Iceland’s Wild Encounters

Sadly, we knew we were going to miss Aurora Borealis for we were in Iceland at the wrong time of the year.

But we were at the right time of the year for whales! We were very much hoping for some whales sightings up in Húsavík but weren’t sure with so few tourists around that any boats would run.

Many hotels and restaurants on our way north were still closed and so were the tourist information centers. It was the first week of the country’s post-COVID international reopening and there were only a handful of tourists joining a few of the brave Icelanders exploring their own, suddenly empty country.

So when we arrived on day 5 in the late afternoon to the charming little Húsavík,

the first thing we did was drive to the port and look for whale watching agencies. We found two and right next to each other, but both closed.

Luckily the receptionist at the hotel was sure there were two possible tours the next day and gave us the information.

“You gotta take the rib boat,” said the waitress at the restaurant where we ordered some salted cod for dinner. “That’s the way to get really close to the whales. Trust me, my dad started whale watching in the next town over. If you don’t see any whales tomorrow here in Húsavík drive to Akureyri and look for a cranky old man walking around the port.”

Luckily we didn’t have to. Our blue rib boat (Rigid Inflatable Boat) delivered! And then some. Alleluia, indeedy!

First it made a short stop by an island with thousands of nesting Atlantic puffins. Puffins mate for life, but only produce one baby puffin a year. They share their parenting duties equally, taking turns sitting on the egg and then feeding the new chick fresh fish. Puffins are awfully cute in their clumsiness. Their bodies are too heavy and their wings too small, perfect for propelling underwater, but a big challenge to start a flight with.

Sorry, my iPhone could barely get a photo of a giant whale, so you will have to make do with this Viking puffin mural.

We have done quite some whale watching around the world from Alaska to South Africa and you know, it is never really like in the National Geographic specials with whales pirouetting through the air and all. There is a lot of staring at the horizon, scanning for the telltale spray of spouting air and water.

And sometimes, despite all the effort and expense you come up empty-handed, like when we crisscrossed the Bremer Bay in Western Australia looking for killer whales. Read on, Iceland was a luckier place for those, too.

The Humpback whales might be big, but they are swift and mostly one will only see their top part with the dorsal fin.

Or the fluke waving goodbye.

Click for the wave

Of course it is always exciting to meet the giants of the sea. And indeed the recommendation was correct, you come sooo close to them in a rib boat, especially when they decide to swim underneath it. No Moby Dick moment that, just pure awe.

Click for video

As we disembarked excited about our morning adventure with humpbacks I complimented a German man on his giant photo telelens. “This was cool,” he then said, “but nothing compared to the spectacular orca trip I just did in Ólafsvík.“

Unbeknownst to us we were heading towards it as we planned to spend a few days on Snæfellsness peninsula. The peninsula being relatively small, we uncharacteristically decided to book the same accommodations for two nights. And what a location we found, just around the corner from the waterfalls.

Half jump only due to some back issues!

It was a simple modern cottage on a sheep farm with an unobstructed view

of Iceland’s most famous and most photographed mountain Kirkjufell (= Church Mountain), also featured in Game of Thrones series as the Arrow Mountain.

Here I went (photographically) batshit crazy. I wandered over the moors at all hours of night and day, crouching, climbing, and slipping.

Only horses witnessed my folly.

Ah, Icelandic horses! They might be domesticated and actually treated as part of the family, but they really are quite wild, as they spend their entire lives outside, rain or shine (and snow and ice). You know my love of horses and my riding adventures around the world, and yet, somehow, I didn’t really think much of horses when thinking of Iceland. They are kinda small and stocky, right? No noble steeds to ride on…

Oh, how wrong I was! One look at the horses by the side of the road and I fell madly in love with them. They are absolutely beautiful.

Even Mirek fell under the equine spell, and had a special soft spot for the “blondies”, as he called the unusual combo of brown coats and blond horsehair.

There are 80,000 horses on Iceland and they are each and every one different. The Icelandic horse is one of the most colourful breeds in the world. It has over 40 colours and up to 100 variations.

And they are all purely Icelandic as no foreign horse is allowed to come to the island and once an Icelandic horse leaves, he can never return. They are also intelligent, sturdy, fast and incredibly friendly. Whenever I would come close they would all crowd around seeking close contact unabashedly.

I had a wonderful stroke of luck finding Finnsstadir, (https://www.finnsstadir.is) a small farm close to the East Iceland town of Egilsstadir. The minute I called to arrange a ride, the voice on the other side felt like my kind of horse friend. It turned out that Helga

Helga on her white steed

chose her best horses for our ride and we were instant fun riding companions. Halfway through our ride, she let me switch horses with her, so I could have an added experience of riding not one but two fantastic Icelandic horses.

I knew that the horses of Iceland are a so-called gaited horse breed. This means that most Icelandic horses have at least one if not two extra gaits to offer besides walk, trot and canter/gallop. These are called tölt and flying pace. I had no idea how to get the horses into those gaits, but I needn’t have worried at all. They were so excited to be out for a ride that they just leaped into the tölt and then flying pace. What a fabulous new experience for an old rider. I found tölt so much more smooth and pleasant than trot, but I still prefer galloping to flying pace. And gallop we did any chance we had with a few little snack breaks in between.

I could see how these marvelous horses were more than a sure footed transport for man and cargo in Viking times and beyond. They were cherished companions and were often buried in a grave with their owner to accompany him in the afterlife.

If ever I was crazy enough to own a horse it could only be an Icelandic horse.

Helga had some other farm animals to enjoy, cute baby ducklings and two smart piglets and an orphaned lamb, who followed us around and wanted to play.

But the most wonderful surprise in store was two tiny Arctic fox cubs. Unfortunately, their mother was killed by a hunter, we were told, because he would get paid per tail by Icelandic government. While not critically endangered, beautiful Arctic foxes, the only native mammal in Iceland, are declining in numbers.

They are very hard to spot in the wild and we felt so very lucky to be able to hold these furry balls.

Taking advice from our fellow German whale watcher we headed to Ólafsvik and he was so right on all fronts. We got lucky with Laki Tours. https://lakitours.com/our-tours/whale-watching-olafsvik/

They took us to orca paradise.

Click on triplets video

As soon as we headed out there were orcas of all sizes everywhere.

Moms with babies to ooh and ahh over.

Big males to admire.

Different groups of orcas were forming feeding circles, accompanied by frenzied seaguls scooping up the scraps.

Iceland is the country where most (55) whales were taken from the wild to captivity so humans could admire them and be entertained by their tricks and jumps.

The famous whale Keiko from Free Willy movie was also captured in Iceland and after a long, difficult journey in captivity returned to the wild sea waters of Iceland. Unfortunately, he could not reintegrate and died a year later. I still feel terribly guilty that we took our young kids to SeaWorld to see orcas perform and so happy to know this practice has now ended.

Perhaps not as showy as whales, the birds of Iceland were ever present in huge quantities in any body of water. Ducks, geese, terns, and auks were everywhere, while the national bird called Gyrfalcon, the apex predator of the sky, remained elusive. What was especially lovely was the amount of young paddling behind their parents or even riding on their backs.

Common Snipes make the strangest buzzing bleating noise when courting

You might be getting tired of us regularly bemoaning the fact that we are no educated bird watchers, but we do try to improve. To that goal we visited the spectacular Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum’s interactive display at Myvatn.

It contains a specimen of all of the Icelandic breeding birds, with the exception of just one. No dusty vitrines here, fabulous, attractive, and painstaking work.

There we met a little visiting girl of nine years of age who knew ALL the names of the birds and who showed us a nest with little chicks under the eaves. So much for not feeling inadequate in our bird knowledge.

Can you spot the three yellow beaks?

Lake Myvatn is one of the well know birding areas and here are two more: Vestrahorn mountain

and the Dyrhólaey cliffs

But really, birds of over 370 species are everywhere. They are not always happy for visitors intruding into their territory. And rightly so. One night as I was roaming around in the light of the midnight sun I must have come too close to the nesting ground of a tern couple and they started dive-bombing me. I made my way away as quickly as I could and they followed me a good way off to make sure I would not turn back. Another time on one of my forays I came across four dead geese on a small beach. I asked around and nobody knew what could have caused their demise.

As a last surprise discovery let us share with you this find in the middle if nowhere:

More about Icelandic sharks and the man behind this sign in our next post on the wonderful Icelandic people we met.

24 thoughts on “Iceland’s Wild Encounters

  1. Looks like it was a whale of a time!! amidst the whales, sealife, birds, ponies, horses and green mountains. All very lush..

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  2. We had just gotten in touch when COVID barged in. So happy to read your posts!!! Lori and I were reminiscing about y’all last night…. xo

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  3. Hi you two, May I suggest whale watching closer to home.. The right time of year, Monterey Bay has acrobatic whales who demonstrate feeding circles. And a little farther afield, Bahia Magdalena (Baja CA, again right time of year) where you can see both mothers and babies, but also whale fucking which is usually a threesome and totally spectacularly done mostly on the surface!! Camping on the sand where foxes come to lick the dew off your tent and hours out in boats wandering the Bay AM and PM complete the fun.

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  4. what shall I say? I wanna go. Apparently it is amazing country to travel by bike :)) Never seen whales, so another reason to go. Plus have a friend that is from Iceland. Oh, and I know what my next phone will be 🙂 Cause photos are gorgeous – as always!! I can imagine how difficult it must have been to choose from tons of perfect photos :)))

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