Circumnavigation of Iceland

2017 Circumnavigation of Iceland Field Report

Tom Sharpe|July 31, 2017|Field Report

Friday & Saturday, June 2 & 3, 2017 - Reykjavík, Iceland / Embark Ocean Diamond

We arrived at Reykjavík’s Grand Hotel and gathered in the early evening for our welcome reception and dinner. We met our fellow travelers, both old acquaintances and new friends, and were welcomed by our Expedition Leader, Russ Evans. After a dinner of Icelandic lamb and turkey, it was time to turn in to prepare ourselves for tomorrow’s exciting excursion.

We set out the following morning under bright skies and sunshine on Iceland’s famous Golden Circle Tour. This took us to Þingvellir National Park, an important site not just for Iceland’s history—it was the site of Iceland’s earliest parliament, the Alþing, which met here until 1798—but also a unique geological site. Here, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, the boundary between two of the planet’s great tectonic plates, makes a rare appearance above sea level and forms a wide, fault-bounded rift valley. From a viewpoint standing on the edge of the North American Plate, we looked across the beautiful flat valley floor and its lake to the edge of the Eurasian Plate. A trail led us down through 9,000-year -old lava flows into a narrow cleft where stretching of the earth’s crust means the rocks to the left are moving westwards while those to the right are moving to the east. This is the spreading ridge of the North Atlantic Ocean, normally submerged under thousands of feet of water.

We returned to our buses and climbed out of the rift valley onto a moorland of mossy lava flows, with views of one of Iceland’s most famous volcanoes, Hekla, and on to the valley of the Hvítá River. The river, derived from glacial meltwater, tumbled noisily over Gullfoss in two huge spray-filled cascades over a drop of 96 feet. In the distance, we enjoyed clear views of the icecaps of Langjökull and the even more distant Hofsjökull. Nearby, the geothermal field of Geysir contained bubbling hot springs and geysers; we were treated to several eruptions of the Strokkur Geyser, which threw bursts of boiling water into the air.

We stopped for a delicious lunch of fresh tomato soup and trout at the family-run farm of Friđheimar, where a ton of tomatoes are grown each day in greenhouses heated by geothermal power. The farm also raises the famous Icelandic horses which were brought to Iceland by the Vikings, and have remained pure-bred for over a thousand years. They have a unique gait, the tölt, so smooth that a rider can carry a glass of beer without spilling it.

Soon it was time to return to Reykjavík where, moored at the dock in the center of the city, was the Ocean Diamond, our home for the next nine days.


Sunday, June 4 - Flatey Island / Látrabjarg

We awoke today to find our ship anchored off the tiny island of Flatey in the middle of the wide bay of Breiđafjörđur. After breakfast we had our first ride in the ship’s Zodiacs, which took us ashore to be welcomed by local guides. The bright morning sunshine illuminated the island’s colorful houses, occupied now only in the summer months—apart from a hardy few who remain through the winter to tend to their sheep. Flatey is noted for its unusual frescoed church, painted in 1990 by a Catalan artist, Baltasar; its tiny library, the first in Iceland; and one of the most famous books of the Sagas, the Flateyjarbók. The clear weather gave us a wonderful view across the bay to the southern edge of the Western Fjords to the north and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to the south, with the sun catching the icecap of the high volcano, Snæfellsjökull. The island is also home to numerous shorebirds, and our birders were delighted while hiking and Zodiac cruising, to see common eider, fulmar, redshank, ringed plover, snow bunting, and red-necked phalarope, amongst others.

Over lunch we sailed to the spectacular sea cliffs of Látrabjarg, the westernmost point of Iceland and, at 8 ½ miles long and 1,300 feet high, the largest bird cliffs in Europe. Calm seas allowed us to cruise via Zodiac along the base of the cliffs and amongst rafts of razorbills and guillemots, with kittiwakes and fulmars wheeling high above us; a spectacular end to a great day.


Monday, June 5 - Vigur Island / Ísafjördur

After breakfast, we cruised by Zodiac to a little jetty on the small island of Vigur, which is just over a mile long and only 1,300 feet wide, and has been owned by the same family since the 1880s. Family members guided us around the island, beginning with a stop at the tiny windmill; the only one in Iceland, this windmill dates back to 1840 and was used for grinding imported wheat until 1917. Birds abound here and our ornithologists were pleased to see not only oystercatchers, redshanks, red-necked phalaropes, black guillemots, puffins, Arctic terns, and common eider, but also king eider. The common eider provides the much soughtafter, super-light and warm eider down, collected here and made into pillows and quilts. After our walk we enjoyed the islanders’ hospitality with tea, coffee, and scrumptious home-baked cakes. 

Our afternoon was spent in and around the town of Ísafjördur, the largest settlement in the West Fjords. In the museum we had the opportunity to taste local delicacies such as dried fish and the famous ‘matured’ shark; not to everyone’s taste, but it could be washed down with Icelandic schnapps, Brennivin. Our tour took us to the lovely valley of Tungudalur and the village of Bolungarvík, with its attractive church where a local girl performed several traditional Icelandic songs. At Ösvör, we visited reconstructed fishermen’s huts and heard about the hard life of these men, fishing from open boats and wearing oiled sheep skin clothing.

Back on board for the evening, we enjoyed cocktails with the captain who welcomed us on board and introduced his senior officers before we our welcome dinner.


Tuesday, June 6 - Grímsey Island / Siglufjördur

The Arctic Circle was our target this morning, as we landed by Zodiac at the small fishing harbor on the little island of Grímsey on an appropriately chilly morning. We stretched our legs as we hiked past the island’s little airport to the monument marking the Arctic Circle. However, as the position of the Circle varies from year to year, those of us keen to get to its true current position at 66°33’47.6” continued our hike until our GPS units showed we had reached it, close to the island’s rocky northernmost point. En route, we enjoyed good views of snow buntings along the path and of puffins sitting outside their burrows on the grassy cliff tops.

Returning to the ship, the captain took our ship around Grímsey’s northern tip, so that we all had a chance to cross into the Arctic and see the island’s steep cliff coast from the sea.

After lunch, as we sailed back to the Icelandic mainland, MIT Professor Ron Prinn spoke to us about Understanding Climate Risks: Past, Present, and Future.

Later in the afternoon, we arrived at the small town of Siglufjördur. From the dock we strolled to the award-winning Herring Era Museum which tells the remarkable story of this little port’s dominance of the Atlantic herring fishery, through its preservation of some of the buildings, boats, and processing equipment. The story was brought to life through music and dance as the costumed locals gave us a flavor of the life of the herring girls who flocked seasonally to the town to gut, salt, and pack the herring into barrels which they did with great speed and efficiency. Amongst the herring boats in the atmospheric boathouse, we were able to try the salted and spiced herring with rye bread, accompanied by more Brennivin.


Wednesday, June 7 - Akureyri / Húsavík

From our dock in Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest town, we left for a tour to Mývatn and its lava landscapes. We drove through glaciated valleys cut through lava flows and across open moorland to the spectacular waterfall of Gođafoss where, following the adoption of Christianity in Iceland, a local chieftain hurled his wooden pagan idols into the river below. The large lake of Mývatn soon came into view and we were suddenly in the midst of Iceland’s North Volcanic Zone, with active volcanoes and geothermal areas along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. A sprinkling of fresh snow dusted the lava flows as we looked across from the 1724 volcanic cone of Vítí towards the lavas of the 1980s eruptions of Krafla.

Nearby, the geothermal area of Námaskarđ, with its steaming fumaroles and boiling gray mudpots, was once the site of a sulphur mine and the bare landscape of yellow, red, and brown extending up the adjacent hill gave the area an almost extraterrestrial appearance. From the highway, the gray lava plains below lie along the boundary of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

Along the shores of Mývatn, older lava flows had impinged along the lake’s marshy shallows creating several distinctive landforms. Crater-like hills and islands were formed where the lava turned the waters of the marshes into steam which exploded through the lava flow. A walk through these features at Skútustađir gave us great views over the region’s volcanic features. At Dimmuborgir, the same lava had created a maze of troll-like figures, along with towers, spires, and tunnels.

While we were on tour, our ship had repositioned and we rejoined her at the port of Húsavík, where we had the opportunity to visit the town’s impressive Whale Museum adjacent to the dock.


Thursday, June 8 - Raufarhöfn / Þistilfjördur

An expedition day today saw us land by Zodiac at mainland Iceland’s most northerly community, Raufarhöfn, which lies just south of the Arctic Circle. The locals of this once bustling herring fishing port welcomed us with a specially-made cake as we were the first cruise ship ever to visit! We explored on foot, visiting the attractive little red and cream church and hiking up to the Arctic Henge, a huge stone monument on the hill overlooking the town, with views of the barren tundra all around. This ambitious project with its allusions to Icelandic mythology is still under construction and seems likely to be so for some time to come.

After lunch back on board, we took to the Zodiacs once more for a cruise along the steep cliffs of Þistilfjörđur and its sea stacks, caves, and kelp beds. We had views of puffins, black guillemots, fulmars, and other seabirds and the impressive columnar-jointed basalt lavas of the cliffs. While some were out cruising, geologist Tom Sharpe told us of Iceland’s volcanic history and its position astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Later, after dinner, our Icelandic guide Ragnar Hauksson entertained us with tales of his homeland’s elves and trolls.


Friday, June 9 - Seydisfjördur

This morning we were docked in the attractive little port of Seyđisfjörđur, which sits at the head of a steep-sided fjord beneath snow-capped hills. From here we set out by bus on our various excursions, some heading inland for a waterfall hike, others to a nature reserve and bird cliff on the south shore of the fjord.

The hikers’ buses climbed the steep road to the snowline and over the mountain pass with views back to the town and the fjord beyond. We dropped down towards the town of Egilsstađir and the wide valley of the broad river of Lagarfljót, where the highway took us along the side of Iceland’s longest lake, its perfectly calm surface mirroring the steep hills on the far side. Colorful carpets of purple lupines, a controversial introduced species, lined the highway as we traveled through what remains of Iceland’s original indigenous forest. Crossing the lake, our buses dropped us off at the foot of a steep trail which led high above a deep river valley to wonderful views of two waterfalls. The first, Litlanesfoss, drops nearly 100 feet through spectacular columns of a basalt lava flow while the second, at the head of the valley is one of Iceland’s highest waterfalls, Hengifoss, with a drop of over 380 feet over black basalt lavas with their contrasting red weathered tops. The trail was lined with hundreds of small white flowers of mountain avens, Iceland’s national flower, and clusters of the tiny purple flowers of moss campion.

Others visited the Skálanes Nature Reserve, with a stop en route at the archaeological site of Þórarinsstađir where the remains of a 10th-century stave church, the earliest in Iceland, have been found. At the reserve, we strolled across meadows to the bird cliffs of Skálanesbjarg, the ledges packed with kittiwakes, puffins, and fulmars and the sea below swarming with murres and puffins. Returning to the reserve center, we tasted some Icelandic snacks before returning back to the ship.


Saturday, June 10 - Djúpivogur

From the little port of Djúpivogur, we set out on various excursions today in and around Vatnajökull National Park. A scenic drive showed us a coastal landscape different from what we had seen so far in Iceland, with steep, scree-covered cliffs and a wide coastal plain crossed by wide, gravel-choked glacial rivers. At the head of these rivers we had views of long tongues of ice, the outlet glaciers descending from Europe’s largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. This was our destination today, and we hiked with ice axe and crampons, snowmobiled, or drove across the ice before stopping for an Icelandic lunch. Some of us cruised in an amphibious vehicle amongst the white, black, and blue icebergs floating on the glacial lake of Jökulsárlón with the glacier of Breiđamerkurjökull rising in the background; others hiked in a beautiful valley with many cascades and waterfalls and took a ferry to the little island of Papey, where Irish monks may have preceded the arrival of the Vikings. The weather was kind to us all and we enjoyed great views of the glaciers and coastline of southern Iceland.

Returning to the ship, we were just in time to hear Ron’s second presentation on climate change before we sailed to our next destination.


Sunday, June 11 - Heimaey Island / Surtsey Island

It was a beautiful day as the cluster of islands and rocks known as the Vestmannæyjar came into view off our bow. We were all on deck to watch our captain and pilot guide our ship through the narrow entrance to the busy little harbor on the main island of Heimaey. Off our port side was the black lava flow from the 1973 eruption which threatened to close off this harbor; it was stopped only by spraying the lava front with seawater.

Once alongside, we set off on tour, taking in the natural amphitheatre of Herjólfsdalur, home to an annual three-day festival, and where we saw the ruins and reconstructions of early farmhouses. At the opposite end of the island, the headland at Stórhöfđi offered a stunning view over the islands, north to the mainland and the ice-capped volcano of Eyjafjallajökull which famously erupted in 2010, closing European airspace. In the foreground, the view was dominated by two volcanoes, one of which, Eldfell, was newly-created in the 1973 eruption and was the source of the lava which encroached upon the town. Along the edge of the lava flow, we learned the story of the eruption at the new museum of Eldheimar, built around a house excavated from the volcanic ash.

Soon it was time to reboard our ship and head south to circumnavigate the little volcanic island of Surtsey which exploded out of the sea in an eruption in 1963. Now half the size it was when first formed, it is still an impressive sight, especially when viewed in such perfect conditions.

Our last day on board was brought to an entertaining close by Mike Murphy’s enjoyable presentation of images from our Circumnavigation of Iceland, demonstrating how much we had packed into our time here.


Monday, June 12 - Reykjavík / Disembark / USA

It was now time to leave our home of the last 11 days and, bags packed, we boarded buses for the airport. En route, some toured the city of Reykjavík and lunched near Keflavík Airport at the Viking Museum; others headed for the famous Blue Lagoon where they enjoyed a relaxing soak in its geothermal waters. At the airport we said our goodbyes to friends old and new before setting out on our flights, with time to reflect on the landscapes, wildlife, culture, and people we had seen and met during our circumnavigation of this remarkable island of Iceland.

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