Note: Gamlaeyri is extremely hazardous, and unreachable by regular car or hiking. Low tide is a short window, as the sea floor floods rapidly. We reached the whale stranding at Gamlaeyri on a bespoke tour from superjeep.is.
The uninhabited sand island of Gamlaeyri is a dangerous place to reach. The name of this slender spit of land translates as “Old Sand Bank” and it’s only accessible at low tide when the ocean between mainland and island recedes to expose the sea floor. In Icelandic, this geographic phenomenon is called a kelda, a temporary estuary where sea and freshwater rivers snake across the exposed seabed. The sea floor itself is soft and difficult terrain, devoid of much flora or fauna, save for thousands of lugworms’ fecal-cast sand mounds and the occasional kelp-covered rock jutting from the damp sand.
It’s far from the tourist trail and seldom visited by locals. However, this obscure spot became the subject of intense attention around July’s full moon when a helicopter pilot discovered 53 pilot whales stranded on Gamlaeyri’s shore.
We embark on the two-hour drive from Reykjavík to Gamlaeyri a few days later. At the nearby farm of Stóra-Hraun, we stop to chat with two girls in broken Icelandic and English. Their grandfather, they say, owns the farm. A puppy ambles over and scrambles up into the front seats. The girls gesture to their grandfather, who walks towards us, and we drive up to meet him, with the puppy still in the car.
Kristján Arilíusson, his son (and, today, translator) Arilíus, and his granddaughters Anna Jóna and Máney offer to accompany us to Gamlaeyri as guides. Kristján will bring his tractor in case we get stuck. An Icelandic news agency bogged their vehicle the day before, so he’s had some recent experience.
Fast and fast
Sure enough, we get stuck. Kristján pulls us out and determines that our vehicle shouldn’t make the trek. He strategises other ways we could get there. An ATV crew is nearby, but they have other plans; the rescue team Björgunarsveit would share its vehicle, for a fee—but not today. The tractor wouldn’t make it.
Máney and Anna Jóna excitedly combine Icelandic and English to explain the minute unfoldings of the plans. “You must go fast, fast, or you get… fast,” they urge. “Fast” in Icelandic means “stuck,” so it takes time to parse the bilingual explanation. The girls are fantastic interpreters, though, and it’s soon agreed to that we’ll return the next day with a better ride to attempt the kelda crossing.
Over the sea floor
After a few phone calls it turns out that Sigurjón “Síó” Fjeldsted from Superjeep.is is up for the trip. An experienced guide since the early 1980s, this will be his first journey to Gamlaeyri.
We return to Stóra-Hraun in the morning, receiving a warm welcome from the family. Anna Jóna introduces us to a four-week-old puppy, and Kristján fortifies our coffee with whisky. In high spirits, we climb into the modified super jeep and trundle down to the shoreline.
Low tide is a short window, as the sea floor floods rapidly. Driving at a brisk pace, the vehicle handles the kelda nimbly, splashing through rivers and jostling over washboard sand. Once on the island, the jeep careens over sand dunes. A sunning of cormorants, 300 members strong, takes wing from a distant point on the island. As we drive, Kristján offers Síó directions to navigate the dunes and the shoreline’s quicksand. The knowledge of our guide ensures we cross the island fast, without getting stuck.
Pregnant with death
We arrive to the harrowing sight of 53 whales perched atop sand dunes, 200 m from the shoreline. The first whale appears half-buried in the sand on our left as we drive. Then two more, to the right. The remaining 50 whales extend in a long line, tightly grouped together, some bodies overlapping each other. Either side of the group is flanked by three male whales, with a grouping of females in the centre. A few calves lay farther inland, their small bodies pushed away from the group by the tide. Almost in the centre lies a whale who was giving birth, her calf half-emerged from the amniotic sac.
Having flown to Gamlaeyri with lightweight planes, several Fisfélag pilots and their guests walk solemnly through the mass gravesite. A few people on all-terrain motorcycles arrive, followed by Gamlaeyri and Litla-Hraun’s landowner, Þorgrímur Leifsson, who has come to collect his hvalreki.
Elsewhere on the island, birds flock en masse—but not here. The gravesite is eerily devoid of life. The whales themselves are partly buried under ribbed dunes, in early stages of decomposition; their skins peel in long rubber sheets, and some show signs of internal gas build-up. Some have already exploded.
If this occurred closer to human habitats in Iceland, authorities would bury or remove the whales. On Gamlaeyri, though, “the sand will bury the whales,” Arilíus says. “Nature.”
A colleague comments that the scene at Gamlaeyri is “anthroposcenic,” riffing on the proposed geologic epoch of the Anthropocene, where evidence of humans as a geologic force is now evident worldwide. Several hypotheses for mass strandings involve man-made causes, including Persistent Organic Pollutants, and increased mackerel abundance due to climate change.
Anthroposcenic tourism is gruesome tourism. Disaster tourism.
The idiom for “windfall” in Icelandic is “hvalreki,” which translates as “whale drift.” In previous centuries, beached whales provided food and other necessities for Iceland’s inhabitants. Due to high levels of mercury and PCBs in blubber, pilot whales no longer prove as health-sustaining for humans as they had earlier in the country’s history.
Still, in Icelandic law, the discovery of a beached whale on one’s property gives the landowner the right to decide what to do with the whale. The night before, Þorgrímur received the proposition from a jewellery maker to purchase the teeth of the whales. Today, he uses a hacksaw, hammer, and crowbar to remove the jaws of several whales.
The flight club leaves. We observe, and then leave the landowner to finish his grim business.
Each pilot whale has a grey patch along its throat, shaped like an anchor.
The whales remain.
Some of us came to witness. Some to mourn. Some to document and report. Some to collect hvalreki. All leave with death indelibly printed on the mind.
Read more about this whale stranding here.
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