From Iceland — The Seals

The Seals

Published July 22, 2005

The Seals

This all started a week ago, when I was told about the unique farm of Hindisvík. According to sources, there was a group of scientists studying this farm where seals were known to play with visitors, even to take fondly to the occasional petting. I was to join these scientists and talk with them, and have the aid of an underwater photographer who specialized in capturing these playful seals in action.

A contact told me that Hindisvík was a special find, but that it was so remote that only the most accomplished off-roader could make it to the farm. Despite this warning, I decided to go out a day ahead of the scientists and photographer to scout the location and check in with the local farmer, possibly to see what I could from the shore. I had also been told that the scientists would be meeting at seven in the morning, and I was worried about driving such rough roads for the first time when tired.

It was a surprise, then, to see the street sign telling me about the seals. Or to find that the road to Hindisvík, about 50 kilometres from the largest highway in the country, was smooth and easy to negotiate. I drove out to the farm, talked with a group of Czech tourists who were setting up camp, and then spent a good hour watching the seals play.

By no means tame or interested in being pet, the seals were abundant and curious. An hour watching them, in the almost gothic surroundings of a farm that has been declared a reserve so that the two houses have been left to wither, made for a unique, peaceful experience.

I made my way back to a local guesthouse and talked with the owner. Yes, he knew of the seals, they were the reason tourists stopped at his place. He had even scuba dived near them.

Seven in the morning came and went. At nine, I was told there was a problem with gas. At eleven, I met my contact at a gas station in Blöndúos. There was an injury, there would be room on the boat—and he nodded to a large rubber raft with a 115 horsepower engine. This would allow us a closer look at the playful seals.

As we launched the raft, things were looking up: local fishermen were standing at the dock watching a young seal sun itself on a rock just feet away from the pier. Something about the day had the seals relaxed. The fishermen hadn’t seen anything like it in years.

Minutes into our trip, the rough seas loosened the tanks and the contact noticed that I was suffering a rough ride, as the raft did not have seating for passengers.

“It will get calmer when we get to open water,” he said, then struggled to get the tanks tied down again.

An hour later, the boat was jammed to a halt as the man with the dry suit labelled Instructor shouted to our contact, whom I had labelled Helvítis for his tendency to mutter the Icelandic swear word when something went wrong.

We were approaching obviously dangerous shallow waters at far too high a speed. We had arrived at our celebrated seal farm, though we now had the difficulty of trying to manoeuvre into the natural harbour. Lighthouses and orange beacons warned of the dangerous waters.

“We have equipment for this. A depth detector and fish-finder,” our contact told me.

I nodded, “Yes, well it looks like dangerous waters. They don’t cover a peninsula with orange warning beacons for nothing.”

He looked up at the beacons, noticing them now, I realized, for the first time. He then nodded towards his depth finder. “We have the equipment, but it doesn’t work.”

Slowly, under the watchful eyes of the seals, we got into the harbour and met our photographer and another diver.

“Is this the scientist?”

I got a shrug from Helvítis. There were no scientists.

Instructor handed me a digital camera: “Just take a lot of pictures. There’s plenty of room.”

“I’m so excited about this, the water is so clear,” Helvítis said, and everyone got to putting on their gear.

A half hour later, Helvítis was screaming “Helvítis!” His gear had malfunctioned.

The other members of our group had also had difficulties. Instructor was popping his head up regularly to shout “Where are they?” The seals were, of course, everywhere, but they weren’t coming close to the divers.

Eventually, an underwater camera flopped onto the raft and the seal mention was announced a failure.

“The seals won’t come near us,” Helvítis told me.

“Has something changed from the last time you were here?”

“I’ve never been here before,” he said, then conferred with his friends. “Last time, they were much more friendly.”

“Okay, well I have a story, then,” I said, shivering and hoping to get back to land and plan a different article. We had spent three hours at sea, with me dressed only in summer-weight hiking gear.

“We can drop you off for a few minutes. I need to get a good lens, and I’ll get photos of these seals,” Helvítis said. Then, noticing how cold I was, “When we go diving in the winter, and we get cold, it is really miserable because you know you won’t get warm until you get back to your car.”

I nodded and was dropped off on solid land to watch the photo shoot. To my surprise, the focus of the shoot was as much the divers and the boat as it was the seals. Helvítis photographed Instructor, and vice versa, at the wheel of the raft in something approaching a Miami Vice pose.

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