Whale of a time!
Oban to Iceland
We finally broke free of the high pressure early in the morning. The wind was on the beam at about force 3 or 4 and we had a fabulous sail for the next two days, only turning the engine on for the last few hours as the wind dropped on our approach to Heimaey. The weather has alternated between sparkling sun and sudden all enveloping fog which just as suddenly lifts again. Out in the ocean we have seen no other ships and very few birds, only the odd fulmar, but as we approached the islands a whole variety of birds joined us, including gannets, skuas, puffins, terns, guillemots and a couple of storm petrels. The highlight of the last two days, however, was the sighting of a killer whale, possibly a mile away, leaping out of the water and cavorting around, slapping its tail on the surface. We have a very conservative approach to the sighting of whales. There needs to be a positive id from at least two people before we record it – but there was no doubting this one – John and I watched in awe for over a minute as the animal performed.
We approached the Vestmannaeyar islands as the sun was setting – about eleven thirty at night. They are an extraordinary sight, a string of tall, straight edged islands trailing along the horizon. Our destination was the largest of the islands, Heimaey. The island at the left hand end of the photograph is Surtsey, which appeared from beneath the ocean in 1963. It’s now a scientific reserve, where they are monitoring how life in all its forms is gradually appearing on the sterile volcanic rock.
Vestmannaeyjar harbour has a very narrow entrance, dominated by towering cliffs of volcanic rock. The entrance is made even narrower by the lava flow that came from the 1973 eruption of the volcano Eldfel that lies only a few hundred metres from the town. The islanders were worried that the lava flow would completely block the harbour entrance, and yesterday we watched video footage of the islanders setting up pumps which poured thousands of gallons of water onto the encroaching flow in an effort to cool the lava and stop its progress. In this they were successful, and ironically the harbour is even more protected now than it was before. The film also showed the staggering sight of the lava simply swallowing up the houses and and setting light to the buildings in its path. As luck would have it, the entire fishing fleet was in harbour that night because of bad weather, and all the residents were safely evacuated. The town has been cleaned up and rebuilt and there is now a magnificent nature reserve on the lava flow above the town. Although small, the town is one of Iceland’s largest fishing ports landing over 10% of Iceland’s catch.
The weather since our arrival has been foul, so we have not yet explored the island. Instead we spent the time going round the museums. Puffins are a big thing round here and the islanders have a rather more robust relationship with them than we do. In short, they hunt them and eat them.
Not so long ago it used to be a necessity, but they still have very active hunting ‘clubs’, and spend summer holidays on the outlying islands on hunting trips, staying in simple cabins that have been put up. We spotted what we thought must be a millionaire’s folly high on the cliffs of the neighbouring island as we came in, but a photograph in the museum revealed it to be one of the hunting huts. The picture above shows one of the islanders using something that looks like an outsize butterfly net to catch the birds. We are told that puffin appears on restaurant menus and that smoked puffin breast is a local delicacy. I have to say, I am not tempted. At the museum they actually had a live puffin, being held by one of the museum staff, that we were allowed to stroke.
It looks perfectly happy, but its beak is really rather dull; I hope it’s not a reflection of its dull life as a museum exhibit.
Headwinds today mean that we are delaying our departure for Reykyavik until early tomorrow morning. However, the sun is now out so we will be able to have a good walk around the island and get pictures of the spectacular scenery.