Day 14 |
Jul 25, 2008

HúsavÍk, Iceland

By Tony Huntely, Marine Mammologist

Co-ordinates: 66° 2.6’ N, 17° 21.4’W

Early this morning we arrived at a dock in Húsavík. It is a small town in the north of Icelandon the shores of Skjálfandi Bay. Viking founder Garðar Svavarsson was the first confirmed human to spend a winter on the island. He gave the island the name Garðarshólmi. A monument near the schoolhouse commemorates him.

At 0800 several of us left for a long tour around the Húsavík area. Guest Denise Landau remarked that we were doing “extreme bussing” today; not only was it to be a ten-hour tour, but the first stop, Fossil Beach, required “cliffing”, or driving down a steep cliff to the beach. At the beach, we found fossils and were also greeted by several species of birds, including loud and colorful ostercatchers. The next stop brought us to an even steeper cliff where guest Dick Filby and Brent Stephenson, our ornithologist, spotted a gyrfalcon. In the distance, there were white-beaked dolphins playing in the sea. Ten kilometers away was a large lake created by volcanic activity. To get to our first extensive hike, more “extreme bussing” was needed. This time slaloming in and out of the single traffic lane to avoid head-on collisions. The walk through the canyon brought us to extremely spectacular columnar basalt formations. After a one-hour hike, we ate a picnic lunch while Brent and Dick went hunting snipe. Another walk into a horseshoe-shaped canyon gave us an opportunity to see more birds, such as widgeons and fulmars, and to walk through a true forest. The highlight for many was the visit to Dottifoss, the highest flow waterfall in Europe. Another long drive over dirt road led us to a typical turf house farm. Several houses were joined by one common corridor. A small church nearby had golden plovers on the lawn.

At 0915 many of us walked to the nearby docks for a whale-watching cruise. The small wooden boat took us out into the bay. Within minutes, someone called a whale sighting. As we approached, we saw a small humpback lying on the surface. It was resting quietly, breathing and floating in the water. After several breaths, he dove away out of view. Over the next several hours, we came very close to humpbacks and Minke whales. On each occasion, we were treated to very close encounters and great photo opportunities. Following our whale watching, we walked to the Húsavík Whale Museum, where I showed the guests some of the remarkable adaptations found in these animals. Of special interest was a sperm whale that had lost a good portion of its lower jaw. This damage had healed and the whale had lived with the defect. I explained that this was probably evidence for what is called the “prey stunning hypothesis”. In this unique form of feeding, found only in toothed whales, the animals use a focused, high-energy sound beam to kill or stun fish, thus making it much easier to eat them.

Following our visit to the whale museum, we traveled a few blocks to another remarkable museum, perhaps the only one of its kind. The Húsavík Phallological Museum has on display the penises of almost every mammal in Iceland. Most of us found the museum interesting, shocking and impressive.

In the late afternoon, we visited the town. It is small and quaint. This week they are celebrating a summer festival called Mærudagur. The name and the festival originated several years ago. Children in the town have their own word for sweets, mæru. They would typically use this word specifically to describe the candy that they bought on Saturday afternoons. The word has no other meaning in Icelandic; it is specific to Húsavík. The festival, now translated as “candy days,” celebrates the “sweet life” of summer. As we walked around we saw the colors of the festival, hot pink, lime green and orange. Each part of the town is given a color for the athletic competitions. On this particular day, a soccer match was to take place in the afternoon. Later, a town dance was to be held down near the docks.

Following dinner, the Prince Albert II left the harbor at Húsavík and headed west to Hornbjarg.