14 August, 2023

The West Fjords Peninsula...

Continuing the anti-clockwise route around Iceland, we got to Vestfirðir (West Fjords) which is a large and distinct peninsula, said to resemble the head of a dragon (only if you use your imagination), in the north-west corner of the country. It is the closest part of Iceland to Greenland, about 330km. The peninsula is very mountainous and its coastline is penetrated by dozens of fjords, leading to a sparse (and declining) population and making driving routes very circuitous and transit times much longer than they would seem. Luckily, our approaches were all from the sea aboard the NatGeo Explorer! North of the peninsula we encountered a large iceberg, the only one we saw from this ship, and the Expedition Leader told us that they were very unusual in this part of the Norwegian Sea. There was much speculation as to its origin, the conclusion being the east coast of Greenland. It was a tabular iceberg with steep sides, maybe 20m, and a flat plateau on top, resting place for thousands of kittywakes.

Unexpected iceberg encounter off the coast of Iceland's West Fjords. [1189]

Expedition Leader Andy cuts a cool figure in blue as we approach the iceberg. [1204]

The exposed part of the iceberg was about as high as the upper decks of the NatGeo Explorer. [1208]

Kittywakes resting atop the iceberg. [1212]

Sunburst as the NatGeo Explorer cruises away from the iceberg. [1231]


The biggest fjord in the West Fjords is Isafjardardjup inside which the NatGeo Explorer docked in the port town of Isafjordur (it means 'ice fjord', but we just do not attempt to pronounce these names, and we don't recognise them when any Icelander saays them!), the largest in this region of Iceland. Isafjordur, pop: 2600, was first settled in the 9th Century. Highway 61 traces the southern coast of Isafjardardjup and a short bus along it ride took us past pretty Suovik village (which had been relocated due to avalanches) to a hike to the Valagil canyon and waterfall. The walk was a 4km round-trip in the pleasant Seljalandsdalur valley with nice mountain views, several waterfalls visible all around in the distance, and a few birds and sheep. The path got steep and rough as we approached the canyon, but the Valagil waterfall itself was underwhelming despite its considerable height with not that much water and being in deep shade from the canyon on an otherwise brilliantly sunny day, temperature about 10oC.

With a stunning backdrop, the town of Isafjordur on, apparently, a rare clear day, but dominated by cruise ships rather larger than the NateGEo Explorer. [1235]

Hikers taking in the ambience of the Seljalandsdalur valley, numerous waterfalls visible in the distance. [1242]

Two sheep keep a watchful eye but don't stop eating. [1273]

The approach to the Valagil canyon. [1246]

The very tall Valagil falls were rather dry and hidden in shade. [1258]

Not much snow up there explains why the waterfalls in Seljalandsdalur are pretty but not so spectacular. [1267]

We also got to visit Skrúður botanic garden, founded in 1909 by a Protestant pastor for the benefit of his school's students. It's a tiny oasis of trees and even tropical plants in the botanic wasteland that is most of Iceland. Our visit was swamped by too many visitors who appear to have been off much larger cruise ships.

The front gate of the Skrúður botanic garden, enclosed in a low rock wall and in a spot protected from the weather. [0053]

Thanks to the neverending daylight, from 8-10pm one evening we were able to go to the tiny island of Vagur or Vigur(spelling depends on where you read it) with a population of 4. Vagur is deep in the Isafjaroardjup fjord and supports an eider farm, the only one, they said, where the operators live at the farm. Our local guide was Cal(lum), an Aussie from Wagga Wagga who came there for some experience, liked it and has stayed on as a maintenance man. Cal showed us the eider feathers processing system and also led us on a bushwalk to see a good variety of wildlife on the island. Here, more than anywhere, we were instructed to keep together and be careful not to disturb the nesting birds. It was a special treat to be able to visit this remote and rare place, but the late night timing just reinforced a strange feeling of discomfort - when do people sleep?

In 10pm sunshine, Cal, our Aussie local guide, shows us around the eider farm and wildlife of Vagur. [1316]

Vagur has the only working windmill in Iceland? [1299]

By now, we are well trained and know how to fend off the angry, protective Arctic Terns! [1387]

Puffin on Vagur flying home with a bill-full of fish. Puffins have spiny tongues which they press up against the roof of their mouth to hold fish while they catch another one. [1352]

This mob of eider ducks probably don't appreciate how they are contributing to the economy on Vagur. [1306]

Eider duck chick wanders safely across the rocky beach on Vagur. [1334]

Common Redshanks are widespread across Europe and Asia. Some come to Iceland but only to breed. [1341]

This poster on Vigur implies that the family encourages small groups. We're sure that our visits adds welcome income to the tiny eider farm. [1397]

Unmistakable profile of a mountain as seen from Vagur, but we don't know its name, and couldn't say it if we did. [1318]

Going south around the Westfjords and into Arnafjorour fjord, we came into thick fog which prevented us seeing much at all. We sailed close to the Dynjandi waterfall whose sound was thunderous but completely lost in the fog. Expeditioners don't have it their way every day! Close to us was an anchored yacht which we could barely see - the occupants must have been nervous to see such a big neighbour trundle up beside them in the prevailing gloom.

Unsuccessfully peering out for the Dynjandi waterfall, but no luck in the pea soup. [1400]

We can easily hear the waterfall, but no chance of seeing it. [1401]

On the southern side of the West Fjords peninsula is Breioafjordur ('broad fjord') across which is the rest of Iceland. On the northern side are the 14km long, 400m high Latrabjarg cliffs, twice as high as Ireland's Cliffs of Moher. These are the largest bird cliffs in the Northern Hemisphere, and are home to millions of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and fulmars. In dispersing fog, our cruise-by wasn't really close enogh to count them. What we could see were kittiwakes skittering across the water as they take off, and guillemots diving to escape our ship's approach.

Appearing from the mist, the bird cliffs of Latrabjarg. [1405]

Kittywake in takeoff mode (frame from video). [1434]

Guillemots in flight before the cliffs of Latrabjarg. [1423]

In the middle of Breioafjordur is the almost hill-less island of Flatey('flat land'), surprisingly, not the only island of that name in Iceland. A monastery (1172AD) enabled Flatey to be of the country's main cultural centres, but all that is now gone, and the 0.5km2island is now just a tourist destination (arriving by ferry) with almost no permananent population. Basically all that live here are puffins and sheep. Coming in on Zodaiacs, we temporarily boosted the population somewhat, checked out more birds, visited a 1926 church with with amazing hand painted murals inside, looked at its library which is the size of an outhouse, and taught a local barista how to make a macchiato. Althogether a pleasant afternoon in what had turned into a warm, still and sunny day.

The Klofningur light guards the approach to Flater. [1448]

Panoramic view of the tiny settlement on Flatey, almost all short term rentals. [1468]

Visitors enjoying rare sunshine in their Airbnb on Flatey. [1496]

The Weber barbeque is an essential feature of short term rental accommodation. [1501]

The interior of the Flatey church was hand painted by Baltasar Samper [Spanish], in the 1960s in return for free accommodation. That building on the right looks like the library. [1453]

A library at the back of the church is the oldest and smallest in Iceland. It once held the Flatey Book (1390AD), the largest of medieval Icelandic manuscripts. [1464]

Love those ear-rings! Kelly, a NatGeo Explorer naturalist driving our Zodiac back to the ship. [1563]

The Westfjords peninsula connects to the rest of Iceland by a narrow isthmus.

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