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Iceland: cold water and baby whales around Reykjavik

Published Mon 27 September 2010 23:49 (+1200)
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Iceland, or Ísland – yep, that's where we get the word from – does exactly what it says on the label. It's one big island (plus a few little uninhabited ones off the coast), and there is plenty of freezing cold water.

Exposed landscape around the bay by Reykjavik
Exposed landscape around the bay by Reykjavik

We flew in from the UK where we'd crashed a night after France. We got in in the afternoon and it was already most of the way through the day by the time we finished the drive from airport to hotel, but I wasn't there to fuck around, and neither was Iceland, so I went out on the harbour in the late afternoon to look for whales.

Reykjavik sits inside a large bay on the south-western side of the island, somewhat sheltered by peninsulas defining the extents of the bay, so the water's relatively calm but also shallower, which basically means you won't get the really big baleen whales on this side of the island, but also means you have a great chance of seeing smaller whales such as the Minke.

First puffin!
First puffin!
Puffin building up speed for take-off
Puffin building up speed for take-off

Seeing the bay itself from a boat is worthwhile – black and green headlands jutting into cold-looking water, with a few islands in the bay. One is referred to as “puffin island” which actually looked to me to be mostly crowded with gulls, but with a bit of patience you will see some puffins!

They were a lot smaller than I expected. In Iceland there are restaurants (mostly for the tourists) serving whale and puffin. I don't know, maybe they're tasty, but puffins are so small, it would just feel mean. And whale is right off my menu – they're much better off in the water IMHO.

The puffins seemed relatively shy, not the type to hang around boats, but they do fly around the harbour at boat-height – quite quick despite their short wings and you'll sometimes see them zipping past your boat.

They are pretty cute and their beaks look every bit as silly in person.

Gannets in the bay off Reykjavik
Gannets in the bay off Reykjavik

There's a lot of birdlife around the coast of Iceland in spring & summer, taking advantage of the gulf stream's fishing-growing warmth. Gannets are plentiful (as are gulls), and there's a variety of other less common birds.

Our baby Minke
Our baby Minke
Blowhole
Blowhole

On my whale-watching we were joined by a baby Minke whale who really just could not get enough of our boat, which was both a blessing and a curse – on the other hand, we got half an hour with a baby whale, but on the other hand we couldn't turn the engine back on and go anywhere since it was too close to the propellors.

I got the feeling s/he was just having a bit of a laff, watching us all scurrying from one side of the boat to the other and back again as s/he went back and forth underneath.

We do have Minke whales in the southern hemisphere, but the tour guy told me later that northern hemisphere Minkes have a small difference – they have white at the end of their flippers, whereas southern ones don't. Those high-contrast definitely made it a lot easier to spot whilst it was submerged a couple of metres under the water and gave us a chance to line up ready to spot the whale when it surfaced.

Minke whales don't really breach, but they do poke their nose up and have a bit of a look. This youngest was only about as big as a large dolphin.

Lighthouse at Reykjavik
Lighthouse at Reykjavik
Looking for a kill in our wake
Looking for a kill in our wake

After about half an hour of the baby whale it was already time to head back to the harbour. Birds followed us in to port – I learned later that they hunt for fish thrown near the surface by our wake.

Snorkelling and caving

The Silfra Fissure - 3ºC water, who's ready for a swim?
The Silfra Fissure - 3ºC water, who's ready for a swim?

It's cold in Iceland, even in summer – summer is livable, the rest of the year isn't. So when you read about snorkelling in Iceland, we're not talking about putting your speedos or bikinis on and watching tropical fish; it's inland at Þingvellir (“Thingvellir”), and the water is about 2-3º C (“fucking cold”).

They put you in a drysuit, which is awesome – it's basically a two-legged sleeping bag inside a neoprene waterproof sibling of the wetsuit. It is horrible getting inside it there, not because of the comedy as you figure out what goes where or the strain to get through the rubberised head and arm bits, but because there are a million flies at that site for no apparent reason, and they all want to sit down and hang out on your face.

Once you get all the gear on, it is pure, waddling, bliss – flies haven't got any you to land on, and you are toasty warm and dry. You look like an industrial fattie wearing a giant rubber onesie, but so does everyone else in your troupe – I had made friends with a nice Wisconsinite language teacher and a hardcore German guy named Reinhard (sp?) – and there was a good selection of people from random countries.

When you get in the water you discover something else brill about a wetsuit – because you have not squeezed 100% of the air out of it (you do a sit-down thing to squeeze most of it out), you float!

So on the plus side, you can just loll about and you will pretty much drift around with the current, but on the minus side, it's so cold old a couple of tiny fish that you will never see can grow there, so there's just the rocks and the seaweedy stuff that grows (though it is freshwater).

The Silfra Fissure past a co-snorkeller
The Silfra Fissure past a co-snorkeller
I'd like to say it's an abyss, but at least it's a hole between two continental plates
I'd like to say it's an abyss, but at least it's a hole between two continental plates
Flouro colors at 2ºC
Flouro colors at 2ºC

So why do we all go? Well the awesome thing about Þingvellir, aside from the historical angle we'll get to tomorrow, is that this little valley is where two of the Earth's giant continental plates are pulling apart, and the place where you snorkel is not just a lake or a river – it's the Silfra fissure, where the two continents themselves are ripping away from another under the crust of the Earth. So as you swim from one side of the chasm to the other you are literally going between two geologically nerdy places in the space of a few metres.

Also, the rocks are bright yellow.

I CAN FLy on no sorry, never mind
I CAN FLy on no sorry, never mind

Afterwards you walk back to the van past a hole you can jump in for whatever reason near where you started. Is it just me or do the drysuits make us look a bit like dorky, all-weather fascists?

Entrance to the lava tubes
Entrance to the lava tubes
Zombie storytime in the cave
Zombie storytime in the cave

And then once you've taken off the drysuits (sadly they don't let you keep them – honestly I would wear one around this house), you go into a cave which opens out into a lava tube (actually two lava tubes).

Zombies

Then it's storytime. Iceland has the most well-recorded history of dealing to zombies.

Back in “the day”, when you were a farmer in Iceland, you tended to be pretty worried if your expected visitors didn't show up. It was a pretty harsh climate, and if someone didn't turn up, they weren't just too hungover, they were probably dying in the cold somewhere en route.

The worst thing was that if they died on your land, within a breath of your house, and you didn't give them a proper, matter-settling burial, then they'd be stuck there forever as a ghost, haunting the place and looking chilly.

You didn't want that. It upsets the animals.

So if you were expecting someone on a particular day, and they didn't show, you'd be worried. After pacing nervously for a bit, you'd be forced to go out and search the track onto your land for your missing friend.

Now, if you found them in the snow drifts, then the chances are they were already dead, and this is a bad time. But you don't want them turning into a ghost and making the sheep uncomfortable, so the only thing to do is to drag their corpse home, lay them in state in the lounge, and give them a burial in the churchyard.

But we've all been there though – I know I have – your best friend has died at your gate, you leave them in state overnight, and then they come back from the dead. M-o-therfucking zombies. Look, you have to be a man about it – zombies are just a fact of life and you'll have to face it. So the good people of Iceland, being knowledgeable people, learned of this possibility, and not cool with the flesh-eating types, grew into the habit of having someone on station to give the unholy undead a sharp crack to the whatever and dispatch them back into the nether.

• • •

Several hundred years later, they learned about the late stages of hypothermia whereby one's body may collapse into almost zero pulse rate, very slow breathing, and only slowly recover from the condition when entered into a gently warmer environment, at which point you might wake up and start to move…. at which point your terrified friend or family member would have bashed your head in.

The Krona and all that

Okay just slow the hell down, crazy chef
Okay just slow the hell down, crazy chef

Iceland being an isolated island nation used to be a very expensive place to visit, but one of the reasons we chose it this summer was that after the whole giant ball of Icesave shit (awesome rollingstone article about this seems gone :(), the Icelandic Krona had crashed, and so after currency conversion things cost just over half what they did – ie. affordable.

Of course, the price in Krona for the many items that had to be imported then went up, which had a very severe impact on the people who live there, but it still works out as costing no more than anywhere else in Western Europe, a little less when I was there.

So stupendously overpriced wanky restaurants in Reykjavik were merely somewhat overpriced wanky restauarants in Reykjavik. The chef seemed to think that amazing food is created by putting 100 things you've never eaten before on a plate, which made me want to go and chat with/smack him, but at the same time, it was some pretty cool taste sensations… if you ignore the 3 out of 100 thing that he put there that were just shit ideas. So, interesting, amazing, but not “good food” in my book, even if I do wanna try and figure out the chemistry required to make some of it :).

It is advisable to not be vegetarian in Iceland. Even not eating fish would cut your options down a lot out of the big city!

Reykjavik

Looking across the harbour from Reykjavik
Looking across the harbour from Reykjavik
Solfar sculpture on the Reykjavik promenade
Solfar sculpture on the Reykjavik promenade
Hallgrímskirkja church on the hill above Reykjavik
Hallgrímskirkja church on the hill above Reykjavik
Inside Hallgrímskirkja church
Inside Hallgrímskirkja church
Asmundur Sveinsson sculpture
Asmundur Sveinsson sculpture
Kinda Sauron-y church
Kinda Sauron-y church
Late evening sun
Late evening sun
Skeleton of the National Music & Conference Centre
Skeleton of the National Music & Conference Centre
Daylight finally starting to fade about 10pm
Daylight finally starting to fade about 10pm

I don't think you'd come to Iceland for the city alone but it is a nice place to stay. We were staying in the CenterHotel Arnarhvoll which was nice and in an excellent location near the waterfront, by the in-progress National Music & Conference Centre, and when you go up to the top floor for the breakfast there's a great view out over the bay where you can see the weather rolling in.

We ate a lot of waffles. We liked the breakfast buffet.

There's a few interesting art museums in Reykjavik, one of which is a sculpture museum in the former house of the sculptor it is dedicated to – he actually built the house himself and lived and worked in it.

There's also some cool sculptures around the city, most notably the steel viking-ship. A local had pulled his Isuzu up next to this and drove the left wheels up onto the concrete wall surrounding it so he could get underneath with his socket set. It's a fairly low-key kind of place.

Reykjavik also has a selection of interestingly-shaped churches, all Christian – they accepted Christianity right about 1000 years ago, after a big meeting when Denmark converted and “suggested” they should too.

(They had a big volcanic eruption around the same time, and the Icelanders refer to the 1000-year old lava as “Christianity lava”. You can apparently tell by how much moss it's got on it, since it'll be thousands more before anything much more substantial has got started.)

You only visit Iceland in summer as it's too cold the rest of the year, which means you'll notice the very long days. I think the whole “midnight sun” concept sounds cool, but it's not as significant as you might imagine because it's actually grey and overcast almost the entire time.

So it doesn't actually seem all that weird, it's just that at 9pm it's still gray and light and you don't really notice that it's not 3pm and you probably should have some dinner and all that. But we didn't find it difficult to get to sleep with the curtains closed, and relished the one day it was actually fully sunny – and the low-angle sun that evening gave excellent light for photography.

The 'Golden Circle'

Geothermal power station (and typical mossy landscape)
Geothermal power station (and typical mossy landscape)

We went on one of the regular daytrip bus tours that runs around the Reykjavik area taking in the main attractions.

The geothermal power station was interesting, it not only provides electricity but also hot water to Reykjavik, down a long and well-insulated pipeline. They actually use the hot water from the bores they've dug to heat completely fresh spring water, but even after putting it through another machine to get most of the dissolved oxygen out, there's still enough to slowly corrode the pipes. To prevent this they mix a small amount of the smelly hydrogen sulfide gas in, which gives the showers everywhere that unpleasant (albeit harmless) odor, bit of a shame when it started so pure!

Þingvellir
Þingvellir
A fissure from the separating continental plates at Þingvellir
A fissure from the separating continental plates at Þingvellir

The countryside was pretty stark for much of the area – there's grass on the lower-down flat parts and partway up the hills, but then it gives way to bare rock or dull cyan moss.

Traces of red oxidised iron content and clumps of small cold-hardy flowers brighten things up a little, and occasionally you get an area where things have been looked after long enough to regrow a stand of trees – the island originally had much more, but the settlers didn't realise how fragile the land was and between their activities and the grazing of the animals they introduced, the larger flora was quickly devastated.

Iceland now has a good environmental policy and is continuing to plant to try and restore the landscape, as well as introducing faster-growing foreign plants like lupin to help hold the topsoil in place against the wind long enough for other plants to get re-established – time will tell how easy that is.

There's lots of water around the area though, in streams and rivers and also some large lakes. We stopped back at Þingvellir where I had been snorkelling a couple of days before, but this time we were dropped off up above the cliffs at the edge of one of the continental plates, looking down over the area so we could see the river and lake I snorkelled around.

Aside from being interesting geologically as it is where the two continental plates are pulling apart – very visible as you walk down between some of the fissures, and also in the ones now flooded by the river – Þingvellir (“Thingvellir”) is important historically because it was the communal site where the world's first parliament, the Alþingi (“Althingy”) was held, from 930.

They don't know exactly what spot there but there was a “Law-Speaker's Rock” where the guy who'd been elected would stand and, for each of the 3 years he was elected for, recite 1/3rd of the country's laws. While the parliament was assembled they would also make new laws, elect the bishop, hear important cases like a supreme court, and so on.

Gullfoss
Gullfoss

Next stop was the big Gullfoss, a wide and multi-tier waterfull that kicks up a LOT of spray. You can walk right up to the water at the top – no fences… I support people learning not to be idiots.

Strokkur erupts
Strokkur erupts

After that we went to see the original geysers at Geysir… Geysir itself is now inactive, but there's a very similar one next to it cheerfully erupting every few minutes.

Then back home via a church where they do great music apparently (closed for a performance) and a horticultural village with geothermally-heated greenhouses (they also sell great jackets), and a good talk on the drive from the guide guy about what life was like in Iceland, both in general, and as a result of the collapse of the Krona.

Interesting thing – Icelandic kids take years longer to get through school and university, because they get all summer off to go and do stuff. I guess if you were stuck indoors for the rest of the year you'd really want to make the most of it!

After doing our thing around the Reykjavik area, we drove along the south coast to go and see some icebergs.