Iceland 2016: A Whale of a Day

15 07 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Yesterday, horses ruled.  Today it’s all about whales.  But not until 16:00.  So in the morning we head back into Akureyri to play Tourist.


5-30-16 Akureyri (11)

Across the fjord to Akureyri

On the way around the fjord, we stop at an overlook to look at the city across the way and find a patch of beautiful lupines. Lupines are a non-native, invasive species.  They crowd out the native wildflowers and grasses and may be causing the demise of the heath bumblebee, Iceland’s only native bee.  I know that.  I also know they are absolutely gorgeous. They remind me of wisteria, but with longer-lasting flowers. 5-30-16 Akureyri Botanical Garden (43) I decide my sister Marie would love this beautiful spot, so I get her out of my suitcase and leave a bit of her here.  Marie, who died almost a year ago, loved to travel and took special joy in the beauty of nature.  In one of her journals, she wrote about how the wildflowers on the side of the road turned an awful day at work into an Awe Full Day.  She would approve of this spot.


5-31-16 Akureyri MarieFinally in Akureyri, we stroll the streets and do some gift shopping.

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We also discover that duct tape is a handy item for car repair, even, or especially, in Iceland.

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Fortunately, not our car

On the way to Húsavík where we are scheduled for a whale-watching boat tour, we stop at one of the most famous of Iceland’s many waterfalls: Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods.

5-31-16 Goðafoss (22)Again, there are no words.  We pose for the requisite photos in front of the falls, then explore downstream where there is a smaller waterfall and a bridge to the other side.5-31-16 Goðafoss (4)

5-31-16 Goðafoss (24)

As we meander around, Dave tells me that there is a tamarind just off the trail that I need to go see.  A tamarind?  My mind searches its files…an orange or maybe a monkey?  No, Dave explains patiently, a bird.  Well, I’m impressed.  Obviously he knows his birds.  I go back and indeed find a beautiful bird.   A ptarmigan.

5-31-16 Goðafoss ptarmigan (13)


This ptarmigan seems unperturbed to have people sharing its personal space.  It allows me to get within six feet, so I am in photography-heaven as I shoot photo after photo of this very photogenic bird.

Even after all these stops, we arrive in Húsavík a couple hours before our tour.

5-31-16 Husavik

We walk around the town, furtively looking for the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which houses “a collection of penises and penile part representing all the types of mammals found in the country.” Didn’t find it.  Kind of relieved.  We did find an Exploration Museum, though, with artifacts from the Apollo Astronaut training that took place near here in the mid-60s.  Whodathunk?

5-31-16 Husavik (2)


We board the “traditional Icelandic oak boat” for our whaling expedition.  No, I am reprimanded by the cashier.  We are not going whaling.  We are going whale watching.  Big difference.  We don our stylish red overalls to keep us warm and toasty on the open water and head out into Skjálfandi bay for our three hour tour.  Snatches of the theme song from Gilligan’s Island play through my head.5-31-16 Husavik whale watching (16)

It’s not long before we start seeing whales breaching in the distance, and not long after that before I have an enormous collection of photos of the vast bay each with a little black dot in the middle.

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A Tail of a Whale

The guide identifies every black dot: there are white beaked dolphins, minke whales, harbor porpoises, and humpback whales.  Soon enough we are in the middle of a feeding area.  We discover that the best way to find the humpback whale is to look where the seabirds are feeding.

5-31-16 Husavik whale watching humpback (29)

Flocks of arctic terns, puffins, and fulmars gather where the fish are.  And where the fish are, there soon will be the whales.  And there are.  One even breaches so close to our boat that the captain is taken aback.  I’m sure they have rules about keeping the boats a certain distance away.  I’m also certain that nobody told the whales those rules.

5-31-16 Husavik whale watching humpback (18)5-31-16 Husavik whale watching humpback (14)

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the birds.  In between whale-sightings, I entertain myself by taking photos of the many birds around us.  Soon I have almost as many blurred pictures of birds as I do black dots in the bay.  A few turn out to be quite decent.

5-31-16 Husavik whale watching tern (3)


5-31-16 Husavik whale watching fulmar

Clear the runway! Fulmar take-off!


The crew feeds us hot cocoa and cinnamon rolls on the way back, much tastier in my opinion than the krill that the whales are feeding on.  Makes me glad to be a human.

5-31-16 Husavik whale watching (1)

Back in the car, we head for Lake Mývatn and our home for two nights, Hótel Reynihlíð.  Upon arriving, I find a group of college-aged girls doing yoga in a common area.  My antennae are up.  I ask where they are from.  Berry College, Georgia.  Is Russell Maddrey with them?  Mouths drop.  How do I…?

5-31-16 Myvatn  (3)

Russ grew up in Aiken and went to Aiken Elementary where I taught.  I know his mom and knew he would be traveling the Ring Road at the same time we were as part of a college geology class.  Although it seems like an unusual coincidence, it wasn’t really.  I had been watching out for him, knowing that he was going counter-clockwise while we were going clockwise around the island.  The Ring Road being basically the only way around the island, and knowing that there were certain stops that everyone makes, I am not that surprised to run into him.  Of course, when I call his name when I see him in the parking lot, all his classmates are impressed that he is such a famous person, known world-wide.  Which he will be, or should be, since he is one of the nicest guys on this planet.

A nice ending to an altogether nice day.

Iceland Saga 2013: Other Fauna and Flora

17 07 2013

There is more to life in Iceland than sheep and birds.  But not much.

 Seals off the coast of Látrabjarg

Seals off the coast of Látrabjarg

The ocean around Iceland is teeming with fish, seals, and whales, but when the Vikings got there in the late 800s, the only other land mammal was the arctic fox.  We were fortunate to have seen three of them, although they disappeared before I could whip out my camera.  The few mammals inhabiting this island today are all imports: reindeer, Icelandic horses, and mink being the main ones.

Icelandic horse

Icelandic horse at HestaSport

It’s easy to fall in love with the Icelandic horse.  They are not so big as to be overwhelming.  They are smart, hardy, and sweet-tempered.  And, like sheep, they are just so dad gum cute.

cute horse

cute horse

Apparently they taste good, too.

Unlike Alaska, in Iceland you don’t have to worry about bears.  I have read where occasionally one will drift over on an ice berg from Greenland, but apparently they don’t like Iceland enough to stick around.  Go figure.  Iceland also has no amphibians or reptiles (other than those kept in cages).  Yet another reason to like Iceland.

The midge is about the only insect of any consequence.  Even it doesn’t bite, although it will drive you to distraction by getting in every available bodily orifice.  Icelandic horses have figured out a way to combat the midge by chewing on each other. 

Although I didn't ask them, I'm pretty sure they are biting flies off each other.  Gotta love symbiosis.

Although I didn’t ask them, I’m pretty sure they are biting flies off each other. Gotta love symbiosis.

I didn’t have that option, so I spent my midge-pestered time praying for a stiff breeze, which fortunately are nearly constant.  Midges were even the inspiration for this

Bad Poetry Composed on Bumpy Gravel Road Somewhere in Iceland


Oh my, there’s a midge in my eye.

Oh dear, there’s a midge in my ear.

It’s cold and sunny and my nose is runny.

Oh gee, Iceland’s for me!


Obviously, Iceland is known for its fishing.  We saw quite a few fly fishers standing in cold rivers trying to look like they were enjoying themselves, but never saw them catching anything. 

Don't know if he caught any flies, but we sure found a bunch.

Don’t know if he caught any flies, but we sure found a bunch.

The fish were probably full from eating so many midges.  The fishing boats on the ocean had better luck and also provided beautiful photo fodder. 

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

These looked like toy boats out on the water.

Note the church in the background.  Every village had one.

more boats

more photogenic boats

The little fishing village of Isafjörður had quite a “green” industry going, making use of every part of the fish, including fish heads which were sent to Africa in exchange for luscious fruits.  Pretty smart on the part of the Icelanders, I thought.  Also smart was their practice of drying fish outside during the winter, when midges and all other pests were keeping warm in their own little dens.

The holes wouldn't keep out midges, but would keep hungry birds out.

The chicken wire wouldn’t keep out midges, but would keep hungry birds out.

Just for the tourists...

Just for the tourists…

Not sure what kind this is, but I know I don't want to swim around it.

Not sure what kind this is, but I know I don’t want to swim around it.

I got stung by a ray once, so I didn't have much sympathy for this one.

I got stung by a ray once, so I didn’t have much sympathy for this one.


Like I said, all parts of the fish were used.

Like I said, all parts of the fish were used.

But enough about the fauna.  On to the flora. 


Upon their arrival, the Vikings quickly cut down most of the extensive forests of Iceland, prompting Leif to head to Vinland for wood. (Icelanders are proud to tell you that at least he had the good sense to come back to Iceland and leave America alone.)  Between the Vikings and the volcanic ash, a tree just couldn’t make a decent living in Iceland.  There has been a concerted effort to encourage trees, planting birch and spruce, but they tend to grow slowly.  Consequently, Icelanders have a saying, “If you get lost in a forest in Iceland, just stand up.” 


Grass, on the other hand, grows quite well, especially in areas not covered with rocks or ice.  Farmers try to harvest at least two crops of hay and were busily at work while we were there, making use of all the long daylight hours to bring in their crop.   Hay bales were wrapped in white plastic, making the fields look like they were studded with giant marshmallows.


This was about 9:30 in the evening.

This was about 9:30 in the evening.

hay bales

hay bales or maybe giant marshmallows

Hay there!

Hay there!

Grass is so prolific that it was even used to build houses out of.  And having no ready supply of lumber, this was a really, really good idea.  What we on the American prairies called soddies, they called turf houses. 

The priest's house at Laufás

The priest’s house at Laufás from the late 1800s

Turf was cut and dried until it was hard as a brick, then layered sometimes six feet thick. 

Note the herring bone design

Note the herring bone design

No frigid blast of arctic wind stood a chance against a turf house!  They were, however, dark and smoky inside, but I would take dark and smoky over freezing any day. 

inner hall of a turf house

inner hall of a turf house

At least the view in the summer is lovely.

At least the view in the summer is lovely.

You can still see turf houses around the island today, although they are mainly inhabited by sheep.

sheep shed turf house

sheep shed turf house


You have to admire the attitude of plants in Iceland.  They have to make the best of a bad situation, and really do an admirable job.  Mosses and lichens have it rough.  They grow straight out of the rocks, frosting the lava fields with foot-thick layers of a sponge so soft I was tempted to nap on it.  All they ask is for a little water, and they are happy.

Lava on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Lava on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Moss and lichen going on the basalt lava rocks

Moss and lichen growing on the basalt lava rocks

Rock eaters!

Rock eaters!

Lichens: what's not to like?

Lichens: what’s not to like?

Other plants flourish where no self-respecting American plant would be caught dead.  They grow out of black volcanic sand, rocky cliffs, and between cracks in the lava fields. 

a very determined succulent

a very determined succulent

flower another flower

Although I tried to find their names (it was the least I could do since they were doing the hard work), I only learned a couple: poppies and lupine. 

wild flowers growing by the creek

wild flowers growing by the creek

And lupine, well, lupine is like many things in Iceland, an alien.  It was originally introduced to curb erosion, which it did.  It grew so well that it covered the ground, making it difficult for native plants to get a foothold.  I wonder if it has ever met kudzu?  Regardless, it is beautiful.

lovely lupines

lovely lupines

So there you have the flora and fauna of Iceland.  Just keep those midges away from me.