake') is best known for its multicoloured, vociferous duck and diver populations, 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, Harlequins, and Slavonian Grebes all come here to gorge, loll, scratch, flirt, yodell, grunt, growl and complain about the neighbours. Bird watching here is the opposite of whale watching, it is a light pleasure. You can just sit in a bog and let things go by while the Snipe 'drum'.
The majority of Iceland's breeding birds are migrants with secretive double lives. Consider, for example, the mileage of the tiny Red-necked Phalarope. Its travel itinerary makes mine look like a trip to the frozen food section in Tesco's. There was a famous bird tagged in Shetland who clocked up a 16,000 miles round trip. He headed west, not east like most birds, straight into the bad weather, and came out unscathed in Peru.
On the lake and the heaving waters of the Laxa, I watch the female Phalaropes 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!
60,000 calories under the sea
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.