Whenever you talk whale watching in Iceland, you hear the stories about Húsavík. It is not atypical to come across the blue whale on the tours there, and their hit rate of spotting a whale 99% of the time is oft-quoted. As people genuinely interested in the most massive animals on the planet, we had been planning a trip to Gentle Giants and Húsavík for months.
The first thing we should report is this: we didn’t see whales. An unusual cold front entered the harbour and has had a curious affect on the local whale population—by the time this goes to print, the front will most likely have passed, and the whales will once again be feeding in the Skálfandi harbour.
There are two whale-watching companies in Húsavík, and we’ve heard good things about both, but we were particularly impressed with Gentle Giants. For one thing, our captain, Jón, didn’t panic when we didn’t see whales. A Simpsons-style sea captain, he explained the weather problem, and then guided us past thousands of puffins and sea birds. In fact, seeing those absurd birds crash out of the waves and circle toward their cliffs would have been worth the trip on its own. Add to that the fact the Húsavík and its surrounding area, with a quaint town against somehow docile cliffs motif, make for some great scenery.
Three hours at sea would have been fine. But our captain had other ideas. After briefly making one more attempt to track down some dolphins, he pocketed his pipe and reached for fishing poles.
“You guys like sport fishing?” he said, handing us each a rod, then promptly emasculating us by showing us how to hold them.
As it turned out, all you need to know how to do when fishing in Húsavík is hold on to the pole.
In fifteen minutes, we had a tub of five cod, and two pollocks. In addition, we had enjoyed the truly surreal experience of watching Captain Jón yank a small cod from a line, look it in the eye, spit in its mouth, and throw it back in the water. His eventual explanation was that he was telling the cod not to tell his friends about us, which made sense.
With a massive take of fish, we headed back to the harbour feeling somewhat productive, if embarrassed at the size of our take with so little effort. The odd thing about cod, they are handsome and tasty, but they are suicidal. They tended to dig into the hooks as soon as they hit the water, and their approach to finding out they were being reeled in was in the I’ve-had-a-good-run school of thought.
From the boat we were told that our cod would be prepared at the local Salka restaurant. We would have thirty minutes to wait for our suicidal fish to hit the plate, so we made a run for the Húsavík Whale Museum.
I have visited with the creator of the Húsavík Whale Museum, Ásbjörn Björgvinsson, a Time Magazine 2003 Hero, a few times. His creativity, his use of local resources, and his ability to educate and capture the imagination is remarkable. On this visit, in addition to two new whale skeletons, and a gorgeous new display on whale evolution, I couldn’t help noting other small environmentally-friendly ideas he came up with, for example the idea of using broken wine bottles in a frame as a kind of stained glass display.
On the topic of cetacea, or whales, you can learn about the local history with whales going back more than 100 years, about strandings, and about whale hunting. On this subject, Björgvinsson can’t help himself. Even though we are only stopping by to see the new attractions, he reminds us how inconceivable Iceland’s whaling policy is. “The government is subsidizing the whaling industry, while the whale watching industry, which makes money and is hurt by whaling, gets nothing,” he points out, among many other poignant complaints.
As an activist, Björgvinsson is tireless and obviously deserved his Time mention. Whatever your thoughts on whaling, the museum is an outstanding public service.
After too short a visit at the Húsavík Whale Museum, we head off to the oldest structure in town, the Salka restaurant. I already knew that Salka was a respected restaurant that serves the full range of cuisine, from lobster and fresh cod to pizza, and that it gets visits from Akureyri on a regular visit. But I had never done the restaurant the service of sampling the local cod. Having done that, having tasted cod thirty minutes after it was caught prepared in a light saffron sauce, I can say that I will never eat anything but that meal at Salka.
My travelling companion openly stated what we have always been afraid to say in Iceland, “I didn’t know cod had any taste before this.”
Yes, Americans and Brits have been evil in making fish sticks out of these animals. When not overdone or over-seasoned, these swimming buffets taste like a light, giant scallop.
Our friends at Kaldbaks-kot cottages, a group of farmhouses where we kept our home base during our Húsavík visit, gave us a map of sites we had to get to. Our visit at Kaldbaks-kot was so nice, complete with hot tub looking over a 12:30 am sunset, that we wanted to follow all their advice.
Fleeing Húsavík, we couldn’t help feeling guilty about one line of dialogue from our visit, “You have to go to the Phallological Museum. It is the only one in the world, you know.”
Yes, we would go.
“I’ve been there. Great stuff, great stuff,” I said, having written about Sigurður Hjartansson and his remarkable collection of penises before.
As it turned out, though, driving past the enormous phallus that greets visitors to the museum, we just couldn’t convince ourselves to go in.
“Just tell people there’s a big collection of schlongs. They’ll get the idea,” my friend said.
Husavík Whale Museum
Kaldbaks-kot Cottages and Guesthouses Husavík,
Icelandic Phallological Museum
Suzuki jeep used in travels provided by Cheap Jeeps,
www.geysir.is. Phone: 893-4455, Njarðvík. There will be an extended discussion on driving Iceland in the next issue.
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