Iceland, Part 2; Whales, Horses, Sheep, and Glaciers.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Melissa and I each chose a pre-planned activity to do while we were in Iceland, and Melissa’s choice was going on a whale watching excursion. We’d had ours booked for months before leaving, and were told that we would need to be prepared for delays, because watching whales means you need to get in a boat and ride out into the ocean. The whale watching excursion companies don’t want to play around with unsafe boating conditions. We wanted to go from Husavik (marked at the top of the map below) because the guidebook said that it is the “whale watching capitol” of Iceland.

This is the paper map that I used the whole time we were there.

The day that we went to Myvatn (previous post) was the day we were supposed to watch the whales. But we had to swap the two around because of the weather.

Here’s the side of the map where I’ve written our loosely planned itenerary for the trip.

This was now our only opportunity to go and watch the whales before we had to carry on with our route, and the weather was looking dicey. We got a call that our boat was cancelled for that day, and they put us on a later charter. But when we got to Husavik, they told us it wasn’t looking good and would likely be cancelled as well. The charter we’d booked was on a wooden Schooner, and the conditions were not favorable at all for this type of vessel. So we decided to go and grab lunch and decide what to do. As we were eating, we looked out the window and noticed that there was one company with some inflatable boats that looked to still be going out. It was the Gentle Giants company, and somehow we were able to jump in and get the last 2 seats for the last tour of the day. Which also happened to be about 4 hours later than we’d planned to leave Husavik. We didn’t want to miss this.

Suited up and ready to go – just in the nick of time. We would not have had to suit up like this on the schooner – but what would have been the fun in that?

The boats looked like long, inflatable dinghies. The one we boarded had two rows of “seats” that were like stand up, skinny bicycle seats with handlebars. We had no idea how this was going to go, as it was not at all what we’d expected. As you can see, above, we were fully outfitted in head to toe rain suits, with inflatable life jackets, goggles, and not pictured are the rubber gloves and boots – which all fit over our layers of clothing, jackets, and gloves already on.

When we took off from the marina, we were wide-eyed with the thrill of this ride, which was a bit like a floating roller coaster. We were flying at full speed, through some very rough surf, crashing through waves which were spraying into the boat endlessly, and Melissa and I were positively thrilled. We were giggling and laughing so much that people must have thought we were drunk. We weren’t – we were just having a blast. The tour took us first by an island of nesting Puffins, which we got to see from a bit of a distance. Then we sped over to a place that we were told was where the whales like to hang out due to the plankton that feed off of the waterfalls that spill into the water from snow melt (or something).

We saw lots and lots of humpback whales. It was incredible. We watched them breech the surface, blow from their blow holes, and one even gave us a slow belly roll with a wave of his fin. We also saw some porpoises swimming with the whales, and jumping through the waves, which was great fun as well. Once we had a break in the action, the captain (standing behind us in the photo), passed around small plastic shot glasses with shots of Brennivin, which is an Icelandic liquor similar to Vodka (info linked). The Brennivin was a fun way to celebrate the moment, and as the boat ride and getting to see the whales was overwhelmingly thrilling, it was easy to celebrate! We stayed in the company of the whales for a full half hour, before heading back to shore.

The beautiful town of Husavik, taken from the boat, in calmer waters upon return from Whale watching

We had a 4 hour drive ahead of us, or so we thought. We didn’t leave Husavik until around 6pm, satisfied that we’d make it to our next BnB by around 10pm. We read in our guidebook that there are sections of roads off of the main “ring road” that we would want to avoid. The roads weren’t paved and could make for a rough ride. Somehow we took a wrong turn and ended up going the long long long way, on the non-paved roads, and yet, somehow, miraculously ended up getting to our correct destination in the obscure town of Borgorfjordur (Marked beside 8/15/19 below).

The red line is the ring road. That’s where we were supposed to be. We somehow ventured far off of that path….Melissa was driving, but I was navigating. I’m sure we had conversations about which way to go but I’d had the shot of Brennevin and motion sickness medication that likely impacted my judgment. Just sayin’.

It was pretty close to midnight when we arrived, and had to summon people to let us in, but it all turned out fine. The next day, we traveled to Eggilsstidir to ride horses. It was another tricky bit of map reading and direction finding but we got there eventually! The farm was incredibly beautiful, and we had a nice ride to an old abandoned farm house. There’s a specific Icelandic style of riding, called ” riding Tolt”, which was interesting to witness and looked like fun. We didn’t find ourselves riding Tolt, but we did get to see someone in our group do it.

Here’s a YouTube video I found about Icelandic horses that explains it all pretty well. And the video has some great scenery!

From here, we went to Breiddalsvik, (population 139) the tiniest town in Iceland. We somehow didn’t realize that this was a thing, as we just picked it as a good mid- way stop after horseback riding, and on the way to Vik. There was the hotel, which is where we stayed, and a small store that sold t-shirts for the town and now I wish I’d gotten one.

The scenery in the East fjords was incredible. The drive on that side of the country was just breathtaking!

East Fjords
Turf houses
  • Side note – let’s talk about the sheep.

Melissa and I were noticing that they were in clumps of 3, and it seemed like they were in the middle of nowhere. We had so many questions! Why are they in 3’s? Who owns them? Who takes care of them? how do the owners keep up with them out here? As it happened, when we were visiting the town of Akureyri on the 2nd day, we went into a bookstore and there was a little paperback book on sheep. I bought it so we could read all about the sheep while we were driving. Here are the high points:

  • The groups of 3 we were seeing, were mothers with their “babies” who’d been born in the spring. Now, in August, the babies were almost as big as mom, but still nursing. Often 2 babies per ewe.
  • Icelandic sheep are “turned out” each Summer and can go wherever they want to go on anybody’s land. They do not keep up with who’s sheep are where.
  • Come September, they have a big community herding event, where everyone goes and herds the sheep. The sheep are all brought back to a central location where they are then separated out to their respective owners, where they’re penned up for fall and winter. They’re identified by ear markings.
We did see the occassional herd

Between the tiny town of Breiddalsvik and our destination town of Vik, was the Vatnajokull Glacier, and diamond beach. These were unforgettable, astounding, breathtaking, and so much better in person than in these photos – but here we are.

We got to see seals swimming here although they didn’t want their pictures taken.
These are pieces of Vatnajokull that have broken off, and there is concern that the glacier is melting slowly
Diamond beach is across the road from the glacier and is one of the coolest sights in all of Iceland.

Our final destination was the town of Vik.

Reynisfjara, is a volcanic black sand beach, lined with basalt columns. The offshore pointy rock structures, are part of a legend. According to Icelandic folklore, those pillars used to be trolls. The legend says that while dragging a 3 mast ship towards land, the trolls were taking too long to reach shore, and at the break of dawn they turned to stone. Locals still believe that if you go close to the cliff where they are you can hear their roars and moans. This is not too far fetched, as the wind and surf kick up a fuss here.
Basalt columns
Dryholaey is a small peninsula just outside of Vik. The name means “door hole” which comes from the arch of lava here. There were Puffins nesting on the coast in this spot, flying in and out of a rock just by the path and we saw them up close. It was still difficult to get a good photo with an iphone.

Iceland, the land of fire, is unlike anywhere else on earth. It is truly magical and breathtaking at every turn. The people are wonderful, the food is delicious, and I personally enjoyed the endless daylight in the summer months as well as the much, much cooler temperatures.

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