Day 4 was a bit of a realization day. A couple of things really hit home. One, Iceland is BIG. And two, we are small and only capable of so much. We had a HUGE day planned for today and the crushing realization came we had probably just planned too much. Bummer.
The Day was to be two-part. First, we would return to Skogafoss and hike the Waterfalls trail above it, then hightail it over to the Landeyjahöfn Ferry port to catch a Ferry across to the Westman Islands. We has a full itinerary planned when over there, and then we had a few bits and pieces planned for the late afternoon/sunset/evening.
When we awoke, we were still exhausted from the last few days and the mammoth itinerary laying before us was just unfeasible. To Be honest it came from adding things in as we researched without adequately cutting things from the list to make way. We had planned the Waterfalls trail in before we had decided on visiting the Westman Isles and rather than cutting back we just tried to shoehorn in!
One issue here was the pretty sizeable backtrack we had planned. On the map, it really does not look like much, only 65km and 50 mins drive, no problem. Having driven it yesterday we knew it was a pretty savage undertaking, and not something to be taken lightly. This was realization One. We had come to understand just how big the Country is.
On Maps, the little Island dotted in the vast Atlantic looks pretty small, and accessible. In reality, it’s big, rugged and things are far apart. It is so easy to plan a short excursion on google maps, think it looks completely doable only to realize that it’s just unworkable when on the ground.
This was the case here, the short backtrack was an hour each way, and whilst actually covering the distance the scale it pretty incredible.
Fatigue was the other realization. It was not so much physical fatigue but mental, the drain of being on the go for 3 full days with almost no let-up. When we re-assessed plans we realized we just didn’t want to do so much in a single day again. We needed to cut. And the obvious candidate was the Waterfall Hike. So we had an easy morning, not hitting the road until later in the morning with the chance to catch a breather and really enjoy the Westman Islands.
As we left the Hotel and began retracing our steps on the Ring Road, The scale hits home here, as you can see the tiny specks of the Westman Islands way off in the distance, looking very tiny and distant, not like on the map where you are just navigating tiny portion of the island. This really brings home the context of the ring road journey we embarked upon.
We got to the ferry port nice and early and waited to board. Despite extensive traveling, we realized neither of us had actually been on a ferry since childhood, so it was a new experience driving aboard then abandoning the car in the bowels of the ship. It reminded me of countless Top Gear Episodes where for one reason or another the Ferry boarding/disembarking goes awry, but there were no issues here.
The Westman Islands
The Westman Islands are a small chain of islands off the south coast of Iceland. Called Vestmannaeyjabær in Icelandic they are a chain of very small rocky outcrops with one larger island in the Middle, Heimaey, which is to be our destination. We had booked to take our trusty Duster along for the ride with us which was about 40mins.
The ferry ride is really spectacular. Off the rear, the Mainland rises up spectacularly, and getting a bit of distance from it gives you a better appreciation for the towering Glaciers. As the ferry gets further out the water really clears up and takes on a wonderful blue-green hue as you begin to approach the islands. The Smaller islands are really quite stunning, their black volcanic bases topped with a vivid green Grass topping, they are quite unlike anything we’ve seen elsewhere.
Some very hardy and really very antisocial people have, in the past, attempted to make these islands their solitary home. Each of the larger islands has a little white house perched upon them and is often referred to as the loneliest house on earth. This remote existence proved too much and all of these outposts are now abandoned.
As you arrive into the harbor the sea cliffs plunge into glorious blue water and despite the frigid wind the islands feel like a little slice of paradise, almost begging for a quick dip, but the waters are very cold and it would be very foolish. But those deep clear waters are pretty divine.
As we disembarked on the dock we were rewarded with one of Heimaey’s unique features…The Smell. The combination of the heavy fishing industry, natural ocean aroma, and volcanic activity give the town a pretty heady note when you first arrive. As you head out of the town this lets up and your nose gets more used to it but it never really goes away.
The first order of business was to explore the lava coastline over on the northeast of the island. The town of Heimaey was half destroyed in 1973 when Eldfell unexpectedly erupted. Lava flowed from the vent covering half the town, nearly destroying the harbor and creating several km of new land. This new land now has several roads and trails running through it and offers amazing views back to the mainland and of the lonely houses out in the bay.
The next stop was Eldfell itself and a short hike up through the crater to the top. Again stunning views out over the mainland and the island of Heimaey. We then continued around the island, past the airport with its very “exciting runway” and over to the far south of the island, the winiest spot in Europe to gaze out over the Atlantic towards “home”
And with that, we had kind of “done” the island. In all the brochures and forums everyone had said you need to spend at least a night on the island, but we are really struggling to see why. Maybe in the summer when you can swim and bird watch and the island is alive with over 8 million puffins, then maybe there is more to stick around for, but on the whole, while we loved the islands there was not that much to see and do.
We had planned to take a Rib Tour out around the islands and this would certainly have padded out the experience, but the weather had been so cold the last few days the thought of being bounced around, sprayed with icy water, and blown half to death in the wind just didn’t appeal. On the day the water was quite calm and we regretted the decision really.
Instead, we checked out the Golfcousre part of the island, where the Summer Mucic festivals are held, there are some restored huts in the style of the earliest settlers and some interesting rock formations such as the Elephant Rock.
Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary
One thing we definitely wanted to check out on the island was the Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary. This is home to two rescued Beluga Whales that are taking part in a Re-Homing experiment, with the intended outcome being the whale’s eventual release.
We constantly wrestle with our conscience over attractions in the USA such as SeaWorld as to the ethics of keeping Marine Mammals in captivity. We know it’s wrong and will not support companies who continue to take or breed whales for the purpose of displaying them to the public. On the whole, the industry has halted this practice, but still holds a large number of whales in captivity.
The defense for this from the companies is the animals are just two institutionalized to return to the sea. They would not be able to hunt or socialize and would quickly die, alone and hungry in a huge lonely ocean. This was borne out when attempts were made to Free Willy. Keiko the Whale that played Willy in the hit movie was re-homed to the Westman Islands where he was kept in a Sea Pen. Eventually released he headed off into the blue following a pack of Orca. However, he was soon found over the sea in Norway where he had found some company, back with what he knew, Humans.
Attempts were made to re-wild him, and hook him back up with wild Orca pods but they were all unsuccessful. He remained addicted to Human company and reliant on fish. He died in a little over a year. It is an utterly tragic tale and he would still be alive if attempts to release him had not been made. Admittedly, he would have been even more alive and even happier if he had just been left alone and not taken from the wild in the first place but we are beyond changing that now, and the focus must be on what is best for the animals STILL in captivity.
Are we best leaving them where they are, maximizing their welfare and keeping them healthy, entertained, and engaged, or is there a way to improve their welfare? Starting with Sea Pens and moving on to possible releases.
This is what the sanctuary is about and Little White and Little Gray are being very very gradually acclimatized to the wild. They spend some time in a remote Sea Pen and other times landside in a purpose-made tank. Taking things step by step to see how they respond. It’s a long slow process but if successful it will put enormous pressure on the industry to look at rehousing and rehabilitating the current lot of captive whales and Orca, who we think deserve the best retirement possible!
The Sanctuary itself is a small Aquarium with some nice exhibits, including a Puffin Sanctuary, Some Native Sealife, and of course the large Beluga Tanks. The Whales were home when we visited but during the summer they are not always in the aquarium but off in the Sea Pen preparing for a possible release in the distant future.
The Whales were certainly happy and healthy and were amazing to see as they frolicked around and interested with us at the glass window!
After checking out the sanctuary our time on the island was nearly over, it really had flown by but we were left with the feeling we had seen it all and jumped o the boat tired and satisfied.
Back on the mainland, we made our way back to the hotel. We had planned a sunset photography session at Seljalandsfoss but the light was no good so we passed, we also considered hiking out to the plane wreck at Sólheimasandur but the parking lot was rammed and you could see the hordes of tourists trekking out over the two miles of black sand desert. The draw of the wreck for us would be the surreal and otherworldly feel of the wreck, contrasted to the back sand with the dramatic glacial backdrop. With hundreds of selfie-takers in the shot, we feel the magic would probably be lost.
Instead, with the light fading, we contented ourselves with the day’s exploits and headed back to the hotel. Tonight we headed back to Vik to try some Vietnamese Noodles at Wok On Vik. These are pretty far from traditional Iceland Cuisine but we just wanted something a bit spicy and flavorsome than the food we had found up till now. They really hit the spot and were one of the cheapest meals we ate on the trip.
Back to the Hotel for a relaxing evening, we checked the Aurora Forecast and KPI numbers were very high 5-6 and a really good chance. Unfortunately cloud cover was pretty much 100%. Once dark the Skies were still pretty incredible. The entire cloud base and Glacier cap glowed a ghoulish green all night, clearly lit from the strong displays going on above the cloud base. It was completely moonless and almost no man-made light to illuminate the cloud but it was on the brightest nights we have ever seen as the Auroral light refracted through the clouds.
For one brief moment, the clouds parted and beams of light poured down from the heavens, it was incredibly moving but also very fleeting as the small cloud gap sealed itself and the night returned to an eerie glow.
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