From Iceland — Island Life: 24 hours on Grímsey

Island Life: 24 hours on Grímsey

Published August 10, 2007

The Island
Situated on the Arctic Circle north of Iceland, Grímsey is a small island home to just 95 people, but dozens of large bird colonies. The island is characterised by both its flatness and the contrasting dramatic basalt cliffs (reaching up to 100 metres) which plunge into the ocean. Grímsey is just over 5 km² in size and lies 40 kilometres from the mainland. It can be reached by both sea and air; visitors can either catch the ferry from Dalvík near Akureyri, which takes around 3 ½ hours, or take a flight from Akureyri. We opted for the plane. While an experience in itself and a great way to take in the view of the coastline and ocean below, the 25 minute flight on the 10-seater aircraft is not for the faint-hearted.
There are but two guesthouses on the island – one at the airport and the other near the harbour of the island’s (only) community of Sandvík. Travellers looking for a five-star-allincluded holiday beware; Grímsey may not be your kind of place. While you will get plenty of peace and quiet, there is virtually no tourist infrastructure on the island. The sole facilities consist of a restaurant, a small grocery store, a swimming pool, a community centre, a church and a gallery/souvenir shop.
Attack of the Kría
There are around 60 species of bird on Grímsey and the one you’re most likely to form a special bond with first is the kría or arctic tern. My only guess as to why the locals chose this aggressive and overly protective bird to be the symbol of the island is that it was meant as a sick joke. The kría are notoriously territorial and, during the breeding season, not a force to be messed with. These not-so-friendly birds’ habit of forming an aggressive gang-like group, prepared to swoop anything that comes within a hundred metres of their nesting ground, makes travelling on the island by foot impossible. At first, when the locals offered us various household tools to defend ourselves, we thought it was all a practical joke, their way of amusing themselves. Still, we courageously set out for a walk around the island. But, within a couple of minutes, dozens of birds began trying to attack us. Swinging pieces of plastic pipe (much to the amusement of the locals) in the air was humiliating, not to mention tiring, and obviously not enough to prevent the birds from attacking us. What we needed were helmets. Each of the locals had a story of the kría attacking either themselves or an unfortunate tourist. I was determined not to become another statistic.
Meet the locals
Our first real encounter with the locals was with the frightfully talkative and knowledgeable nine-going-on-40-year old Ingólfur and his baby sister. Ingólfur told us that his parents own the local restaurant and store, and that his father also works as a fisherman. After shooting out the abridged version of the island’s history (“Did you know that Grímsey is the only part of Iceland that wasn’t occupied by Denmark?”), we ask Ingólfur what a nine year old does for fun on an island the size of some people’s backyards. “I go out on the boat with my dad, or just go for a walk,” he replies.
Talking about boats we decide to check out the harbour. Colourful fishing boats sit anchored in the small harbour after a long day at sea. Not surprisingly, the main source of income for the locals is the fishing industry.
One of these locals is Héðinn. We meet him inside the fish processing plant where he effortlessly guts and sorts the catch of the day – huge yellowish-grey slippery cod – that fall from the revolving belt, occasionally splattering blood and salt water in all directions. I can’t help flinching at the sight. If the locals needed any further affirmation that we’re from The Big Smoke, we roll up our pants and tippy-toe in between the pools of bloody water. Héðinn’s sun and wind-burnt face tells of years at sea. He tells us that he wasn’t born on Grímsey. He was simply fed up with working on large fishing boats from the mainland, so he packed up his things and moved to the island. Thirty years later he’s still here and, judging by his enthusiasm, loves the place.
Two teenage girls are working out the back of the factory. Rebekka and Hildur tell us they have come from Akureyri to spend the summer with their grandmother, who lives on the island, and to earn some pocket money working in the factory. What do they do to pass the time, I ask them. “Nothing,” replies Hildur, the older of the two sisters, while Rebekka says she spends her free time playing on the trampoline. Remember, there isn’t a lot to do around here.
But there is a swimming pool, though it’s only open for a few hours a week. “It doesn’t take that long for 90 people to go for a swim, you know,” one woman explains. But like everything else on the island – from the shop to the bank – opening hours can easily be arranged by appointment.
Later we meet up with Magnús who’s offered to take us for a boat trip around the island. He tells us that his is the only boat without quota since he started renting all of his out to the other fisherman on the island. Thousands of puffins are perched on the steep cliffs of the island. Magnús unexpectedly fires his pistol into the air causing the sky to turn black with the birds fleeing the cliffs. He shows us the steep vertical cliffs where he and his father collect the birds’ eggs. The air temperature is around 20ºC and the clear blue-green water is inviting. The locals occasionally swim in the ocean, but it happens rarely, Magnús tells us.
Shortly after pulling into the harbour, we head off to the restaurant/bar aptly named ‘Restaurant Kría’. Hanna, the waitress/bar tender, explains that business is slow as everyone is still recovering from a party held the previous night. The bubbly twenty-something tells us that she is just on Grímsey for the summer. She has come from Akureyri to spend several months working at the island’s restaurant and kindergarten. “It’s a great place to come if you don’t want to spend money,” she replies when I ask her about her choice. She’s right. There are no expensive boutique clothing stores, cinemas, or anything that remotely resembles nightlife on the island. “There are a lot of people my age here […] and everyone is very friendly and relaxed,” she adds. Hanna tells us that the kids occasionally order a pizza from the mainland, have it delivered to the airport in Akureyri and flown over on the next flight. “The flight is only 25 minutes so it isn’t that cold when it gets here,” she says. Gulli, the photographer, pre-orders a meal of roasted puffin breast served in red wine sauce for the dinner the next day.
Only the hum of the town generator and the cries of the seagulls break the mid-morning silence. The whole town is still asleep. Sverrir and his friend Reynir are standing outside the guesthouse smoking cigarettes and gazing down at the harbour. Sverrir tells us that he moved to the island from Akureyri in January to work on a fishing boat. Like Héðinn, he worked on a huge trawler that would stay out at sea for weeks on end. “You don’t see land for up to 40 days – I wanted a change. Here we go out for 5 to 18 hours and come back every night. And, I can go back to Akureyri every weekend if I want,” he explains.
It’s approaching midday so I wonder why he’s not out at sea now. Sverrir explains that they’ve used up their fishing quota and have to wait until they are allocated some more before they can go back to sea. The twentyfour year old tells us that because he is out of work for the next few weeks, he plans to head back to the mainland the following day. But before he does, he wants to collect a few puffins to take home to his family. They invite us to go hunting with them. Before setting off, we drive down to the harbour to pick up the long hunting nets, which the guys fasten to the side of their SUV.
Thankfully we’re not walking – the kría are out in full force. Even travelling by car is more difficult than you would think. We drive slowly as they surround the vehicle, occasionally swooping it. Why is it the puffin and not the kría that we’re off to hunt, I jokingly ask. Apart from the obvious fact that they are aggressive, they carry little meat, I’m told. But, the islanders are known to collect their eggs, which are considered a local delicacy.
The car swings violently from side to side as Reynir drives the car over the rough, bumpy track that winds by the edge of the steep cliff, home to the puffin. Despite the movement of the car, puffins, instantly recognizable for their white face, big colourful beak and red legs, stand motionless. Although, the birds have been harvested for centuries they are an easy target. Puffins are not shy, and while they have advanced swimming skills (they feed by diving) their poor flying ability puts them at risk by hunters. Every April, puffins migrate to Iceland’s shores to breed and raise their young before flying south again on August 20 – apparently they leave on the same day every year. Because of the abundance of the species – Iceland is home to the largest puffin colonies in the world – it is legal to both hunt the birds and collect their eggs.
We arrive at the spot where Sverrir and Reynir have been told by the locals they can hunt – the men on the island are apparently territorial too. The guys don’t hesitate to abseil down the dangerously steep cliffs. We use a rope to abseil down the first few metres. To reach the rocky shoreline below, we must then take our chances and walk unaided the rest of the way. To make matters worse, the narrow and eroded path is lined with a slippery plant. The sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below act as a constant reminder that the short journey for this unseasoned puffin hunter is perilous.
By the time I make it to the shoreline, Sverrir and Reynir are already setting up for some serious hunting. Hundreds, if not thousands, of puffins glide over us.
Reynir walks on to find a spot further away. We stay with Sverrir, who positions himself low to the ground behind the large rocks by the water. He is dressed in a fulllength water-proof jumpsuit and large green gumboots. He waits until the birds fly low enough over his head before jumping to his feet and swinging his long net in the air to try to catch one of the birds. His first attempt is unsuccessful – the bird darts away at the last second. But soon he gets into the swing of things, catching bird after bird. The deep squawking sound of the puffin when it has been caught is agonising to listen to. And, catching the bird is not enough, first you have to untie it and, well, kill it. The methods of killing the birds (the details of which I’ll spare you) are brutal, but the men are keen to convince us that they are not as barbaric as they may appear. They adhere to certain morals while hunting; they let the bird free if it is carrying fish in its beak – a sign that if it is on its way back to feed its young – or if it is not yet mature. They also assure us that they only catch the birds for themselves and their families. They freeze their catch for the winter months when they eat them roasted, smoked or boiled. “I’m not a great cook, so I give them to my mum and she takes care of them,” Sverrir says. And no, apparently puffin doesn’t taste like chicken; the dark meat tastes like nothing else, we’re told.
Life on the island is tough – well it doesn’t come with all the conveniences, like huge supermarkets, most of us on the mainland are used to, so any food that the locals can collect themselves, such as fish, puffins, and bird eggs, is a bonus in their eyes. And it’s not just about providing a valuable additional source of food, it’s also about tradition. The people of Iceland and its surrounding islands have been practicing such hunting for centuries. Not that it’s always passed down through the generations. Reynir, who is on his second puffin-hunting trip, learnt it from watching television. “I saw it on TV and just tried to do the same,” he says.
The guys tell us that successful hunting is all about speed. It also helps if it’s windy. “The more wind there is the more of them fly around,” Sverrir says. So, with no real intention of catching, or certainly not killing, one of our little clown-faced feathered friends, I take the net. I find it difficult to judge the length of the long and quite heavy net, and whether it will actually reach the birds flying above. After several half-hearted attempts, I concede, accepting that I’m probably just not cut out to be a hunter.
Although both Sverrir and Reynir only learnt to catch the bird days earlier, within a few hours they manage to catch over 50 (and they catch an additional 170 later in the day). They gather their catch, which is lying on the rocks, and stuff them into a sack. Reynir hoists the bag over his shoulder and begins the ascent up the cliff. The sun blares down reflecting off the glistening ocean. They’ve been standing in the sun for hours and the sweat is beginning to run down their faces.
After what seems like an eternity spent on Grímsey, we fly back to the mainland. In reality we’ve only spent 24 hours on the tiny island, but that was enough to meet many of the locals and get a sense of life on the island. There is something quite special about this place – the islanders’ refreshing sense of community and closeness to nature, and the island’s unspoilt landscape are among the reasons I’ll return. On our arrival back to the capital, Reykjavík seems like a large, unfamiliar city – and Grímsey a world away. Sure, there may not be much to do on Grímsey, and the slow-paced lifestyle may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m pretty sure I could get used to it.

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