Circumnavigation of Iceland

Published on Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Monday, July 25, 2011 - Reykjavík, Iceland: Following our independent arrival at Keflavík, we transferred to the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík, where we ate lunch, and had the remainder of the day at leisure to enjoy this colorful city. In the evening we gathered for a welcome reception and dinner hosted by Zegrahm directors Kevin Clement and Jonathan Roussow, and Stanford Travel/Study Representative Betty Ann Boeving.

Tuesday, July 26 - Reykjavík / Embark Clipper Odyssey: An overcast morning with rain was not the brightest of greetings to Iceland, but we set off to experience the famed Golden Circle of Iceland, including its history, geology, and scenery. Our tour included the ancient parliament site of Þingvellir, dating back to 930 a.d., located in Þingvellir National Park. We walked down the gorge to the broad valley between worlds and continued to dramatic Gullfoss, the golden waterfall, where the massive cascade of glacial water is turned 90 degrees on itself. From there we drove on to Geysir, pronounced gay-seer, the location of the eponymous water spout often mistakenly called “gee-zer” or “guy-zer” in English. The original spout is now dormant, but nearby Strokkur entertained us with regular eruptions of water and steam to a height of nearly 60 feet, while we walked round the site and even from our lunch venue as we dined at Hotel Geysir. Back on our tour we continued to Hellisheiði to visit the geothermal power plant and finished with a tour through Reykjavík.

We concluded the day with briefings from our expedition leader, Mike Messick, an introduction to our expedition team, and our first dinner on board the Clipper Odyssey.

Wednesday, July 27 - Snæfellsnes Peninsula / Flatey Island / Látrabjarg: As we passed the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and headed into Breiðafjörður Bay, we were exposed to the dramatic montane and glacially carved scenery that so dominates the Icelandic landscape. Our destination this morning was the low, lush green landscape of Flatey Island, where we walked around the village. We visited the little church with its painted ceiling depicting life on the island and in Iceland in the past, with fishing, sheep farming, and bird catching. We saw the diminutive library with its historically important collection of books. We encountered our first colonies of elegant Arctic terns, and were mobbed by redshanks raising chicks, while our Zodiac cruise back to the ship introduced us to common eider and
nesting black-legged kittiwakes.

As we continued westwards, Professor Lynn Orr of Stanford University gave us his first lecture entitled Standing on a Mid-Ocean Ridge without Drowning: The Geology of Iceland. We sailed onwards, first along the Látrabjarg cliffs, then round Iceland’s westernmost cape before making an impromptu landing. We walked up to the cliffs to admire the dramatic scene and absorb the scents and sounds of this busy seabird colony, with its hordes of Atlantic puffins, Brünnich’s guillemots (thick-billed murres) and black-legged kittiwakes. Once back to the ship, we were officially welcomed on board with cocktails and dinner hosted by Captain Peter Fielding.

Thursday, July 28 - West Fjords: Ísafjörður and Vigur Island: Occasional sunshine breaking through the overcast was a welcome change and revealed the high rock walls and broad U-shaped valley of the glacier-carved West Fjords. The colorful town of Ísafjörður was the setting for excursions on foot this morning, with a stop at the maritime museum. There, we were entertained with local songs and dances and the opportunity to try Icelandic delicacies including dried haddock, and “fermented” shark, known as hákarl. Although smelling of ammonia, the latter tasted of strong cheese, and was surprisingly palatable—especially when washed down with a shot of the local Icelandic “schnapps” known as brennivín. The town church was another focus and the swirling flock of birds in terracotta on the wall behind the altar was particularly interesting.

After lunch on board, and a brief sailing, we reached Vigur Island, where dozens of piping black guillemots greeted us ashore. We walked to the island’s tiny wooden windmill, once used for grinding corn and a unique feature for this country. En route we encountered a number of Arctic terns and Atlantic puffins that call the island home. Since 1884 this island has been particularly significant as a producer of eider down, for quilts and clothing. We learned the history of the industry and of the birds as we wandered the island with our local guides. Home to some 3,500 pairs of eider, in a good year as much as 50-60 kg of down is collected from their nests. Although farmers elsewhere in Iceland also provide homes for nesting eider, none are as spectacular or as important as the dry-stone walls here on Vigur, built specifically for the birds with special alcoves, one for each nest. Our time ashore was rounded out by the opportunity to sit outside the beautifully restored Viktoria House, built in 1862, drinking tea and coffee and consuming delicious local cakes baked specially for us. In front of the house was an example of a six-man, wooden fishing boat dating back to the 19th century, part of the fascinating tradition of boat building carried down from the Vikings.

After dinner Jonathan gave his first lecture, Travel Photography I: The Basics.

Friday, July 29 - Aðalvík and Hornvík: We landed this morning in beautiful Aðalvík Bay and set out on a variety of walks. Some hiked high into the hills intent on burning off calories, others wandered in search of the perfect photograph, and some enjoyed peripatetic lectures on the wildflowers and the sagas. Those who reached Staðarvatn lagoon, several kilometers inland, enjoyed pretty views of a small lakeside church and attendant pairs of breeding whooper swans. The Aðalvík community was abandoned in 1952, but the houses are maintained and a few of them were occupied by their residents, who invited us in to see their summer homes.

Back on board, we commenced our series of lectures with our Icelandic guide, Ragnar Hauksson, who introduced us to his country with History of Iceland. Sailing on we reached the dramatic coast of Hornvík. The cliffs here tower up from the sea, rising above gentle curving raised valleys, to jagged battlements of rock appearing like great sheets of torn metal. The cliffs were home to an immense kittiwake colony; the air was filled with their sound and the sky with their endlessly swirling shapes as we cruised along below the dramatic cliffs. Part way through our cruise we were warmed by hot chocolate with a dash of Baileys, brought out to us by Mike and cruise director, Julie Christensen.

After dinner Jonathan began his second lecture Travel Photography II: Beyond the Basics, but was soon interrupted by the appearance of humpback whales. We rushed to the outer decks and the bridge wings and were treated to the sight of several of these enormous creatures blowing and frolicking at the surface, including one individual that breached multiple times in the distance.

Saturday, July 30 - Grímsey Island and Þorgeirsfjörður: In perfectly calm conditions with warmth and sunshine, Zodiacs took us ashore on Grímsey where we set off on a range of walks, most of which targeted a land crossing of the Arctic Circle. Thousands of Arctic terns were noisily crowding the island’s tiny airstrip, flocks of colorful puffins were all around us in the turf at the top of the cliffs, enormous flocks of kittiwakes were offshore in dense feeding frenzies, and periodically minke whales appeared, cruising speedily along at the surface for a few seconds before disappearing again.

Grímsey, Iceland’s northernmost inhabited island is home to only about 100 permanent residents. It sits astride the Arctic Circle, and to the south has spectacular views of the northern mainland of Iceland, with towering dark peaks still white with lingering snowfields. With beautiful conditions continuing we took the opportunity to extend our experiences of Grímsey with a Zodiac cruise along the imposing basaltic cliffs to enjoy the scenery and the birdlife.

During lunch we repositioned so the ship was just inside the Arctic Circle for a toast to Neptune/Poseidon led by Kevin, and allowing the brave to take a plunge in Arctic waters (before reviving in the wonderfully warm swimming pool).

The afternoon continued with our ornithologist Mark Brazil giving us his lecture on the lives of seabirds Why Puffins Can’t Soar and Fulmars Don’t Dive: Seabirds of the North Atlantic, though this was interrupted by several white-beaked dolphins; an unusual sighting, this was a new species even for most of our naturalist team. As the afternoon waned we had a break for refreshments, then our historian Stephen Law gave his first presentation entitled The Dragons of the North: The Emergence of the Longboat.

In true expeditionary style, after dinner Mike found us an idyllic spot to go ashore for hikes on the tundra and to explore the wonderful scenery of Þorgeirsfjörður, with its steep-walled, glacially carved valleys. The views of the glaciated landscape were breathtaking, revealing the bare-bones of the land. Combined with the simplicity of the northern flora and fauna, everything felt at once beautiful and serene, but also almost frighteningly austere. Many of us remained ashore until after eleven o’clock to watch the sun sink in the west and as it did so its orange blaze was tempered briefly with brilliant green, beginning first at the edges of the disc then spreading across its full width. This was the almost legendary “green flash,” but it lingered longer than most of us had ever seen and some were lucky to catch the even more rarely seen, and very brief flash of deep blue that followed.

Sunday, July 31 - Siglufjörður to Akureyri: After a leisurely start, one of the curators of the maritime museum of Siglufjörður came on board to talk to us about the history of the herring era in Iceland and especially in Siglufjörður, once considered the herring capital of Iceland. Aníta’s presentation was the ideal introduction to our morning’s excursion, which allowed us to explore this now rather sleepy, attractive north Icelandic village. We visited all three buildings of the museum, one of which was set up to resemble a section of the old harbor, complete with boats and warehouses. The museum, a former winner of European Museum of the Year, vividly depicted the different aspects of the life and times of this bygone era in the first half of the 20th century. A dramatized demonstration of life in a herring fishing town, with “herring girls” heading, gutting, and packing herring into barrels, was followed by singing and dancing. Meanwhile fine Icelandic buttered rye bread, herrings pickled in various ways, and the necessary accompaniment—brennivín—were available for us to taste and in plentiful supply.

Continuing our ‘tradition’ of interrupted lectures, as we sailed for Akureyri, naturalist Rich Pagen began his lecture entitled Underwater North Atlantic: Currents, Fish, and the Humans who Follow Them, only to be interrupted by a humpback whale that allowed us quite close views from the ship. Rich was eventually able to conclude his lecture, and by late afternoon we were sailing up the spectacular fjord known locally as Eyjafjörður, where we came alongside Iceland’s second largest city, Akureyri.

As a special addition to our program today, Dr. Árni Einarsson, director of the Mývatn Research Station, came on board and gave us a ‘pre-cap’ for our excursion tomorrow, with his excellent overview presentation, The Seven Wonders of Mývatn.

Akureyri had attracted its fair share of revelers for the three-day summer festival holiday (the shopkeepers’ weekend) and the town was busy and extra lively; the evening culminated with a shore side music concert and a spectacular firework display.

Monday, August 1 - Akureyri to Húsavík by way of Goðafoss and Mývatn: After an early breakfast, we departed the Clipper Odyssey for our full-day tour inland to the Mývatn region to see powerful geological forces at work in a dramatic landscape. Enormous Mývatn sits in a lush green oasis right on the edge of a vast highland lava desert. Lava flows of various ages have created a dramatic landscape of labyrinthine and towering lava formations, bubbling hot springs, and steam vents. To the south and east of the lake, unique pseudo-craters pock the land where past lava flows surged out across a pre-existing massive wetland that predates the current lake. Along the east shore we saw strange lava pillars and walked amidst jagged lava ‘sculptures’ at Dimmuborgir, while to the west the volcano Vindbelgjarfjall dominated the scenery. To the east, the almost perfectly symmetrical cinder cone of Hverfjall (the largest of its kind in the world) formed a dramatic backdrop. To the northeast we visited Námaskarð, where we viewed the seething steam and sulfur springs, the Víti Crater (meaning Hell; which was formed in the early 1700s, and which is now filled with a lake), and looked out over the Krafla geothermal power plant, one of Iceland’s many such plants that generate clean, “green” energy. We lunched at the community hall, now a restaurant, at the south end of the lake at Skútustaðir, and while some of us lingered longer over our walks, the birders were off in search of the waterfowl that make Mývatn world-famous. They found flocks of Barrow’s goldeneye along the Laxá River, and greylag geese, various duck species, and molting flocks of whooper swans at Neslandavík, but all were overshadowed by lucky glimpses of, not one, but three gyrfalcons—the largest and most impressive of the European falcons. From Mývatn, we continued northwestwards across an immense lava field, eventually making our way down to sleepy Húsavík, the harbor to which the ship had repositioned during our day ashore. Here we found some time to visit the whaling museum and even stranger phallological museum.

Tuesday, August 2 - Rauðanes, Þistilfjörður Bay: On a morning of low clouds and misty rain we were unable to make out much of the scenery of Þistilfjörður Bay. Nevertheless, we went ashore at Rauðanes (the Red Peninsula), landing near an abandoned farm. Undeterred by the bleak nature of the scene, our long walkers set off to traverse the length and breadth of Rauðanes. There were a few kittiwakes and puffins in evidence to keep the medium walkers and birdwatchers occupied, but conditions soon drove us back to the ship, where we re-convened for an afternoon of lectures. First geologist, Lynn, gave his second lecture about Ice in the Arctic; then Kevin explained the flora in his talk Grace Under Fire: The Wildflowers of Iceland; and finally Mark gave his second lecture Islands of Isolation: Understanding Island Biodiversity. This being almost the mid-point, in terms of distance, of our circumnavigation, we celebrated with a cocktail party hosted jointly by Zegrahm Expeditions and Stanford Travel/Study.

Wednesday, August 3 - Seyðisfjörður: Seydisfjörður must rank as one of the most beautiful spots in all of Iceland, and the weather cooperated well to show it off at its idyllic best. At first shrouded in low clouds, they cleared to reveal the lush valley flanked by soaring mountains and cascading waterfalls. At Seyðisfjörður’s head, a natural harbor shelters the fishing town renowned for its brightly painted 19th-century wooden buildings. While some of us opted to go birding or to take medium or long walks from the harbor, others boarded coaches for two excursions further afield. This involved a scenic ride through spectacular scenery, through Iceland’s largest forest, Hallormsstaðaskkógur, dominated by larches, and a long lake with a legendary Loch Ness-like monster known as Lagarfljótsormurinn. Then one group hiked up to two spectacular waterfalls high above the valley floor. The first cut through a perfect basalt column formation, while the second (named Hengifoss) is the third highest waterfall in Iceland at 118 meters. It was an impressive sight to witness the river cascade over a cliff accented with brilliant reddish-orange bands. In the same area, our second tour visited a 15th – 16th-century monastery, Skriðuklaustr, where they witnessed an on-going archaeological excavation including the exhumation of a grave, complete with visible skeleton. This group also visited a cultural center dedicated to Gunnar Gunnarson, an Icelandic writer nominated three times for the Nobel prize for literature; and the controversial Fljótsdalur Hydroelectric power plant, built in the early 2000s. At the nearby church of Valþjófsstaður, there was a replica of the famous, intricately carved wooden door (the original is in Reykjavík), with its roundel depicting the legend of “The Knight and the Lion.” Several photographic stops were made during the journey back to Seyðisfjörður.

Once we were all back on board, Lynn gave his third lecture, Supplying Energy for the World and Protecting the Planet, and Stephen gave his second lecture Of Hearth and Home: Iceland a Millennium Ago. At recap Ragnar introduced several thought provoking topics about Iceland, which stimulated many interesting questions about this extraordinary country.

Thursday, August 4 - Höfn and the Vatnajökull: Situated on an enormous lagoon, the fishing community of Höfn is the gateway to Europe’s largest glacier and the third most voluminous ice cap in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland. Initially the day seemed to promise low cloud and rain, but conditions steadily improved brightening our excursions considerably. From the harbor itself we could already make out the glacial fingers of Vatnajökull reaching down towards the coast from its massive ice cap, and while driving westwards from Höfn we admired the lush coastal meadows, the small sheep farms, the occasional herds of Icelandic horses and families of whooper swans with their half-grown cygnets. At Smyrlabjörg we turned off from Iceland’s main road, Route 1, dividing our excursions with some heading up the spectacular road to the glacier first and others to the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón first. At Glacier Hut Jöklasel, those of us preparing for an exhilarating ride on snowmobiles donned warm clothes, gloves, and helmets, while others climbed into balloon-tired 4x4 vehicles. Whatever the form of transport, our destination was the same—an adventure up the broad glacial spur known as Skálafellsjökull towards the ice cap. We drove across hummocks of crushed ice up to a high point from where we admired the nunataks rising above the ice field and the view back to the coastal plain. It was an inspiring sight, all the more impressive knowing that we were standing on ice that was more than half a kilometer in thickness! Our Icelandic lunch at Jöklasel included an Icelandic specialty, pickled herring, and local beer. The other adventure of the day was to continue further west to a lagoon into which the nearest spur of the glacier calves icebergs. There we boarded amphibious vehicles known as ducks and drove out into the lake rounding an enormous iceberg that had calved in just the last two weeks, with the glacier in the distance, some of it glistening, but much of it gray with the ash of the recent eruptions. There was time to admire the clear glassy ice fragments, like ice sculptures, on the black volcanic sand of the nearby beach, and to photograph the extremely tame snow buntings and great skuas lingering around the visitor center.

After enjoying Captain Peter Fielding’s farewell cocktails and dinner, we set sail this evening along the south coast of Iceland bound for Heimaey Island in the Vestmannaeyjar island group, and watched the film of the eruption that changed the lives of the island’s inhabitants in 1973.

Friday & Saturday, August 5 & 6 - Heimaey Island / Surtsey Island / Reykjavík to Keflavík / Home: Despite gray skies and low clouds that threatened rain, we visited the stone footprint of a Norse house and a nearby reconstruction, the volcano that nearly destroyed the harbor completely with its 1973 lava flow, the remains of a housing quarter inundated with lava known as “Pompei of the North,” plenty of puffins from the bird blind, and a herd of Icelandic horses.

We had free time to explore the town further before we set sail for Surtsey. During the journey we watched a film about the island, one of the world’s youngest. Surtsey loomed from the clouds while Rich reminded us of its geological and biological significance.

Leaving Surtsey behind, we settled in to final packing, listened to our lecture team reminisce about the voyage during their final recap, and, following our last dinner on board, watched Brent Stephenson’s superb visual summation of our voyage.

Saturday was a calm day of pleasant sunshine affording beautiful views across the landscape of Reykjavík and southwest Iceland. Our final tour took us first to the area of the president’s home at Besastaðir, an understated building in a tranquil setting surrounded by lagoons and wildlife. We traveled on through the pretty harbor town of Hafnafjorður on our way to the Reykjanes Peninsula, and we stopped to see, smell, and photograph enormous fish drying racks, draped with cod heads bound for export to Nigeria.

Further on we came to Kleifavatn, an attractive lake in a geologically dramatic setting, known for having its own Loch Ness-like monster (though we failed to find it). From the black volcanic beaches rose plumes of steam, and a little further on, at Seltún, we walked among bubbling and steaming pools and vents marveling at the raw power of the Earth beneath our feet.

We passed through the fishing harbor of Grindavík briefly on our way to our final stop of the tour—the Blue Lagoon. A tasty buffet of typical Icelandic dishes awaited us at our last opportunity for a meal with our shipmates. For some it was also an opportunity to take a soak in the renowned geothermal waters and daub on packs of white and green volcanic clay said to rejuvenate the skin.

All too soon our Circumnavigation of Iceland was concluded and it was time for most of us to return to the airport at Keflavík for our flights home, while others set off to explore Iceland by land.