We land at Húsavík’s tiny airport and step out into a brisk, frosty morning. In contrast with the short, grey autumn of Reykjavík, where the peak of Esja sits under a first icing-sugar dusting of light snow, the mountains of north Iceland are already gleaming, glossy and white. The line where the snow ends is so straight it could have been drawn with a ruler; every morning of our stay in the town, it will visibly inch down towards ground level.
The airport is 11 kilometres from the town, in the crook of the wide, windblown Skjálfandi bay. We wait for the short luggage belt to grind into action, looking up taxi numbers for a ride into town. As suitcases start to appear, a young local woman standing behind us overhears us and offers a ride. Before we know it, we’ve hopped into her car and we’re on the way. She’s training to be a nurse and is based in Húsavík with her family. She recommends that we go whale watching—although, she says, the season is coming to an end.
Giant red suits
After checking into our comfortable, minimalist room at the local Fosshotel, we take a walk around the quaint seaside town. There’s an entire little village dedicated to whale watching on Húsavík’s marina, with ticket offices, huts, and various piers and walkways leading up onto old-school wooden fishing boats and modern inflatable speed boats bobbing in the rippling ocean.
We’re booked with Gentle Giants, a firm that started in 2001 when eleven locals banded together to restore a wooden-hulled fishing boat for whale watching in the bay. Today, there are all sorts of options on offer, from the sedate fishing boat tours, to a RIB speed boat tour. We’re booked on the latter, and we pull on huge red boiler suits to protect us from the cold, our host and guide offers around seasickness medicine. “It’s been very choppy for the last few days,” he says. “It was so windy, we couldn’t even go out. But we were out this morning, and we had some luck.”
We load onto the boat and each person gets a saddle-like standing seat, with handlebars to hang onto. We soon see why: the RIB boat bounces over the waves as we speed out to sea. People squeal as spray and seafoam fly overhead; Húsavík vanishes behind us over the rolling waves, and the rough, snow-capped mountains loom ever closer.
Whale watching, it turns out, is something of a group effort. As we bob around in the bay, our host explains over the crackling speakers that we should look out for the plume of water made when a whale surfaces to breathe; if one is spotted, we should shout out where, by the hands of the clock. Soon, a Belgian couple sitting at the prow scream out “Eleven o’clock!” The engine revs, and we zoom towards the sighting.
At this point, I’ll admit that I’m a whale-watching sceptic. I’ve lived in Iceland for almost six years, and have never once been tempted to go. The appeal of floating around on the cold ocean to catch a glimpse of a dorsal fin, and maybe a tail, eluded me.
But suddenly, as we’re speeding along right above a humpback whale, I break out into a wide grin. The whale’s huge bulk glides just under the surface; we can make out the immense fins and the texture of its skin as it speeds gracefully through the water. It surfaces again, sending a huge spout of water over the boat, and arches its back; its giant grey tail rears up out of the water, metres high, and then it’s gone, plunging deep into the ocean.
Over the course of the next hour, we stalk this whale, and see several others, with various boats buzzing around trying not to crowd each other. The whales, we’re told, aren’t disturbed by the human presence, and can actually be playful and curious. As we finally turn back, I admit to my companion that it was a more enjoyable and eye opening experience than I could have imagined.
After warming up with some seafood soup on the harbour, we go for a look around the town’s museums. There’s an excellent whale museum with huge, complete whale skeletons hanging in the space—all of which were beached, not hunted—and videos of whales singing, swimming, and manoeuvring gracefully under the surface. A wall diagram shows the evolution of whales, and there’s a room dedicated to the history of Iceland’s thankfully all-but extinct whaling industry.
Just up the street is the Exploration Museum, which examines mankind’s exploration of extremes, whether it’s early geographical exploration, space, the deep sea, or the poles. The museum is closed, but a sign tells us the reason—it’s the weekend of the annual Explorers Festival, which is taking place around the corner.
We arrive at the town museum having, sadly, missed a talk about the founding of an Icelandic Space Agency, and covering NASA’s continued use of Iceland as a habitat analogue for testing new equipment.
We do, however, catch an hour-long talk by David Concannon, who recounts the tale of being tasked by Jeff Bezos with finding the Apollo F-1 engines that propelled man to the moon for the first time. The engines were jettisoned during flight, and lost on the ocean floor—it took a huge operation to find and retrieve them. But David succeeded, and they’re now on display at the Seattle Museum of Flight in the United States. Clive Oppenheimer also speaks, giving a layman’s account of his thirteen field seasons spent studying Mount Erebus, a perpetually active volcano in Antarctica, and his theories about how lava systems work.
It’s an unexpected cherry on the cake of this trip to hear adventurers like these discussing their travels and travails. The sleepy village of Húsavík, it’s safe to say, has more to it than meets the eye, both at sea, and on dry land.
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