Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Iceland 2.20: Húsavík

We knew we wanted to go whale watching in Húsavík while in the Mývatn area, and had been keeping a close eye on the weather forecast in order to choose the right time to do it.  We had opted for afternoon of July 27th, as the prediction was for sunshine and warm(ish) temperatures.  As it turned out the forecast was almost completely wrong; in fact, the only thing it got right was the date!

Húsavík used to be the whaling capital of Iceland, but nowadays mainly takes visitors to watch whales rather than attempting to catch them.  Some of the tours use inflatable boats, as these can get much closer to the whales; others - who claim to be more eco-friendly by not disturbing the whales - use old Icelandic fishing vessels.  Very beautiful they are too, with their polished wood.  The one we went out on is at the far right in the second picture.

Having arrived very early for the trip in order to get a good position on the boat, I had to amuse myself by photographing the local wildlife in order to kill time.

Eventually the crew turned up and started to get ready for the sailing.  For those who weren't properly prepared in the clothing department (not us) this involved issuing all-in-one oilskins to protect against the wet and the cold.

Once togged up, the next thing the modern tourist does it to take a "selfie".

We then set off into the fjord, keeping our eyes peeled for any sign of whale activity.  The boats are all in constant radio contact with each other, so sightings from one just returning were passed on to us.

While waiting for the whales, there was plenty of bird life to amuse us.  Here the puffins seem to live on something rather more substantial than sand eels - herring, by the look of it.

One of the tell-tale signs of whale activity is a flock of birds on the surface, as this indicates a shoal of small fish in the area.  As promised we soon saw a spout from a humpback whale, so the boat headed slightly closer to the where this had been spotted.

As we got closer we could see the humpbacks coming out of the water with gaping mouths, presumably full of the aforementioned fish.  Looking at the images after coming home, it's obvious that some of the birds also get caught up in the feeding frenzy, and are sometimes simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Two of the pictures clearly show a hapless fulmar which has been caught in the whale's enormous jaws, and it's unclear whether it managed to get out in time.

Presumably, the fulmar below - which is well and truly waterlogged - was a victim of being caught in a whale's jaws.

There were plenty of other birds around - especially Arctic skuas, which were everywhere.  These are parasitic birds, and they spent their time attempting to steal other birds' catches.  In this case it was a kittiwake which was being mobbed by two skuas, but they seemed happy to go after any bird which might be the source of a potential meal.  Probably the most common birds were fulmars and kittiwakes, and there were plenty flying close to the boat as we sailed across the fjord.

There had been reports of minke whale sightings close to the far shore, so we headed over there.  By now the low cloud had descended and it was very dark and cold.  Despite being the end of July, everyone was well wrapped up against the elements.

Eventually we spotted the pod of minke whales, but all we really saw were some dorsal fins as they surfaced periodically.

When it was time to return to port, everyone was thoroughly frozen and in need of warming up.  Just as well that the boat crew laid on hot chocolate and pastries as part of the package - even if the pastries appeared to be at least a week old!

Once back on dry land it was time to thaw out and head back to Reykjahlíð for the night.  Though the prospect had a certain appeal, we decided to give the "Fjúk" Arts Centre a miss on this occasion!