Flatey & Látrabarg Cliffs, Iceland

Jul 27, 2018 - National Geographic Explorer

They say in Iceland that if you don’t like the weather wait a minute. We woke up waiting this morning, maybe not for the weather per se but for the conditions to change allowing Iceland to reveal itself. The sea surrounded us. If not for its rumpled surface and scattered whitecaps it might have been featureless. Curtains of white hung from above obscuring all but micro-scenes: a ragged white feather bobbing on the charcoal deep, a golden kelp platter undulating with the motion of the swell, the ubiquitous fulmars that drifted in and out of sight. They say the Vikings could see Greenland from Snaefellsnes, the finger of land on the chart just to our south. This morning we could see no land at all until, as promised, the weather changed. The ceiling lifted and purple mountains appeared on the horizon within a peachy band of sky. Ahead deep within Breiðafjörður, the broad fjord, laid a pancake of an island appropriately named Flatey, the flat island.  

Clouds still hid the sky as we set foot upon the shore wondering about the significance of this platter of land where monks and merchants had trod so long ago. Within the island’s tiny church could be found a pictorial history of those days gone by. Outside, the birds stole the show.  Numerous species of shorebirds probed the mud exposed by the falling tide. Puffins drifted upon the waters or flew circuits around their burrows. Not a soul could miss the arctic terns, aggressive as they were.  With patience and careful positioning, one could avoid a dive-bombing parent while witnessing the delivery of a delectable fish to a begging, fast-developing chick. The music of the birds will remain within our minds as will the memory of the well-known group Ylja’s live performance.

By late afternoon a misting rain behaved much like the morning’s fog reducing our visibility and focusing our attention on one element at a time. Fulmars surrounded us sitting quietly upon the satiny sea, letting us get just so close before pattering rapidly away drawing concentric rings of diminishing sizes along their take-off route. Zodiacs set out to explore the edges of a massive rocky cliff built like a layer cake with icing filling. For many millennia once molten magma crept across the land, with time now measured by counting the many flows separated by red paleosol. Generations of seabirds have painted the ledges a brilliant white. Lush green mats of scurvy grass with masses of snowy blossoms thrived on the donated nitrogen. The former inhabitants drifted nearby. Razorbills and guillemots congregated here and there or disappeared in synchrony beneath the sea. Just as we announced that it was time to go, the mist retreated to let us see the enormity of the Látrabarg Cliffs.

Bedtime approached with blue skies and puffy white clouds and Iceland shining in all its glory.

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About the Author

Karen Copeland

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Born and raised in Canada, Karen received her B.Sc. in biology from the University of Waterloo, her M.D. from the University of Western Ontario and interned at McMaster University in Hamilton. Detouring from hospital hallways, Karen soon became a whitewater guide and published photographer, fulfilling a passion for knowledge that began with botany and led to geology and ornithology.

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