Day 14 |
Jun 12, 2012

Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland 

By Stefan Kredel, Geologist

Co-ordinates: N 63º26'39", W 20º16'08"
Weather: Sunny with scattered clouds
Air Temperature: 10,5°C
Pressure: 1019 hPa
Wind: 5 knots

Luckily we didn’t start that early today, because yesterday was the Captain’s Farewell Dinner. And I was at a very nice and amusing table, and we all decided to extend it a bit at the bar afterwards …

Anyhow, I got up just before 8:00 o’clock as we were planning to sail into the harbor of Heimaey at around 8:30. So after breakfast I went straight to the bridge where the local pilot had just arrived. The weather conditions were perfect! Flat calm seas, nearly no wind and a blue sky! Even though I had been various times before to this Island, I had never taken so many photos of it as today. “Brochure weather” as we sometimes call it …

I like the island of Vestmannaeyar a lot as it has an interesting recent geological history. On January 23, 1973, at about 1:00am a volcano next to the settlement of Heimaey erupted. As the day before the weather was bad, the whole fishing fleet was in the harbor and could immediately start evacuating the local people off the island. At that time there were about 5,200 people living on the island in about 1,200 homes. No one died from the eruptions, but 400 buildings were totally destroyed (mainly covered by the lava flows) and another 400 buildings had major damage (mainly by the volcanic ashes).

The eruptions lasted for about 2 months and as a result, the island was extended by 2.2 km2. There was a big fear that the harbor would be closed due to the lava flow. But it stopped just at the right time, and now the harbor is actually more protected than it was before the eruption.

The entrance to the harbor is now a narrow channel between steep cliffs on the one side, and large lava fields from the 1973 eruptions on the other side. Until a few years ago there was still a famous resident in a small side bay of this channel. Keiko lived here, before he was eventually set free and where he later died. He was a former Hollywood star, an orca also known as “Free Willy.”

Our Captain maneuvered the ship as usual very easily through the narrow passage and parked it then at the pier. A colleague of mine commented that some of us wouldn’t be able to do the same with just a Zodiac.

We arrived at 9:30 so the day’s tours could start in time. I was on a bus tour to see the highlights of the Island. The two and a half hour tour showed us very different points of interest. We visited the ruins of an old farmhouse that date back to the year 650 AD. Next was a stop to see some puffins (and sheep). Of course we also went to the lava fields from the 1973 eruptions, a geological highlight. Odin, our local guide was happy to let me provide some explanations on the different kind of rocks we saw there. Our last stop was the “Pompeii of the North”, as they call it. In 2005 the locals started to dig out some of the buildings that were covered by big volcanic ash layers in 1973. One of the buildings is nearly excavated from all the ash and will soon become a museum. Most of the street in front of this building is ash free, but the other houses remain covered. Signs indicate where each building is hidden.

Back onboard I had lunch and after lunch I had to go to training in the crew area. As a member of the crew I have frequently taken part in drills and trainings relating to the ship’s safety and security. Once that was finished I went to the bridge as we were on our way to Surtsey, another geological highlight.

Surtsey is a very young island. On November 8, 1963, the volcano managed to get out of the ocean. So it was the birth of an island. The volcano was active for 4 years and managed to build an island with 155 meters above sea level. It was decided that human beings are not allowed on the island. Only scientists with special permission are allowed to go once a year to keep record of the settling of different plants and animals.

So we couldn’t do any Zodiac operations in the vicinity of the island, but with today’s weather it was nice to do a ship’s cruise around the island. Once we were closer to the island, some orcas were spotted. I have to admit that most of our guests were probably looking at the orcas and not at the island anymore. We spent about an hour in the area and my colleagues and me gave comments via the PA system to our guests.

At 5:00 the “final photo/video recap of our voyage” was on schedule. Our onboard photographer Ray showed us his masterpiece. It always impresses me how much we saw on one trip. It was the same this time, amazing how many different places we saw within the last 2 weeks.

After that it was a smooth evening that I finished by looking at the Poland vs. Russia soccer game between.