Greetings, readers. If you’re just joining me and planning to read this post, it might be helpful for you to catch up with the first five parts of the trip to Iceland my wife and I took in July 2015. Here they are:
And now, Part 6 . . .
Puffin may be a soporific, because I slept like a baby. It’s also likely that by this point – five nights into the trip – I was finally acclimated to the fact that the night sky never got any darker than a mildly overcast afternoon. Also, Amanda and I had grown adept at MacGyvering the blinds to maximize the gloom, so this convergence of factors meant we were both well-rested as we headed down to the Húsavík waterfront to catch an early boat.
Our whale-watching tour was set to take three hours on Skjálfandi Bay – supposedly one of the richest areas for spotting whales in all of Iceland – and we suited up in our cold-weather waterproof gear. As you can see in the photo to the left, layers were key: T-shirt, Patagonia fleece, REI waterproof jacket, sexy waterproof jumpsuit, and eventually some sort of raincoat. As we pushed out into the bay, our guide, the dashing Norwegian Aksel Bjarnason, filled us in on the geography and history of the area (Flatey Island, home of many, many puffins, was just outside the boundaries of our tour). We were also told we’d likely see humpback and minke whales, and while there were blue whales in the bay, sightings were extremely rare. So we tooled around in our boat, looking for the telltale spray and flocks of sea birds that meant whales were close.
It wasn’t too long before Aksel spotted our first whale. As we had been promised, it was a humpback, the whale breaking the surface and then the stereotypical fin following it back underwater. We cruised in circles for a bit, following the whale and trying to get close enough for photos. Because tourists like annoying animals in their natural habit. It was at this point, though, that near us, maybe 20 feet away and without warning, another whale surfaced just long enough for Aksel to exclaim that we were seeing what few people ever saw: a blue whale.
Look: A photo, especially one taken by an untrained photographer with frozen fingers on a rocking boat, just isn’t going to do the moment justice. But man. There was something truly majestic and awe-inspiring and sort of overwhelming about seeing something so huge, so rare, right there next to us. Part of me wanted to get closer, but part of me also wanted to just leave it alone so it could eat krill or flirt with other whales or whatever a blue whale does when it’s not dodging boats. It finally took a dive and left us to circle for a while longer. We saw a couple more humpbacks, but sorry humpbacks – once you’ve seen a blue whale, you’re a little anticlimactic.
For most of the tour I’d been feeling pretty smug. Earlier I mentioned all my cool layers, and as I saw my fellow whale-watchers shiver in the wind and spray I couldn’t help but feel pretty cozy in my waterproof duds. Even my shoes were waterproof.
Waterproof shoes do you no good when frigid Icelandic water sloshes up over the top of and into your shoe. So, with roughly an hour left before docking, both my feet started to feel distinctly like ice cubes. By the time we returned to Húsavík, I couldn’t flex my toes. We hobbled back to the guesthouse (well, I hobbled; Amanda walked because her feet were fine), and I stripped off my shoes and socks to see feet that had taken on a decidedly purple tint. I’m not sure at what point frostbite sets in, but I had to’ve been close. After soaking them for 20 minutes in warm water, I was finally ready to head back out.
We didn’t have much of an agenda for the rest of the day, so we decided on a detour west to Ásbyrgi canyon. This is another one of those places that photos can’t accurately capture, especially because of the enormity of the location. A huge, horsehoe-shaped depression with steep rock walls and a pond at its base, Ásbyrgi was formed, legend has it, when Odin’s horse rested one of its hooves there. In reality, it was probably caused by glacial flooding, but it’s still pretty spectacular, Odin’s absence notwithstanding.
After Ásbyrgi it was back to Húsavík for dinner at Naustid, a really good seafood restaurant on the waterfront. Funnily enough, this was the restaurant where we had the best service on our trip – probably because our waitress was an expat from New Jersey.
A word or two about guesthouses, since I keep mentioning them. Iceland only has two hotel chains – IcelandAir and Hotel Edda – both of which (and IcelandAir, especially) tend to be overpriced. Most of the affordable lodging is in small guesthouses, basically bed and breakfast deals with maybe a dozen rooms at the most. Here’s our Husavik guesthouse:
They’re not extravagant, but when you’re mainly only using the room for sleeping, extravagance is secondary to a comfy bed. And sometimes you get a cool sitting room right outside your bedroom, like we had in Húsavík.
And, if you’re really lucky, the guesthouse owner will fix you a kick-ass blueberry Skyr tart for breakfast. It ain’t Holiday Inn; it’s better.
Up next: Angus!
The Promise Ring – Nothing Feels Good (1997)