No sooner had I started to settle into my seat than the pilot announced he was commencing the descent. The twenty-five minute flight south from Reykjavík to Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands, doesn’t allow much time to enjoy the view of Iceland’s coastline and the fifteen islands that make up the Westman Islands archipelago. But, that’s just enough time to get a sense of the natural beauty that the islands have to offer. Their relative remoteness means that the options for getting there are limited, but we were assured that we had opted for the most convenient.
By the time we arrived on Heimaey, the cold, cloudy weather experienced in Reykjavík had cleared up. We were met at the airport by Alfreð “Alli” Alfreðsson, the driver of the local tour company who we would spend the day travelling with, and taken to the town, a mere two minutes away. There we were met by Sigurmundur Einarsson, the owner of the tour company and a local restaurant. He somewhat apologetically explained that he was recovering from the annual celebration of the end of the volcanic eruption on Heimaey, held at the restaurant the previous night.
A Fiery History
The Westman Islands were formed by submarine volcanic eruptions between 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. The islands take their name from the Irish slaves (“West Men”) who fled to the island from the mainland during the 11th century. At 13.4 km², Heimaey is the largest of the 15 islands. While it is the only island in the group populated by humans, the other islands, spread over an area of 1,000 kms², serve as a nesting place for numerous birds including the puffin and seagull.
In 1973, a massive volcanic eruption prompted the evacuation of the 5,000-strong population to the mainland and caught the attention of the international media. During the eruption, 1,000°C lava was shot up hundreds of metres into the air causing a wall of fire and 1.5 million tons of ash to fall on the town, eventually covering one third of its houses. Remarkably, no one lost their life during the eruption but one man later died from smoke inhalation. During the 5 months that the eruption lasted, there was uncertainty whether the island would be fit for resettlement. Eventually, around two thirds of the original population returned to rebuild the town. Judging from the conversations we had with the locals, the events of 1973 are still firmly etched into the minds of those who experienced them.
After 20 years in the banking business, Einarsson decided to move into tourism, the island’s second largest industry after fishing. His sun and wind burnt face is testimony to the many years spent outdoors – something that comes with running your own tour company. Not that he’s complaining: “It’s the best thing about the job,” he beams.
Einarsson tells us that, like most island communities, Heimaey is tight-knit. The “justgive- us-a-call-if-you-need-something” mentality along with the “healthy and laid-back lifestyle” are just two reasons why he’d never leave the place. As the captain and boat tour guide, he spends most of his time “in the nature”, so don’t even get him started talking about the island’s natural beauty.
“You can find places like this elsewhere but not all in the one place,” he explains of the island’s diverse landscape. “Everything is in a 5 to 15 minute distance.” While he is also alluding to the size of the island (it’s small enough to explore by foot), I wonder what the mainlanders think about this place. If the mainland is affectionately referred to as “the rock” (admittedly, mostly by foreigners) then, what can be said of Heimaey?
Sitting on the picnic bench outside the front of his café, he tells us that, like other small towns in Iceland, children move to Reykjavík to attend university, get used to the faster-paced life, and generally don’t return. As for the rest of the population, he estimates that they make around 8 to 10 trips to the capital each year, mainly to do some shopping, visit the tax office and so forth.
Talking to Einarsson, you get a sense of the tension between Westman Islanders and the mainlanders. It’s a case of being foremost a Westman Islander, then an Icelander, he explains. And his sentiment is shared.
“Icelanders [from the mainland] come here and act like they’re millionaires. You just can’t do that here – people would know,” he says. And it seems some Icelanders have an equally contentious opinion of the inhabitants of the small island. Either way, you certainly can’t complain about a lack of friendliness among the locals here.
We wander the harbour before embarking on a boat tour of the island. Small colourful fishing boats line the pontoons where the stench of fresh fish immediately infiltrates one’s nose. Steep black volcanic rock cliffs that rise abruptly from the calm blue-green ocean act as a backdrop to the small harbour. A hut used by puffin hunters and egg collectors during the summer can be seen on the cliff tops in the distance. The ropes that hang down off of the cliffs are a reminder of the community’s tradition of collecting puffin eggs.
Heimaey has been one of Iceland’s main fishing centres since the country was settled in 874. Although the Westman Islands still provide about 15% of the export value of fish in Iceland, the industry is not what it used to be. The two fish processing factories that line the harbour area haven’t been used in 20 years. Today, because the ships are larger and more advanced, processing takes place on the ships themselves. “The fishing industry is in trouble but at least here they try to buy more quota and new boats with the money they make,” Einarsson says.
The puffin is undoubtedly Heimaey’s most famous inhabitant and, for some, the island’s main attraction. It seems most of the businesses on the island – from the local bar to the guesthouse – have tuned into the popularity of its little feathered friend and use the puffin on their logo. The bird is even featured on the town’s street signs.
There are around 40 million puffins in the North Atlantic and apparently around 30 % of them live on the Westman Islands during the summer months, making it the largest puffin colony in the world.
Because the birds aren’t exactly in short supply, some of the island’s residents supplement their summer-income by hunting puffins. At the harbour we met a man dressed in a one-piece waterproof suit and armed with a long net. He told us that he was off to catch some lundi or puffins – and he was in a hurry. The hunting season only lasts for a couple of months, but he claims during that time he will catch around 5,000 birds. With not a second to lose, he jumps in his rubber ducky and heads off. His fresh catch will probably be served, roasted or smoked, at one of the local restaurants this evening.
We boarded the small boat along with 15 others and headed off on what would be a detailed tour of the island’s coastline. We passed the bay where Keiko the killer whale was released after starring in the 1998 movie Free Willy.
The tall rocky cliffs that rise up into the mist are home to hundreds of nesting seagulls. Why they choose such a seemingly inconvenient place to lay their eggs is anyone’s guess. Einarsson, who guides the tour and captains the boat, tells us that on a warm, sunny day, the cliffs can reach up to 40ºC – not so great for the eggs, apparently.
We sail past “the windiest place in Europe”, according to our guide. “The starting point of a hurricane is 75 knots, but the wind here can reach up to 110,” he says. And in 1991, the waves rose to 22 metres, leaving fish stranded on the cliffs, one local recollects.
Thankfully, during our trip, the notoriously strong wind was non-existent and the ocean, calm. Yet that didn’t prevent some of us from feeling a little queasy out on the water. At that point, I remembered that we were actually on a 90 minute tour of the entire circumference of the island.
Before returning to the harbour, we sailed into a small cave known as “Cliff Cave” hollowed out by the waves. Apparently, the place is known for its great acoustics and Einarsson, keen to demonstrate another of his talents, gets out his saxophone to play a few tunes.
Later, we take another tour of the island – this time by land. Our guide “Alli” takes us to Eldfell or “Fire Mountain”, a 225 metre high hill created by the 1973 eruption. The still steaming lava under the rich brown soil is still warm enough to bake bread. It’s also here where the best view of the lava field (where houses, now covered by the lava, once stood), the harbour and town below, is to be found – the perfect way to wrap up a visit to this scenically impressive island.
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