Whale Watching With Sigmundur Davið

Whale Watching With Sigmundur Davið

Sam Wright Fairbanks
Photos by
Art Bicnick

With two massive masts, tightly furled sails, and an array of ropes and pulleys, Ópal appears to be straight out of the past. But beneath its oaken deck lies a prototype eco-friendly engine, the first upgrade of its kind for Iceland’s fleet of tourist vehicles: the “Regenerative Plug-In Hybrid Propulsion System.”

I recently trekked up north to Húsavík to go on its maiden voyage. The town, which is known as the whale watching capital of the Iceland, is nestled between the lupine-blanketed flanks of Húsavíkurfjall mountain to the east, and the cragged mountain faces, icy winds, and rough waters of Skjálfandi bay to the north, west, and south. It’s not quite the first place you’d imagine as the setting for such technological advancement.

The landscape is reminiscent of two distinct vistas apposed—the pastoralia of the Irish countryside, and the dark, foreboding mountains of Seward, Alaska. The collision of the two, however, proved far more interesting than either alone. Sure it was chilly, and the sheep looked at you funny—but there was plenty to stare at (while wishing you had a better camera).

Environmentalist convictions

I had a good chunk of time before the ship was set to sail, so I sat down for some strong Icelandic coffee at Gamli Baukur, Norðursigling’s dark and woody harbour-side restaurant. Out the window I could see the two masts of Ópal. The ship was nothing like I had imagined. It’s an interesting combination—that a 150-year-old sailing technique turns out to be optimal for utilizing natural power.

“We like to be the pioneers,” said Árni Sigurbjarnason, one of the founders of Norðursigling and a leader in the current electric vessel project, “to show environmental responsibility.” Árni characterized Norðursigling’s twenty-year history of working with old boats as an act of recycling, in a sense. In the past, ships were usually just burned when out of commission—even when there were possibilities for renovation and rebranding.

The message of the project is clear: we are all visitors in nature, and we should be able to experience it without disturbing or damaging it. To uphold and maintain these environmentalist convictions, Árni believes, is the major challenge for the Icelandic tourist industry today.

When do they break the champagne bottle?

After coffee (and a hot dog from the hot dog stand by the dock, and then a second hotdog from the same stand), I commingled with the elite guests on the dock, crammed alongside a group of tourists who had queued to board a different, non-electric vessel.

Employees of Norðursigling carried long, wooden platters crowded with finger sandwiches, sushi, various dipping sauces, chicken-on-a-stick, and desserts-in-miniature up through the crowd and up the gangway, arranging them across the centre of the ship. A few confused, hungry, rain-slickered tourists tried to board Ópal, but were denied entry. Didn’t they know the PM of Iceland was to be in attendance!? How gauche. You had to be on the approved guest list—you know, to keep out the fanny-packs and riff-raff.

Speaking of gauche, here’s a pro tip: If a nation’s PM (of whom you’ve never seen a picture because you’re a stupid American intern) is going to be attending an event you’re covering, do a quick search of what s/he looks like. Otherwise you might end up blocking the gangway as he’s trying to board, and everyone will look at you weird— so you’ll start to stress-eat skewered shrimp with mango, but then you’ll be like ‘Where should I put the skewers?’ because there are no trash cans in the ocean, so you’ll shove them in your pockets and your one nice jacket will smell like shrimp for a week.

Though considerably large, deckspace was tight with landlubbers—investors and politicians, ambassadors and partners, engineers and journalists—none of whom seemed even remotely versed in walking at sea, myself included. We all wavered from side to side, grasping at ropes and handrails as we set out, rocked not-at-all-gently by waves, jockeying for access to the buffet and champagne spread.

To go silent on the sea…

Noise was as important a theme of the day as emissions-slashing or whale-loving. “To go silent on the sea” was said more times than I could count (and I can count pretty high). The repetition was distressing in a cult-vibe kinda way, but Ópal backed up the buzz and then some. There was a distinct lack of motor noise. The muffled slosh of propellers in water, yes—and the breaking of harbour waves on the hull—but there was no revving, no chugging, no droning, no deep vibrations from the ship’s bowels.

Ópal runs quiet and clean, which made the human noise on the boat seem all the louder.

I would love to quickly become fluent in Icelandic, I really would—but I’m no savant. So when the sound system on the boat was flooded with the dulcet tones and aspirated consonants and that fun “ll” thing, it was a strange amplification into what was purportedly a celebration of advances in quiet.

And beneath the (presumably) ceremonial speeches, lauding of the ship’s specs, and the honorific-laden congratulations for a job well done, was a haze of small talk and business chatter. If the engine noise were no longer going to scare off the whales, then all the chewing and the tech and finance talk certainly would.

Then, from in the distance came an odd sound like the buzzing of a model airplane’s engines. From behind the fog appeared a surveillance drone—one of the helicoptery-lookin’ ones. Eventually, one of the important-looking men, a partner on the project, said: “Oh, that’s ours.” Luckily this was stated in English—otherwise I might’ve assumed we were being spied on by something other than a corporation.

The remainder of the hour-long trip went smoothly. I was blast-chilled by arctic winds. I got some incredible views of Skjálfandi and the grey-blue horizon of the North Atlantic. I ate a bunch of chicken-on-a-stick, and snuck some desserts into a different pocket for later. In short, I felt alive.

In the expanse of Skjálfandi, I saw in vista what this electric vessel project was all about—what was so worth being preserved. I even got to see the PM of Iceland plug a car into a boat, which is just as weird as it sounds. But wouldn’t you know it—I didn’t see any whales.

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