Guillemots and a Whale rendering station

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Tue 22 Jun 2010 22:22
66:21.746N 022:47.171W Tuesday 13:00

We're having a day in one place today - which is just as well as the impressions from yesterday and the days before have taken some time to process. Cind's book "Songlines" mentions Kalahari bushmen sitting and waiting for their souls to catch up after some days of relentless walking and I feel the same way. We watched a bonkers New Zealand film last night and that just added to my sense of dislocation. When I went outside afterwards, it felt like I was still watching a fictional landscape and I couldn't place myself in it atall.

I've just finished scrubbing the boot top of the hull all around as it was filthy with oil and algae. John and Cind were helping position the tender so I could reach. Just being outside in this amazing place has helped all of us adjust to actually being here. Sometimes, it just needs a bit of quiet and effort to really feel like you've arrived.

So, where are we? We're at the end of a small fjord called Hesteyrarfjordur which leads off a larger fjord called Jokulfjordir (because it leads up the the Jokul or glacier) that's a side fjord of Isafjardarjup. By the time it gets this far up, the fjord is only 400m wide and we're parked right in the middle, about 200m from the shore at the end. There are waterfalls all around us coming from and under patches of ice. Some of the ice is right down to the water's edge. There's a larger stream with a series of waterfalls cascading down a narrow gorge further up towards the head of the valley, above which is a typical Iceland flat-topped mountain covered in ice. Our neighbours are a resident flock of Whooper Swans, a bunch of Eider families, sundry Guillemots and passing Arctic Turns. I suppose you could find somewhere more beautiful and remote but it wouldn't be between here and any part of Europe.

We left our anchorage in Hornovik yesterday morning in drizzle and light wind. On the way out of the bay, I wondered whether the white-streaked granite cliffs on the Western side were bird cliffs. It seemed unlikely as there was so much white that I thought it must be quartz or something. But no. Every bit of white was a streak of bird do. Now, we've seen a fair few birds on this trip. We've seen colonies of Guillemots all the way since Scotland in hundreds or occasionally thousands. This was the mother lode of guillemots. We measured the cliffs as about 500 meters high and 2 kilometers long and the whole thing was packed with birds. Every ledge had a line of them and every slope, no matter how precipitous, had a whole flock. Looking through the binoculars was disorienting as, no matter which way you moved the glasses, you just saw more birds. John and I had an "estimate the number of Guillemots" competition and we both came up with a million. I don't know whether that's accurate but we've seen colonies reliably estimated at a hundred thousand and they were nothing compared to this.

As if to make the whole experience more primeval, there were constant rock falls coming down gullies in the cliff and into the sea below. The sound was like gunfire as the impacts echoed off the rocks and the noise sent swarms of birds into the air. Swarm is a good word for it as the sound was like that of a beehive. So many concurrent shrieking voices that they become one continuous sound. Like the air itself was buzzing. The questions just came thick and fast. How many birds? How many fish each day? Where did they manage to find all those fish? How many other colonies like this are there? Were there birds like this in the English Channel before we came along and ruined it? Surely there must have been. Our seas are as productive as these so we must have had the fish so the birds and the whales. Now our "Mewstones" are without gulls and our cliffs are silent.

As we continued, we headed North of our required course for a while so that Cind and John could join our "sailing in the Arctic circle" club and then headed back South of the Arctic to turn the North West corner of Iceland and in towards Isafjordur. We actually saw some boats as we came in - mostly angling trips out of Isafjordur itself, I think. Then it was into this insignificant side fjord and past a scattering of houses, now occupied only in the summer. Ahead on the port side was a brick chimney-stack marking the location of a now-abandoned whale station. We carried on past it and up the fjord to anchor after the usual survey - which paid off as we are inside a swept circle that we know to be safe but, outside that, some uncharted rocks emerged at low tide.

We had a quick snack and then John, Kali and I headed back down the fjord to explore the whale station in the tender. Note to self: the tender won't plane with three people in it, even if you do try to bounce it up off its own wash. Everyone just gets wet. Landing on the beach below the ruins, we changed and then walked into the first of three reinforced concrete pens, each open to the sea and about 30 meters long by 20 wide. In the centre of each was a gulley running back towards the sea down the gently sloping floor. These must have been where the whales were hauled up and flensed. The mechanisms were still lying around including a mincing machine that would take a cubic meter of flesh with ease.

By the side was the chimney, presumably where the smoke from the burning unwanted bits of whale had powered the processing of the rest. The steam boilers led off to one side, still pretty much intact with their valve gear on top. Pulleys, gears and massive bearing surfaces littered the ground inside the buildings and on top of the reinforced concrete floor above our heads. The steam engines themselves must have been removed, as had any locally useful building materials like corrugated iron and wood. The try-pots remained where the blubber had been rendered down and the oil extracted. Each was the size of a small kitchen. Everywhere there were the foundations of other buildings and machinery pits. I was amazed at the extent of it. I suppose I was expecting a cottage industry but this was a serious undertaking requiring huge investment - and this only the shore station. How many catch ships were required to keep this little lot going? And towing dead whales back here from the hunting grounds - how many could a ship pull through the water?

In the middle of this melancholy place John spotted cuteness. Three Arctic Fox cubs were sunning themselves outside their den under a tumbled concrete wall. They were very young, having just opened their eyes, I think. They pretty much ignored us as we took pictures and made cooing noises. I think Kali was only half joking about bringing one back to Saxon Blue as a pet. Kali and John went to walk to the village, foiled by one uncrossable stream while I waited hopefully for the mother fox to return. She didn't but I had a good time to sit and think about the ruins and the lives of the people who'd worked there and the whales they'd caught. The ingenuity and tenacity required in the pursuit of such an ignoble cause. And again the question of how many whales were in the ocean before the hunting got going? You didn't invest in the capacity to render six 30 meter whales simultaneously unless you could catch and deliver at least that many and do it every day. I was amazed at the size of the plant but Kali says it's tiny compared to the ones in the South Atlantic. It's all a bit more than I can get a handle on.

As I said, by the end of yesterday, I was struggling to get all these thoughts into some kind of order so I left writing this until today. Just as well, I think (although you may disagree after reading the next couple of paragraphs).

Before we set off on this trip, I was disappointed that I only had a ship to sail the sea and not one to sail to the stars. I've always thought it most unfair that I'll not get to meet an alien and visit their world. One day, people will be off out there, I'm sure, and I'll miss it. This is very annoying. Having embarked on this trip, I'm revising my opinion. This world we're on is strange and alien enough, I think. It's also quite big enough and we share it was plenty of aliens that we have very little understanding of. I don't really buy it that Sperm Whales are more intelligent than people or that they have religion or that Humpbacks are the most accomplished composers to have lived but... they are not as we are. They are different and we don't understand them.

In fact, never mind the whales, we don't even understand that much about a Herring. Even the fact that, if we catch all the Herring and feed them to cows, there will be less Herring - and if we do it again there won't be any Herring - seems to have escaped the fishermen and policymakers of every country that catches Herring. Until we make at least some progress on coming to terms with the aliens who already live amongst us, what's the point in trying to meet and communicate with ones that share no DNA with us atall, the residents of other planets? I see no prospect whatever for peaceful communication with anything we don't understand. We will eat them or they will eat us. In fact, it probably wouldn't even be that advanced. We'd use them as cattle fodder or fertiliser and they'd use us for... goodness knows. Fishing bait, perhaps. I'm thinking more "Starship Troopers" and less "Star Trek".

Hey ho. Not sure if any of that makes sense. I'll put it down to too much time on a small boat. We're off to climb about on the shore now so some exercise may put things back on an even keel.

PS Tuesday evening

We had a great walk up the valley. Kali dropped Cind off at the Whale Station where she did some drawings and spent a lot of time watching the fox cubs. We sorted out the dinghy anchoring system to let it lie offshore while we go and explore. If it dries out on the beach, it's really heavy to lift back into the water so we've organised a way of anchoring it off and then pulling it in and out. We'll see how it pans out in practice. Having got ashore, we set up over truly rough country, crossing streams and bashing over rocks and patches of snow. We gained the plateau on top but that was only a prelude to the mountains further up - so we ate our emergency food and decided to leave them to another day. By the time we got back down and fetched Cind, it was time for a late dinner already.

So that's another day. We're yawing around now in the Katabatic wind coming down the valley. Hopefully, it will die off later and we can have another peaceful night.


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