Thursday, 28 May 2015

Akureyri- Iceland's capital of the north Iceland

Today finds ourselves in the bottom of a deep fiord called Eyjafjordur, in Iceland's second largest city- Akureyri. The city of about 18000 people boasts a university, an international airport (the only one in the north), many shops, restaurants and hotels, a vibrant folk and arts culture, wonderfully sheltered harbour, and spectacular scenery. The area was settled by Vikings in the 9th century- that's a long time ago! There is no evidence that peoples settled in Iceland before the Norse arrived here, so Icelanders are true native peoples of this country. People originally traded in Akureyri in the summers and went home for the winters. However, by the late 1700s a permanent settlement was established. Today, fishing is still big business with two of Iceland's main fishing companies headquartered here. It is also a centre and jumping-off point for travellers to explore what the northern part of the country has to offer, which is much!

Our guests were able to join an excursion in the morning to enhance their knowledge about the land of fire and ice and see a little more than just the town of Akureyri. The buses gathered on the parking lot in front of the ship and our Expedition Team welcomed the participants along with the local guides. Our trip started by a little drive through the city which gave us an impression about the size of the capital of the North (of Iceland). On our way outside the city, our guides told us everything there is to know about Akureyri in general, its economy and of course the history. The road took us up in the mountains where we drove through a winter wonderland complete with snow! 

While admiring the scenery we were told a few short Icelandic Sagas in relation to the nature we were seeing. We soon arrived at the Godafoss falls - the "waterfalls of the gods". Legend has it that Thorgeir of Ljosavatn, a chieftain present at the Parliament meeting at Thingvellir in the year 1000, was given the authority to decide which religion was to be adopted by the Icelanders. He was a pagan himself, but after a period of thought, he decided that Christianity was to be the religion here. Upon his return home, he took the statues of the pagan gods he used to worship and threw them into this waterfall near his homestead. From this time, the waterfall has been named Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods). The views over the falls were stunning and the sound from the water even so. Many of us took beautiful pictures and enjoyed the fresh humid air hanging around the falls.

On our way to the Botanical Gardens, we stop at a viewing point of Akureyri, on the other side of the Island Fjord, which gave us an even better understanding of the city´s location and size. Once at the gardens, we observed many of the locally growing wild flowers of which some were already blooming. Many of the other exposed flora included trees and bushes from all around the world and flowers endemic to the region. The gardens offered an opportunity for a peaceful walk surrounded by nature´s finest. A perfect way to end our tour here in Akureyri. 

In the afternoon, we had a rare opportunity (rare because in places like Iceland, there is very little free time or sea days) to hear our expedition staff give lectures on a variety of interesting topics such as history and sociology of Iceland, its geology and birds. 

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Siglufjordur and Grimsey- Herring and puffins

We are more or less half-way round Iceland on our circumnavigation and arrived at Siglufjordur in the north-central portion of the country. By the way, so many nouns in Icelandic end is 'UR'- the ending simply signifies 'the'. In Icelandic, as in many Germanic languages, nouns are declined by adding endings, which signifies the role of the noun in the sentence.

The community of about 3000 people got its start as a trading post and fishing centre but grew tremendously once the Herring fishery started. This was initially a food fishery (1800s) and the Herring were salted, packed in barrels, and shipped out to Europe. Later this turned into an industrial fishery producing Herring oil and fish meal. Untold tonnes of Herring were caught in the rich waters around Iceland and processed in the plant here. However, it wasn't so long after that the fishery collapsed in the 1950s. It came back some in the 1960s but then went for good. Ironically, the tourism which now drives a thriving economy here in Siglufjordur is partially based on a display of the Herring fishing era in the town. This is done at the very interesting Herring Goldrush Museum. So the Herring continue to give but don't get much in return!

After lunch we sailed north to the Arctic Circle and to Grimsey Island. This place is a fascinating microcosm of the whole of Iceland, all contained on an island no longer than about 5 km. We landed in our Polar Cirkel boats in the harbour and had several hours to explore the island on our own. Many walked north to see the breeding puffins and to walk over the Arctic Circle at 66 degrees 34 minutes north. At 60 nautical miles per degree, that means we are almost 4000 nautical miles north of the Equator, which equates to about 4800 regular miles or 8600 km!

A few intrepid guests went out in our kayaks with our expert kayak guide Tessa. They had great views of puffins and other seabirds from water-level. Those who decided to hike along the spectacular cliffs of Grimsey were also afforded great views of puffins, fulmars, and other local birds.

Atlantic Puffins off-duty on the cliff top (the mates are in the burrows)
This puffin was trying to land with nest material but the wind was too strong
 A Northern Fulmar, relative of petrels and albatrosses
Once we returned to the Fram, our Captain circumnavigated Grimsey which meant that all of us crossed the Arctic Circle twice. Of course when an auspicious event like this happens, Fram always gets a visit from King Neptune who insists on initiating those new Arctic Circle crossers with a drenching of ice-cold water.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Hornbjarg seabird cliff and Reykjafjordur

And we roll on around the island of Iceland, clockwise. This morning we arrived at Hornbjarg seabird cliff. This is one of the biggest colonies of seabirds in Iceland with 100s of thousands of pairs of guillemots (Common and Brunnich's), Razorbills, Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes. We had two viewing options for the colony- either from Fram herself or from a hike up to the top of the almost 300 metre high cliffs. Either way, we got great views of the birds. From Fram, we saw many large flocks of guillemots (our Canadian and US readers will call them murres) flying in formation out to offshore feeding grounds. Here they feed mainly on sandeels and capelin- two small but energy-rich fishes. The light coloured kittiwakes and murres looked like a multitude of specks of sand on the cliff. The hike up on the cliff was strenuous but afforded great views. All through the visit our naturalists Sabine and John provided commentary out on deck and from the bridge.

As usual over lunch we repositioned to our afternoon destination of Reykjafjordur. The location is an abandoned farm where an extended family hosts small groups of travellers in the summer. It seemed like the whole family had arrived from different parts of Iceland to look after us. After all, they had never hosted a ship before, let alone 200 passengers! The area was rich in wildlife and landscapes. The human element was ably looked after by the very approachable family members who were keen to talk about their history at the location. It was a surprise to see large wood logs on the beach (there are very few trees in Iceland!) It turns out that they come from Siberia and get to Iceland with the ocean currents. The family showed us how they saw the logs and make use of them. A swimming pool built in 1938 was filled with 38 degree water and looked very inviting. The heat came from volcanic activity underground. Many of our passengers partook! The family hosted a super afternoon tea for us in one of the houses.

Hot water is never far below the surface in Iceland!

An old store house for vegetables and other foods over the winter

A female Red-necked Phalarope. The paler and smaller male was close by
A Common Seal - really interested in what was going on, on the beach!
A Ringed Plover feeding on flies in the kelp

Monday, 25 May 2015

Flateyri and Isafjordur

We continue our circumnavigation of this wonderful island country of Iceland. So far we have been sailing more or less north from Reykjavik and reached Flateyri in the morning. This community is the largest in Onundafjordur (although still small with a population of a little over 200!) and got that way on account of it being a centre for shark fishing in the 1800s.

A 100 year old home is now a living museum. The interior remains the same as it was and provides a great feeling for what it was like to live there. The rooms were small but functional. Your faithful blogger was reminded that we seem to have more room than we need in our houses these days, and definitely too many bathrooms!

It is after all, spring, and this is the Arctic. Snow is still around in the nooks and crannies where it built up over the winter. Understandably we are seeing more of the white stuff up north, than we did in Reykjavik or even Snaefellsnes.

In the afternoon we went off in different directions to discover Isafjordur. This area was considered to be the finest fishing grounds in the whole of Iceland, and that is saying something! Some of us took a boat ride to Vigur Island and had a wonderful time learning about eider "farming".. The quotes are there because the birds remain wild but every effort is made to ensure that the females are safe on their nests and able to produce the down that is so sought after, even in the age of amazing man-made fills. An eider down quilt for the bed may cost you $10000 these days!

A few of the historic buildings on the island, such as the windmill,  are owned by the national museum of Iceland.

The windmill used to grind wheat to make flour

Female eiders were on the nest and quite tame as they are used to people. We were careful to be quiet and make no sudden movements. Eiders have been fully protected in Iceland since the 1700s. There is written records of eider down collection dating from the 1200s!

Male eiders take no part in incubation or looking after the young.

Vigur was teeming with Arctic Terns. In fact the whole of Iceland seems to be covered with them! This is a male displaying to passing females.

As an aside, one really gets the impression in Iceland that wildlife, particularly birds are everywhere. For people interested in nature, there are few better places to visit in the Arctic than this incredible Nordic country.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Snaefellsness Peninsula and environs

Our first first day in Iceland on Fram, and we have lots of things to do! Overnight we sailed in slightly loppy water to Grundarfjorder on the north coast of the Snaefellsness Peninsula. By the way, apologies to our Icelandic readers but your faithful blogger does not know how to type the 'eth' letter, which is the final 'd' in Grundarfjorder. The 'eth' is an old letter in the Icelandic alphabet that is pronounced 'th' as in 'the'. It looks like a 'D' with a little line through it. There is another old letter in Icelandic 'thorn' which is a softer 'th' as in 'thought'. The 'thorn' looks a little like a 'P'. Maybe by the time our Iceland adventure ends, I'll be able to produce these two interesting letters!

So back to where we were today. Several excursions were offered in the morning and afternoon and almost all of us took advantage of one or the other. The weather was very fine! Some Fram guests made a beautiful hike up to an great vantage point which afforded tremendous views of the area around Grundarfjorder.

Others took a bus and walking excursion over the Snaefellsnes (literally Snow mountain point or small peninsula) Peninsula. It's hard to believe that all the spectacular scenery was crafted completely by volcanic activity.Birds were abundant around the coastline including Northern Fulmar and Black-legged Kittiwake. Any ponds we saw had eiders on the water and shorebirds around the margins.

A Northern Fulmar displaying
A pair of Black-legged Kittiwakes
Over lunch our Captain repositioned the ship to Stykkisholmur, a little further along the north coast of the Snaefellnes Peninsula. There we had more great activities with some going on a small boat cruise to experience a few of the 3000 islands in Breidafjordur (wide fiord) and others hiking in a lava field called Berserkjahraun.

All in all we had a fantastic first full day of activities and look forward to tomorrow, and the day ofter that, and the day after that ......

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Land of Fire and Ice

From the title of this blog you may guess where the intrepid Fram is on this planet. The fire comes from volcanic activity and the ice from ice caps and glaciers. We are of course in Iceland! You are not supposed to modify the adjective “unique” but in the case of Iceland I will make an exception. Iceland is incredibly, hugely, amazingly unique in so many ways. Iceland is a relatively young country geologically, built by volcanic activity on the mid-Atlantic ridge, a spreading zone which has North America moving west away from Europe and the north Atlantic ocean getting wider every year.  Most of the country is just south of the Arctic Circle so the climate is cool, oceanic, but lucky for Iceland, the south and west coasts are bathed by the relatively warm waters of the North Atlantic Drift, which keeps the whole of northern Europe warmer that it “should” be base on latitude. Nevertheless, given enough altitude, the winter snows do not melt and build to for icecaps and glaciers. This “fire and ice” comes together in spectacular fashion in a few places in Iceland where volcanoes erupt UNDER a glacier, with results you can only imagine! Fram does not come to Iceland very often so this is a very special tour.

We started today in the country’s capital of Reykjavik- literally “smoking bay” in the Ancient language of Icelandic. The country was settled by Norse peoples over 1200 years ago. They brought with them the old Norse language from places like Norway, and the language has remained more or less true since then. And now a few images from our ship photographer Hilde, just to give you a flavour of the place.

Here is the Fram alongside in the port of Reykjavik.

The city is a nice mix of old and new.

An example of new architecture is the modern Lutheran Cathedral.

Another example of a very modern building is the brand new cultural centre with concert halls, meeting rooms and galleries.

As it is our Fram boarding day, most of our passengers had recently traveled to Iceland to join the ship. They usually arrive a little tired and bewildered, unless perhaps they have been on Fram before (many come back!). Nevertheless, we have to conduct the manditory life boat and safety drill, The Fram is safety first! After dinner our Captain invited all passengers to a reception in the Panorama Lounge on deck 7. Then most went for an early night to prepare for the next 10 or so days, which will be amazing!