18 August, 2023

Heimaey and the Vestmannaeyjar...

Just another volcano as the NatGeo Explorer heads towards Vestmannaeyjar on the southern side of Iceland. [1577]

Sheep roam freely on this Vestmannaeyjar island on the south opf Iceland, and probably don't appreciate the fabulous location that is their home. [1666]


For the last stop in our circumnavigation of Iceland, the NatGeo Explorer then headed for Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands. We pulled into Heimaey ('home island') about 7km off the mainland south coast. Heimay has a difficult access to the harbour and is a 'world in the making', being the product of nine major volcanic eruptions, the most recent for six months in 1973 created 200m tall Eldfell('hill of fire'). They sound like thrill-seekers, but some 4500 people live on Heimaey, and the island has memorialised its geothermal volatility by building a magnificent volcano museum over the top of houses destroyed in the last eruption.

Looking out to see from Heimaey port showing why it is one of the most difficult channels to navigate. [1599]

This is how most visitors get to the Westmann Islands. [1729]

Our tour bus effectively summarises the main reasons why tourists come to Heimaey. [1618]

Near the very southern end of the main Vestmannaeyjar island, a spectacular view of the black volcanic ash beach and landscape. [1655]

Standing around their nests on Puffin Hill, the birds which are an irresistable attraction to visitors. [1658]

Puffins are the most cooperative photo models. [1661]

We visited the Þjóðhátíð Amphitheatre (no attempt to pronounce this tongue-twister!) which is a volcanic crater become natural amphitheatre which is now the site of an annual 4 day outdoor music festival. The festival began in 1874 when bad weather prevented locals attending an Icelandic settlement festival on the mainland, and it has grown to be the largest annual multi-day event in the country, attracting over 15,000 revellers. Nothing much stops this festival except for WW1 and COVID, and it even took place in 1973.

The volcanic amphitheatre at which the annual Þjóðhátíð is held. [1616]

Our tour guide shows us video of annual Þjóðhátíð festival. [1642]

In the amphitheatre, a replica of one of the first stone houses in Iceland, and inside is an exhibition based on what is known of the first Viking family to settle in the Westmann Islands around 900AD. [1622]

On board the NatGeo Explorer, we have been treated to many fascinating presentations from the naturalists during the expedition, but none moreso than that from underwater specialist Saevor Dagny Erlendsdottir. Saevor (rhymes with 'diver'), who was half of the dive team which made fascinating videos of their underwater excursions during our time on board, told of her parents who lived on Heimaey and what they did to survive and battle the 1973 eruption. The story is amazing and her personal connection to it, most moving. The initial eruption in January 1973 came without warning. A rift 2km long erupted, enlarging the size of the island and shooting lava 150m into the air. Because the fishing fleet was in the harbour, residents were successfully evacuated. Up to 4m of ash settled over the town, and then lava began flowing towards the harbour, threatening to obliterate it. Starting in less than a week, the fire brigade pumped seawater over the advancing lava in a successful effort over months to save the harbour. The eruption lasted for 5 months.

Saever the diver whose parents experienced the 1973 volcano on Heimaey, here on duty watching out for wildlife on the NatGeo Explorer's bridge. [1768]

Eldheimar, the volcano museum of remembrance on Heimaey, is built right over the top of houses destroyed in the 1973 eruption. [1672]

Eldheimar, the volcano museum of remembrance on Heimaey, is built right over the top of houses destroyed in the 1973 eruption. [1676]

View from the cafe in the volcano museum. [1678]

Half buried from the 1973 eruption, this house stands just outside the volcano museum. [1685]

Contemporary photograph of the 1973 eruption, on exhibition in the volcano museum. [1683]

Taken from the foothills of Eldfell, showing the new township of Heimaey built over the ruins of those lost in 1973, lava fields on the right. [1696]

Numerous uninhabited rocky outcrops scatter between Heimaey and Stursey, all popular with the profific gannet population. [1747]


One of the world's newest islands, Surtsey, was formed from a 130m below sea level volcanic eruption which reached the surface in November 1963 and kept going for almost 4 years. The island grew to an area of 2.7km2, although erosion has reduced it somewhat since then. The new island was named after the fire giant Surtr in Norse mythology. As new land, it has been totally protected so that scientists can study the evolution of life from a totally virgin space. One evening, we were permitted to cruise around Surtsey and observe it from a distance.

The island of Surtsey, born in 1963 from an underwater volcanic eruption. [1770]

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