Surtsey and Heimaey, Westman Islands

Aug 03, 2018 - National Geographic Explorer


We awoke to a glassy ocean with gray skies and a slight drizzle—perfect weather for whale watching. The staff kept their eyes glued to the horizon as we made our approach to the archipelago of the Westman Islands. As we neared Surtsey—the newest island, formed by an eruption in 1963—Captain Aaron Wood shouted, “black and whites!!” Killer whales were spotted off the bow. With the amazing volcanic geology of Surtsey as our backdrop, we watched these awe-inspiring animals, ravenously feasting on herring, amid an army of gannets.

The feeding frenzy lasted long enough for everyone to get out on deck and to watch these glorious creatures. Life and abundance was overflowing right before our eyes. The captain launched a Zodiac into the tumultuous seas, and the expedition diving team ventured out to capture underwater footage of the torpedoing gannets and the graceful, curious toothed whales.

We hesitantly said farewell to the majestic sight and continued on to meet the pilot boat that brought us to the breathtaking harbor entrance of Heimaey. We spent the afternoon touring the tiny island. Some guests chose the scenic, panoramic tour which stopped at amazing vistas and lookout points, such as a bird blind, and included a visit to the Eldheimer Volcano Museum which artfully portrayed the history of the 1973 Eldfell eruption. Others chose to climb up the Eldfell volcano, hiking through a layer of fog toward views of the new lava that nearly shut down the harbor—which would have meant an end to the town of Heimaey.

We enjoyed one final recap followed by the captain’s farewell cocktails and spent the evening reminiscing about the multitude of adventures we’ve experienced over the last nine days—every day unlike the rest, and every day full of surprises. Tomorrow we scatter to all different directions, going our separate ways, but holding onto some fabulous and everlasting memories.

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About the Author

Karen Velas

Naturalist

Karen Velas cares deeply about protecting the environment and its wildlife.  Over the last 15 years, she has been involved with numerous conservation projects, including working as the Lead Project Coordinator on the California Condor Project with The National Audubon Society, managing projects in the flooded rice fields of California’s Central Valley with The Nature Conservancy and surveying the distant cliffs of Iceland to aid in puffin recovery with the South Iceland Research Centre.

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