From Iceland — Whales Are Cool, Seagulls Are Not

Whales Are Cool, Seagulls Are Not

Published July 13, 2012

Photo by
Juli Vol

As the Life of Whales ship passes by the illustrious facade of the immaculate Harpa, its glass panes shimmer a multitude of colours. The intensive labour (not to mention the 27 billion ISK) expended in its construction is nothing short of breath-taking, but the ship we’re aboard isn’t moving toward manmade glory. It’s sailing to the wonders of the natural world.

The informational placards inside the ship’s main cabin aren’t faded, but seem to have been perused many times. The simple images on them offer only a hint of the beauty of the animals that they depict. I’m sitting aboard the Life of Whales ship, mulling over a healthy dose of scepticism I have about this “adventure.” That will change later in the trip, but for now I can’t get over the old menu behind the snack bar and its circa 1983 design for various beers and other drinks.

About a dozen or so people are on the trip today, and as each one files in, their presence hardly puts a dent in the vacuous but lounge-like space of the ship, designed for 200 guests.

Behind the snack bar is Hilmar Stefánsson, part owner of the company. He assures me today’s crowd isn’t representative of the year-round business. Our ship leaves the harbour quickly and our voyage is underway.


Primed to see Minke

Hilmar says at its peak the ship will have 60–80 guests, often more in July and August. Because the business stays open around the year, guests will see different aquatic fauna in the waters north of Reykjavík. Orcas come in January and February; humpback whales in the spring, and we’re primed to see minke whale this late May day, he says.

I’ve put the stale but somehow endearing design of the menu and placards aside. The wind is high and the waves are strong today, but Iceland’s infamous summer sun is hiding behind a thick blanket of clouds. The 914-metre-tall Mt. Esja watches the ship from a distance—not ominously, but more like a sentinel of Iceland’s natural beauty.

As the ships approaches Viðey, everyone inside shuffles on deck to look at the hundreds of white birds around the isle. Something that looks like a pigeon flies by and somebody exclaims, “There’s one!” It’s definitely not a puffin. Fortunately our tour guide effortlessly spots the puffins among the swarms of kittiwakes and seagulls, pointing his arm to help our wandering eyes find a flock of no more than ten puffins.

For a Scandinavian literature major two months on the job, he’s incredibly sharp. I don’t get to test him about Icelandic Sagas, but his puffin trivia checks out: the birds live mostly at sea but come to land to breed, living in colonies. The ship comes close enough to the small, rocky island so that our guide, Björn, can tell us what is or isn’t a puffin.

Geysers, a sure sign?

The ship turns around and we head northwest. Björn informs us we’re heading to whale territory. Forty-five minutes to an hour later, we’re much farther out. The waves are higher and the wind is stronger. Björn tells us to look for tiny geysers shooting out of the water, a sure sign of a whale he assures us.

Well, not that sure. I begin seeing several of these waterspouts at a time under hovering flocks of birds. Not whales yet, but rather gannets, exquisite seabirds that fly 10–15 metres over the water before gracefully and powerfully diving into the ocean to snag a few fish. With a wingspan that can reach two metres, they’re the super-model, super-athlete of the sea. By and large the flocks don’t comprise gannets, though.

Like American hipster-tourists hunting for a totally rad underground bar in Reykjavík to post on Instagram, flocks of other lazy-ass birds wait for gannets to surface before trying to steal their piscine loot. I realise what’s going on and think to myself, “Not cool, man. Seagulls are kind of pricks.” I haven’t seen a whale yet but I’m still engrossed in the gannets’ process of flying up, diving down, and trying to scarf down some fish before some uninvited scenester bird brings 20 of his friends to the after-party.

Minutes after seeing the first gannet, the first minke whale appears, then another, then another. Their beauty is fleeting, but mesmerizing, and one wonders if having seen a single minke whale will become a rarity for future generations. The whales surface for a second or two, blowing out water and sinking below the water again. Even if you don’t have quick eyes you’ll likely find one within 10–60 metres of the ship.

As we head back, the sun comes out for a second here and there. To see the land and water of Iceland from the mainland is one thing, but to see the ocean’s occupants so close and so intimately is quite another.

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