A photo essay on the landscape and seascape of Iceland
The night before I first departed for Iceland, I dreamt I had travelled to the end of the world; a vast and barren wasteland shrouded in low, impenetrable fog. It was therefore with a touch of déjà-vu that I looked out the window of the small turboprop aircraft as we left the snow covered highlands to the south and began our descent towards Husavik. Far below us, wide stretches of moss-covered lava field appeared and vanished through thick layers of cloud.
Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe, with a flow of circa 500 cubic metres per second. Each year it moves half a metre southwards due to erosion from the powerful flow.
Many thousands of people visit this small island on the far northwestern edge of Europe each year in the hope of observing some of the numerous whale, dolphin and bird species present during the summer months. The region beyond Husavik known as Skjálfandi bay, or the ‘shaking bay’ as it translates in English, is particularly rich in marine life. A branch of the main trans-Icelandic rift runs from near Reykjavik to Myvatn in the northeast of Iceland. The branch then splits off into the bay - hence the name - and results in a local average of circa 100 earthquakes each year. This side rift is effectively a minature continental divide: the mountains of the western shore of the bay are part of the North American plate, whilst those in the east belong to the Eurasian plate.
Humpback whale breaching. Humpbacks are the most playful and acrobatic of whale species. There are several theories on why they utilise this energy intensive behaviour; the most likely is that it's a form of communication.
Most whales visit the area during the summer months, as part of a yearly migration from cold nutrient-rich waters in the Arctic and North Atlantic to more temperate, but nutrient-poor breeding grounds to the south, where their calves can be born. This migration can be many thousands of miles. Some humpback whales from the bay have been re-sighted in the Cape Verde Islands and the Caribbean; the whales may lose up to a third of their total body weight whilst on migration.
Rain shower passing near Flatey, Breiðafjörður. This fjord has over 3000 small skerries and islands.
My first weeks out sailing in the bay were aboard a solid white-oak hulled schooner. Such boats would have traditionally fished in these waters, and are now being given a second life as whale watching vessels. I was lucky enough to experience most of the wonderful variety of bird and mammal life at first hand: breaching humpbacks, inquisitive young minke whales that swam repeatedly under our keel, bow-wave riding dolphins, shy harbour porpoises popping up for a second or two, fin whales speeding past, and the magnificent sight of a blue whale surfacing right alongside us and languidly rolling around, flippers in the air.
Fulmar, Látrabjarg. These prolific seabirds have a ferocious (not to mention revolting) defence mechanism: projectile vomiting regurgitated fish.
Herðubreið, the 'Queen' of Icelandic mountains (1682m), sits marooned in the extensive lava field of Odadahraun, in the northeast highlands of Iceland.
Some of these species rarely visit the bay, and others are a semi-permanent fixture, with the same individuals often staying several weeks. What I loved about being out on the Icelandic waters every day was the unpredictability of it all - the whales, the wind, the changes of light and weather. There is still a sense of the end - or of the beginning - of the world in the constantly evolving, dynamic country of Iceland. After I left Iceland, my dreams had a different colour; the mystery and joy of sudden encounters with silent, gliding orcas, the splash of a leaping humpback, or the steely flash of a fulmar’s wing.
Schooner Haukur (“The Hawk”) sailing in the west of Skjálfandi
"What I loved about being out on the Icelandic waters every day was the unpredictability of it all - the whales, the wind, the constant changes of light"
A blue whale breaching: this visible distance is only a small part of the total length of the animal. Blue whales are the largest living animals on Earth.
Evening light near Grundarfjörður
"There is still a sense of the end - or the beginning - of the world in the constantly evolving, dynamic country of Iceland"
An Arctic skua soars off Snæfellsnes
Iceland hosts around 60% of the total breeding population of North Atlantic puffins during the summer months. The island Lundey (“Puffin Island”) is home to a colony of several hundred thousand birds.
White-beaked dolphins are year-round residents of the waters around Iceland
"After leaving Iceland, my dreams had a different colour: the mystery and joy of sudden encounters with silent, gliding orcas, the splash of a leaping humpback, or the steely flash of a fulmar’s wing"
A seabird feeding frenzy near the aptly named Fiskisker (Fish Rock)