Sunday 31 May 2015

Djupivogur, all day!

We countinued our clockwise circumnavigation of Iceland with a visit to the southeast Iceland town of Djupivogur today. We had all day in the community to explore and get to know Iceland even better. This tour so far has really given us an opportunity for total immersion in everything Icelandic.

Guests had an opportunity to stroll around town, have a coffee and just relax. Djupivogur is part of the 'slow city' movement and so was very conducive to this. One of the most famous highlights of the town can be found around the bay in another harbour where 34 granite egg sculptures of some of Iceland's birds can be found. They were created by Sigurdur Gudmundsson and installed in 2009. It is a truly impressive display. The eggs are large, colourful, and very smooth, very tactile! One has to wonder how on earth the artist made these perfect eggs out of such a hard rock as granite.

The two excursions guests took advantage of both had a theme of glaciers with Djupivogur being not so far from Europe's largest glacier called Vatnajokull. It was a fairly long but scenic bus ride to the glacier lagoon. Let these images tell the story!

Out of town, just a 15 minute walk, could be found some ponds and hides (blinds) for birdwatching. The area was rich with wildlife, and some of us ventured there to breathe the fresh air, listen to the soft quietness of the place and appreciate the Arctic fauna of the area.

Saturday 30 May 2015

Seydisfjordur and Eskifjordur- Iceland’s eastern fiords

We are now in east Iceland and about 2/3rds of the way around Iceland on our circumnavigation. As an aside, this is a fabulous way to see a country like Iceland. Many parts are remote and difficult to get to by road. On the Fram, we slide almost effortlessly over the surface of the water and make our landings pretty well anywhere we like. Having said this, we are mainly hitting the coastal high-spots. Almost all of our landings have been in communities, towns and cities with a wharf, along-side which we can dock.

You have probably noticed that many of the places we visit end in “fjordur”. This of course means fiord in Icelandic and just indicates how many places along the coast are tucked inside a fiord where the waters are sheltered and normally deep. Seydisfjordur is a pleasant little community, obviously driven by the fishery (at least as judged by the fishy smell outside at least!). Situated almost in the bottom of the fiord, the small town hugs the shoreline on both sides. Our guests had three options for the morning including a nature tour, stroll around the town, and a hike up to a waterfall. Our excursion to Skalanes allowed us to get a real taste of the farm/countryside life in Iceland. Our guide cooperatively owns the place with his family and welcomes student groups from all around the world to teach them about nature. Accompanied by their two dogs, we went on a walk around the property where we saw many birds like puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes and oystercatchers.

About 35 of us hiked up behind Seydisfjordur to a beautiful waterfall. The scenery was spectacular- this is an understatement. On the river above the falls, we found two pairs of Harlequin Ducks. They are there to breed. This species feeds on fly larvae in the river and when the chicks hatch the larvae are particularly abundant.

After lunch we cruised south along the spectacular coastline of east Iceland. Fantastic volcanic mountains rimmed the coast, plunging straight down to the sea. Almost all of the cliffs had breeding seabirds on them- kittiwakes, fulmars and guillemots (murres). The volcanic rock seems to provide just the right depth of ledge that these bird species need.

We arrived at Eskifjordur later in the afternoon but as we had until 10:00pm no one felt rushed. Some of us went on a tour focussing on the local fishing industry while others travelled in 4x4 Jeeps to a local but remote and hard to get to location.

Friday 29 May 2015

Husavik- Iceland's first site of settlement

Iceland has had a long history of settlement Norse people, and when they came to Iceland in 870 AD, one of them, a Swedish viking named Gardar Svarvarsson came to the area now known as Husavik. Eventually some farm houses were built and a permanent settlement was established. This is where the Fram and her guests, crew and officers find themselves this morning. The name of the town means 'Bay of Houses' and refers to the original farm houses built around the bay.

Now Husavik is a thriving community of over 3000 people. It is Iceland's centre for whale watching. This is driven by cold productive waters of the Greenland Current which in turn provides great habitat for small fishes such as capelin, which is a favourite food of Humpback Whales. Unfortunately, due to rough seas our whale watching excursion was cancelled but we ended up seeing whales anyway when we left Husavik (more below). From where Fram was docked along side in the harbour we could see the imposing and famous wooden church Husavikurkirkja dating from 1907.

Husavik is a tourism centre as well, and many people come here to visit the amazing Lake Myvatn to the south. We had two excursions to the Lake, which is very productive and full of birds, also history, geology, in fact everything Iceland has to offer on that side of things. One of the excursions visited the Godafoss Waterfall again, for who missed it the day before. There is lots of heat just under the surface at Myvatn and we witnessed many signs of volcanic activity.

As we left Husavik harbour and turned to the east, we began to see small groups of Humpback Whales from the Fram. For some guests this was the first time they had ever seen these leviathans and a big thrill for all of us.

The Humpys were sounding (diving) intermittently, and as mentioned, probably feeding on capelin, a small oily, energy-rich fish. The whales are in these waters for one reason- to feed. They come here from warmer water areas where they spend the winter mating and having their babies.

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