Sunday, June 17, 2012

What A Wonderful World It Is


We have begun the third and final segment of this cruise experience, and in so doing, I thought I might take a moment to focus more on what we are experiencing as opposed to reciting a litany of what we are doing.

Our journey around the Island Nation of Iceland will have taken us from the Southeastern shores, completely around the island in a clockwise circle to the upper Northeast corner before we turn North in our journey to the Arctic region. Iceland is an incredibly beautiful country, although it is very sparsely populated. I was interested to learn that the population of the entire country is only 320,000, and of that, some 220,000 people live in, and around, the capital of Reykjavik. The remainder of the country appears to live mostly around the coast in small villages and farms. By way of example, after leaving Reykjavik, we stopped at the city of Grundarfjordur, IcelandGrundarfjorder, which is home to some 900 people, and today we are putting shore on Virgur Island, Vigur Island, Icelandwhich is home to a single family of ten people.

Something that has absolutely amazed me are the sea birds. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have seen millions of sea birds, of all different species. It seems as if every cliff along the sea is home to thousands of nesting pairs, and the skies are swarming with flying birds as is the ocean itself. When I think about it, I must admit that I cannot recall a single ocean or sea in which I have cruised in which I did not see many birds on the water. Even in the most remote places of the world, there are always birds at sea. For the longest time I always assumed that in seeing birds we must be reasonably close to land, but now I learn that is not the case. Most sea birds spend their entire lives floating on the ocean, only returning to land to mate and raise their young.

Let me share just one example that was discussed last night during our lecture, the beautiful Arctic Tern. Vigur Island, IcelandThis incredibly beautiful bird, once raised, will spend roughly the first seven years of its live at sea. It takes an immature bird approximately that long to mature, at which point, it will return to exactly where it was born to find a mate and to rear its newborn, before once again returning to the sea. The Arctic Tern has a lifespan of roughly 30 years, and it has been proven that young and immature birds will leave the Arctic in the summer and fly all the way to Antarctica for the winter. If you think about that for a moment, it is an unbelievable feat for a small bird which weighs only 120 grams. Terns are very territorial and also very aggressive towards intruders. I did not mention it, but the other day when we were visiting the glacial lake, I walked away for some distance from the group, and noticed that there were thousands of these beautiful birds all around in the grass. At one point, a tern swooped down around me, which I thought was neat, and so I readied my camera to see if I could get a picture of a flying bird. I walked on a little further, and the next thing I knew, I had a sky full of birds, all squawking loudly and swooping lower and lower over my head until they started hitting my head as they dove. I, of course, quickly left the area, and they immediately left me alone. Without knowing it, I had gotten too close to their nesting area, and they were not shy about letting me know that!

The way in which I keep Iceland and Greenland apart in my mind is with the silly phrase “Iceland is green, and Greenland is ice.” That is not too say that Iceland does not have glaciers, because of course it does, but it also has large areas of green grazing lands. Like the Faroe Islands, however, the island is almost devoid of trees. Here again the early inhabitants cut the forests for fuel and building supplies, and today the only trees in sight are those which have been intentionally introduced in an effort to re-populate the landscape.

Another point that is unique about Iceland is that almost all of its heating and electrical needs are met by the use of geothermal energy. Iceland is a very large series of volcanic islands, and there is a great deal of geothermal activity taking place on a constant basis. Engineers have learned how to supply water into the heated ground, and then to claim the boiling water coming back to use in powering electrical generators, and also to heat their buildings.

Finally, I need to comment about Latitudes for those of you who are following us on a map. When we travelled south to Antarctica, the most southern latitude that our vessel was allowed to reach was 65 degrees. To travel past that point required a vessel with an ice hardened hull. At that latitude, we were surrounded by glaciers on all sides, and the outside temperatures were hovering around freezing, even though it was the height of their summer. By contrast, Reykjavik was already at 65 degrees of north latitude, and we will be going north from there. I have heard that we will go up to as much as 80 degrees north. Of course, while I have not mentioned it before, at these latitudes we are experiencing very long days. I do not have it right in front of me, but I believe the sun actually “sets” for roughly 3 hours each evening, but it is never so low that the sky becomes dark. So, it is always light outside at this time of the year. I understand as we go north, we will reach a point where the sun never sets at this time of year, but conversely during the winter, these latitudes experience 24 hours of darkness.

In summary I would call this an extremely beautiful part of the world. If I had the ability and time to rent a car and drive all around the island (which many people do), I believe it would be a wonderful experience, and I would have so many pictures that I would probably never get them organized.

So, the first day of this, our third cruise segment, started in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. The crew and staff of the vessel were all involved in “turn around” activities, in which they say “goodbye” to roughly 100 people and then prepare to welcome aboard 120 new guests. For the group termed “in transit,” the ship offered the twelve of us a four hour city tour. I really do not have much to tell about Reykjavik. It is home to most of the population of the country, and is a modern city. Our tour was a standard city tour – we saw the old parts of town, went to an overlook, drove through the city center, and stopped at the National Museum. Reykjavik, IcelandOn a sidelight, we did stop to see the small home called “Hofdi house” which was the venue for the landmark meeting in 1986 between President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev, which many historians regard as marking “the end of the Cold war.”

On a sad note, the company has suspended the “open Bridge” policy which had been in existence since the ship was introduced four years ago. It is “sad” because our room is right next to the Bridge, and I have really enjoyed going onto the Bridge to observe our arrivals and departures. Oh well, nothing stays the same!

Yesterday, Thursday June 14th, the ship docked at the small town of Grundarfjorour, which is situated on a large peninsula in the west of Iceland. The peninsula is dominated by the Snaefellsjokull Glacier, and the entire area is designated as one of the country’s four National Parks. Grundarfjordur, IcelandWe spent the entire day driving completely around the Glacier. It was an absolutely beautiful day with only a few clouds in the sky. When the sun was out, it was so warm in fact, that I went without my jacket much of the time. From a narrative point of view, there is not much to write about. The bus went from viewpoint to viewpoint, and aside from some beautiful pictures nothing of any note occurred.

So we come to today, Friday June 15th. The ship in the early morning hours traveled up the Isafjaroardjup Fjord, in the West of Iceland. Deep in the Fjord is the charming island of Vigur, which has been home to the same family for generations and is today home to only ten people. The Zodiac ride into the village was over 1nm, and it was a little chilly. By the time we reached the island however, I was pulling off my sweater and eventually my jacket, too. It was a bright sunny day and the sky was a brilliant blue. We were given a 90 minute walk around the island, which is home to millions of nesting birds. Most prevalent were the Arctic Terns, but we saw Puffins, all kinds of ducks, Vigur Island, Icelandand birds I did not even recognize. As we walked, each of us was given a stick to carry which had a blue banner attached on the top, somewhat like a flag. We were to hold these above our heads because we would be crossing the breeding ground of the terns, and as I learned the hard way the other day they can be quite aggressive. The purpose of the stick is not to harm or to hit the bird, but the tern will dive on the highest point. So if we carry the banner above our heads, the terns will dive on the banner and not on our heads; it worked, by golly! It was a fun walk, and at the end, the locals had put up picnic tables where they had coffee and tea and inside some cakes. We went to sit down and relax, and who should already be seated enjoying the sunny day – the Captain, of course. I tell you, this man is everywhere. I had noted shortly after we landed that the entire end of the fjord through which we had entered was completely closed off by a low lying fog bank. One of the team leaders commented that it had formed this morning right after we set down our anchor, and it seemed to be slowly moving in our direction. While we were having coffee, I noticed the Captain take a call, and within seconds, he ran off and took his own Zodiac back to the ship at high speed. Curious, I thought.

Anyway, I was talking to one of the local family members and commented that I guessed they did not have many visitors in a year. Her reply blew me away; she said that last summer they had over 5,000 people come to the island because it is so famous. Each visitor must pay a fee to land so it provides much needed income to the family.

Lisa and I decided to head back to the ship early, and as we got to the jetty, we could see that the fog had suddenly moved much closer, and was filling in the surrounding valley. On the back of the Zodiacs there was a long pole at the end of which was something that looked like a lantern. When I asked what it was, I was told that it was a radar reflector. The fog was moving much more quickly than anticipated and as a precaution, each Zodiac was equipped with a reflector, thus allowing the ship to see them if necessary. We are now safely back onboard, and I can see that they are rounding up the remaining passengers and bringing them back to the ship early as a safety precaution.

This afternoon we have lectures as we cruise towards our last stop in Hjusavik, Iceland. However, everything changed, when during our evening briefing for tomorrow Humpback whales were spotted just a mile from the ship. Everyone left the briefing and quickly grabbed coats and cameras and headed for the open deck, as the Captain turned the ship to intercept the whales. Shortly after we once again got near the herd, a giant humpback jumped clear out of the water in the type of display I have only seen on television. Of course most of us did not have our cameras at the ready yet, so it is a memory we have to take home in our minds, however, over the next hour I got many photographs of the family and several of the giant tails as they slipped back into the water. Yipee!Arctic Area

Our final day in Iceland was on the northern coast, and our ship docked at the small town of Husavik. Husavik Area, IcelandI was certain that I had been to the north coast before, but I did not recognize the town of Husavik, and so I assumed we were in a different region – an assumption that later proved to be false. Virtually all of the passengers, box lunches in hand, set out on a 9 hour tour of this beautiful area. I learned from our guide something that should have been obvious to me before; namely that the entire population of Iceland lives in coastal areas. The center of the country is uninhabitable and constitutes the largest “deserted” region in all of Europe. We drove, and we drove, and we drove some more, with just occasional stops for a photograph. For the first two hours of our drive I did not see a single vehicle on the road with the exception of one of our buses in front of us. Eventually, we turned onto gravel roads, and most of the day from that point forward was spent bouncing along the back roads of northern Iceland until our return to the ship at 5pm.

Our first stop was to take a picture of the deserted coastline. Our second stop allowed us to walk deep into a volcanic canyon. At our third stop, we saw yet another volcanic canyon, but this time it had a small lake on the bottom. Here we got to eat our box lunches and had time to take a short walk. One problem with walking however; in this part of the world they do not have mosquitoes, but what they do have are little green flies, by the millions at times. They do not bite, but they hover and then swarm in huge black clouds, entering every opening available. They got in our ears, eyes, nostrils and down in our clothes. In short a beautiful picnic lunch in the woods quickly became a box lunch in the bus with the doors closed!

From this point forward the stops looked familiar, and I suddenly realized that I had been here before, but had docked at another nearby town, Akurey. In fact we started to meet other tour buses that had come from ships in that port. I was certain of this fact when we visited Dettifoss Falls, Husavik Area, Icelandthe most powerful waterfall in Europe. It was a very steep walk down to where the Falls could be viewed, and you’ll be proud of me, both in the fact that I made the descent, and in the fact that I used my stick. Just to prove to everyone I was there, I asked the ship’s photographer to use my camera and take my picture at the bottom.

Our next stop was in an area of geothermal activity. The landscape was composed of sulphur pits and boiling mud pools, Husavik Area, Icelandmuch like you would see in Yellowstone. Nearby was a geothermal swimming pool, which is a very popular local attraction.

This trip has been billed as the “Expedition of Fire and Ice,” and nowhere was that more on display than yesterday’s visit to the north of Iceland. As we left the ship early in the morning, it was overcast, cold, with a very strong wind. The Captain advised that we should all take our heavy clothing. By the time we stopped for lunch, the sun was out and the winds were gone. Until the bugs arrived people were sitting on park benches without any jackets and taking in the sun. Within an hour after leaving that park, we were driving through sleet, which later turned to hail and finally to snow. Reaching the geothermal pools, the sky was partly sunny again, but on our way to the ship, we encountered snow and hail once again while we watched the mountain tops take on a fresh covering of new snow. By the time we reached the ship, the sun was again out, the winds were calm, and we left behind a perplexing landscape indeed of “fire and ice.”

We are now sailing northeast and have already reached 68 degrees North. We will be at sea for two days before again reaching land.

Before moving on, I do have two quick stories to share. When our guide learned that we had seen a humpback whale actually jump out of the ocean and roll over to land on its back, she was dumbfounded. She said that was a rare event that in all her years she had never seen. So, I guess, we were really lucky. But get this; some people opted to skip the 9 hour tour, and instead they took a 4 hour local whale watching cruise offered by the ship. Talk about having a lucky day, they not only got to see Orca and Humpback whales, but they actually got to see a Blue Whale, the largest mammal ever to live on the earth. Today it is estimated that there are no more than 3,000 of them surviving, so that sighting one was a real experience.

I hope everyone is well. I have gotten all my pictures for the second cruise uploaded, and starting with Reykjavik, all new pictures will go into a folder labeled Arctic Explorer 3. And yes, someone did point out to me that I had been spelling Arctic incorrectly – well, nobody is perfect.


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