Friday, June 15, 2012

Welcome To Iceland—Fell Again!!!

Map picture

Lisa and I had been to Iceland on previous voyages, but I have to tell you that in the last two days, we have seen parts of this beautiful country that we never even knew existed. In the process, we have taken a boat ride on the largest glacial lake in the world, held and tasted 1,000 year old glacial ice, seen some amazing glaciers, and just when we thought it could not get any better, today we saw a large puffin colony, navigated into an incredibly small harbor nearly closed by a lava flow, then we visited an area where over half of the village was lost to lava, and finally, as if we needed anything else, we saw Orca whales, and followed them for some time, getting some good photographs in the process. Wow, and then some!

Let me back up and start from the beginning. Our first landfall in Iceland was at the small remote fishing village of Hofn on the Southeast coast. Indeed, I would venture a guess that the entire town of Hofn was composed of no more than 50 buildings, but as we drove for almost two hours east of the town, we saw along the way many large farmsteads with the farms usually built into clusters of perhaps 3 to 5 large family homes. The population of this small community overall is listed at being 1,641.

The reason for visiting this area was to see the largest ice cap in Europe, Vatnajokull. The glacier is the largest in Iceland, and covers 8% of the country. The views along our ride were magnificent, and while it was not a sunny day there were holes in the clouds which allowed the sun to hit the ice from time to time and to produce a breathtaking panorama.Hofn, Lake Jokulsarlon, Iceland Our first stop was at Jokulsarlon, the large glacial lagoon created by the icecap. Here we boarded “Ducks,” which are large boats on wheels. Once everyone was safely seated, the Duck drove into the lake, where it then became a small boat which then cruises the lake.Hofn, Lake Jokulsarlon, Iceland We actually got to touch some of the large ice blocks, and at one point the boat stops in order that our guide could chop off a large piece to show us. Afterwards, he broke the ice into small pieces and then passed them around so that we each could touch 1,000 year old frozen water. It would make a great ice cube for my Johnnie Walker!

From the glacial lake, we stopped by a local farm that had just recently opened a hotel and restaurant; here we took a break and had a traditional Icelandic lunch. Hofn, IcelandWell, I enjoyed the break, but even though I tried, I could not eat what was offered – and I might add, many of our group felt the same.

After lunch, I decided to go see if there were some great photographic spots, so I walked out the back door and down three steps to a landing and “BOOM!” I fell on my new camera’s lens, my knee, and my right shoulder. The landing had a step-down that had blended into each other so I had not seen it. There I was again sprawled-out on the ground, and I could not get up! The only person to see me like this was Lisa, who just happened to be coming out another door. Lucky for me she could help me get up! Perhaps I should carry that walking stick all the time. Finally we all got back on the bus and drove into a mountain viewpoint that offered spectacular vistas – so, what a way to end an 8 hour day of adventure.

Today dawned bright and sunny which was a wonderful contrast to the almost constant overcast that has plagued us for so many days. I had heard that our arrival was quite difficult and a “must see” if you were willing to get up early. So, I arrived on the bridge, just as the pilot was boarding the ship. Vestmannaeyjar, IcelandWe were going to enter the perfectly formed natural harbor that exists on the island of Heimaey. The island is spotted with volcanoes, and indeed in 1973, a violent eruption occurred that eventually led to the population on the island being evacuated. Over half of the small town was buried under tons of ash, in much the same manner as in Pompeii, but more importantly the huge lave flows threatened to completely close the harbor entrance which would have doomed the island economically. An international effort was undertaken to save the harbor by spraying large amounts of cold water onto the molten lava in an attempt to stop it from flowing over the harbor entrance. The effort was successful; however, it has made the entrance into the harbor quite a challenge. Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland

It was fascinating to see how our little ship just barely made it through the harbor channel while on both sides of the ship we had towering cliffs. Once in the harbor itself, our ship had to turn around, and I have no doubt that we must be the largest vessel that could be allowed, because it was nip and tuck to perform the maneuver, and to dock safely. Of course, I have come to expect that our Captain makes even the most difficult situation look easy, and this morning was no exception. Once docked, we set out on a three hour tour of the island, which in the bright sunlight offered some very pretty scenery. The island is home to some 4,500 people. We stopped first and briefly at a cliff-side where young islanders are taught the tradition of rope swinging along the cliff. A young high school student was on the cliff to demonstrate for us. Next, we entered a gigantic valley where there are ruins of an old farmhouse dating back to 650AD. Vestmannaeyjar, IcelandOf course the valley is also home to a large amphitheater where islanders come once a year for a music festival and celebration. It is also home to an 18 hole golf course. We made some additional stops at various viewpoints, including one where we all walked for some distance to the cliff edge in order to see thousands of puffins nesting on the nearby Cliffside. Finally we toured the new part of the island created by the volcano of 1973, and saw first-hand how the islanders worked to reclaim their city from the mountain of ash that had descended on it. The results are nothing short of miraculous.

We boarded our ship in a rush for an early departure which would allow us to cruise around the newly created island of Surtsey. Born in 1963 by another volcanic eruption out at sea, the island today is off limits to everyone except authorized researchers. In fact our ship was not allowed to approach closer than one mile to the island, in order to protect this fragile environment. Near Vestmannaeyjar, IcelandSurtsey offers a unique opportunity for scientists to learn how newly formed and completely barren land eventually becomes home to plants, insects and animals, all of which have managed to show up on the island already. We were to sail completely around the island when suddenly the loudspeakers throughout the ship announced that a family of Orca whales had been spotted in front of the vessel, and that the Captain was turning our ship to intercept them. Indeed, the Captain did a great job, and we were able to observe these creatures for almost 30 minutes before they disappeared. It was a male and female, accompanied by a much smaller animal, which we assume was the young member of the family. Near Vestmannaeyjar, IcelandInitially they put on quite a show, at one point even jumping into the air. However, by the time I got to the upper deck they were just moving along. In any case, I shot over 700 pictures today between the puffins and whales, and so the posting of the blog and pictures will obviously take a little more time. Near Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland

Tonight marks the end of the second cruise of our three cruise odyssey. Tomorrow the ship docks in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. Those of us who are continuing on are taking a 4 hour city tour while the crew conducts a “turn around.”

Since our next cruise will be headed north, we have been alerted to the fact that eventually we will not have internet service, so if you do not hear from me for a while, do not be concerned.

I hope everyone is well;


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