Iceland – Sea life

Early settlements in Iceland, Greenland and North America

According to Icelandic sagas, the first visitors and settlers in Iceland were Norsemen hailing from Scandinavia in the late 9th century AD as part of what historians call the Viking expansion. Explorers, traders, farmers and warriors, Vikings travelled aboard their drakkars across North Atlantic. Adventurous spirit, social entrepreneurship, quest for farming land and wealth, social rejection or heavy taxation in their root communities could have fueled the Norse migration. 

Iceland’s discovery by Norsemen seems bound to happenstance. Their early settlements stem essentially from individual initiatives. Amongst the first Norse visitors, the Swedish Gardar Svavarsson intended to sail to Faroe Islands – halfway between Iceland and Scotland. A strong sea storm rerouted him to the Icelandic coast that he sailed all around before concluding that he had reached an island. His son settled there eventually. Early settlements were very basic, reflecting the Norsemen’s ability to cope with rough climatic and living conditions.

Early Icelanders did not wait long before venturing further West into the north Atlantic Ocean. Erik the Red established the first Norse settlement and introduced Christianity in Greenland in the 10th century. Sailing off Greenland, his son Leif Erikson reached out the North American coast in the year circa 1000 – long before Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. 

A few years later, a Norse settlement was established in Vinland, located in Newfoundland (Terre-Neuve) in the Gulf of St-Lawrence River in present-day Canada. Among the pioneers, Gudrid, Leif Erikson’s sister-in-law, gave birth to Snorri. The boy was the first Icelandic child born in the Americas. Although the Vinland settlement was short-lived in the early 11th century, it paved the way to further flux of Norse emigration to North America. 

Sea scapes and birds

Iceland’s coastal areas are fascinating – not only picturesque but also vibrant. The 5.000-km-long coastline is punctuated with countless dark and tormented rock formations as well as with many deep and dramatic fjords. In geological terms, Iceland is a new-born land mass created from volcanic eruptions of the Mid-Atlantic ridge only 20 million years ago. 

Icelandic coastal areas are obviously not crowded and busy like around the Mediterranean basin, but full of discrete signs of life. Immense black sand or shingle beaches as well as basalt rocks and cliffs, host large colonies of seagulls, puffins and other seabirds. At times struggling to stand firm of my feet against very strong and turbulent winds, I loved watching their fluid and elegant flight for hours. There is gladly no pictorial evidence of my swaying. 

Fishes and whales

As many species of fish live in the ocean waters surrounding Iceland, commercial fishing represents a major economic sector of Iceland’s economy. I did not spot many fishes, as I was anyway looking for more imposing sea creatures: whales. Close to the Arctic Circle, Skjalfandi Bay in northern Iceland constitutes a safe heaven and a watching spot for a variety of whale species. The nearby town of Husavik represents the best entry point for whale watching. 

Historically, Husavik town grew as major fishing port including for commercial whaling. Iceland still authorised some whale fishing, but not in Skjalfandi Bay. As whale watching is nowadays important to Iceland’s economy, many fishing boats have been transformed accordingly.

Boats are my friends and sailing boats my closest friends. They are scattered all around Iceland coast on a resting, stand-by or retirement mode. I love their shapes, their technical attire and what they represent positively for the human kind: a vessel for travel, discovery, living, learning and leisure. 

Husavik town displays many visual references to whales, including a dedicated museum as well as various wall pictures and paintings. This represents a good start, but I wish more real stuff. 

“We cannot guarantee you that you will spot whales during the half-day boat trip in Skjalfandi Bay. Whale watching is not like visiting a marine zoo. However, we promise you an enjoyable experience.” 

Dressed as warmly as Inuits during the winter season, we crisscross the cold water of the Bay, stopping on stand-still at times to move further after a while.

Patience and good luck made it real: “One whale over there!” The thin whale surfaces briefly to breathe loudly several times next to our boat, before diving again. Later one, we spot also a humpback whale and several harbour purpoise whales. People on the boat burst into emotional roars. 

As the sun declines over the horizon, we head back to the port. I suddenly realise that a few days ago, I spotted another whale lying on the Icelandic coast.

Whale watching may disturb the cetaceans in case ships approach and follow them too closely. Ironically, whale watching activity contributes to the protection of the cetaceans as it needs sea safe heavens where whales can live and reproduce. Thus, whales will remain safe there as long as visiting them generates more financial revenues than their commercial hunting. 

So go and visit whales, but don’t disturb them.


By Bertrand

Trotting the globe with vision, values and humour