Westman Islands, Iceland

Aug 11, 2019 - National Geographic Explorer

We woke up to clear skies and a stiff breeze as we approached the Westman Islands. After breakfast, we circumnavigated Surtsey, one of the world’s newest islands. “Born” in 1963, Surtsey appeared out of the ocean and grew to a size of one square mile by 1967, when the eruption finished. Since then, the ocean has claimed back almost half that area! In addition to its importance to geologists as an example of new-land formation, the island has been a laboratory of ecology as scientists have studied the plants and animals that have colonized this brand-new landscape. 

As we rounded the island, we encountered flocks of northern gannets diving on schools of herring and then came upon a couple of groups of killer whales. These spectacular whales treated us to excellent views as well as some breaching and tail-lobbing. Traveling northward toward Heimaey, we passed by several remnants of islands like Surtsey that are succumbing to the power of the waves and are also home to large colonies of gannets. 

We passed by the east side of Heimaey and had a great view of Eldfell volcano and its associated lava flows. Eldfell erupted in January 1973, and this eruption destroyed part of the town, forcing its inhabitants to evacuate. By the time the eruption finished six months later, the lava flows had almost blocked off the harbor, making it even more protected. Due to the strong winds, we were unable to enter the harbor to visit the community but instead, continued on our way toward Reykjavik.

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About the Author

Michael Jackson


An experienced traveler, Michael has lived on several continents, including a year spent working as a naturalist and zoologist in Galápagos and three months in Kenya conducting a study of birds of prey. He is the author of Galápagos: A Natural History, a comprehensive guidebook which details the natural history of the plants and animals found on the islands. 

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