Volcanoes, Midges, and Whales

Wednesday, June 24: I’m now catching up on the last two days, including our fantastic day in Akureyri, Iceland on Tuesday.

Monday was a day at sea, which passed uneventfully. We slept in, including having a bonus hour due to a time change as we cruised to the northwest. Sea conditions have been incredibly calm; in the early afternoon on Monday, we were in the room for a while reading and something prompted me to look out at the ocean. I was immediately rewarded with a sighting of quite a few whales, which we are pretty certain were Minke Whales, a smaller cousin of the Humpback (quite numerous in this part of the world). Then we could see land to the west (Iceland), with its dramatic peaks and coastlines. For a few hours Monday evening, we were above the Arctic circle (66 degrees, 33 minutes in 2015); the Arctic circle is not fixed but moves about 2 degrees over 40,000 years due to the axial tilt of the earth and tidal forces (it is currently moving north at 49 meters a year). On Monday, we ate dinner in the Grand Dining Room for the first time and had a delicious BBQ pork chop; we shared a table with two other couples who were quite nice; one couple was from Maui and the other from Ontario.

Tuesday, we docked early in Akureyri, which lies at the bottom of a long, wide fjord on the northern coast of Iceland. This city is the second-largest in Iceland, with a population of 18,000. Our tour that day was entitled “Jewels of the North”, a full-day excursion to some of the natural/geologic wonders of this area. Our tour guide was a amiable young man named Erwin who moved to Iceland a few years ago as an exchange student from the Netherlands, met his future wife, became a citizen (requires you to know Icelandic!) and now is the father of two young children. The first stop on the tour was at Goðafoss, a waterfall on the Skjálfandafljót river (have no idea how to pronounce that last one, but the funny-looking letter in Godafoss is pronounced like a “d”). The waterfall is beautiful, but not as dramatic as Gulfoss, near Reykjavik. Apparently, when Iceland embraced Christianity, one of the leaders of the country lived near here (he has a name that is about 30 characters long) and he took his Norse pagan statues and threw them over the falls.

After our stop at the falls, we traveled east to a large lake known as Myvatn. This lake was formed 2300 years ago during an eruption of a still-active volcano in the region (Krafla) through a glacier in the area. Myvatn means “midge lake” in Icelandic and we were treated to many of the annoying little insects on a couple of walks in the area. Because of the midges, the lake is a sanctuary for many different duck species (mostly migratory and including eider and harlequin docks), swans and lots of fish, including salmon and arctic char. Our first stop was at a lava labyrinth, where we walked for about 30 minutes. It was quite warm in the labyrinth and you had to keep moving to keep the midges out of your nose and mouth (they are attracted to carbon dioxide, but fortunately don’t bite). Our weather was glorious yesterday, a bit cloudy in the morning, but clearing up and quite pleasant the rest of the day with lots of sunshine and only a few clouds here and there. The vistas were incredible in this area and you could see the huge glaciers and higher peaks of the Highlands wilderness.

After the walk in the labyrinth, we had time to sit outside at the cafe at the top and enjoy a Viking amber ale from Akureryi. Near the labyrinth was a large cinder cone that people were hiking on (Hverfell crater). Our next stop was at a nearby hotel for lunch, which consisted of a tomato soup, poached arctic char, new potatoes, and cabbage, accompanied by Viking light lager, water or soft drinks. Across the road from the hotel were a series of pseudocraters created by explosions of lava and lake water.

We continued down the road again and crossed some rhyolite hills to an area of mud pots and steam vents. The landscape in this area looked positively Martian in its character, but with snow-covered peaks in the distance. Our final stop of the tour was at the Hell crater near the most recent lava flows from Krafla, which occurred in 1984. In a valley below this crater, that is partially filled with turquoise water (and still had snow in many areas), is the largest geothermal plant in Iceland and one of the plants that produces electricity by injecting cold water into the volcanic steam. During this part of the drive, we actually crossed from the North Atlantic tectonic plate to the Eurasian tectonic plate and most of the seismic activities in Iceland are in these areas where the plates collide.

Our final stop of the trip was at a small village for a final restroom break before the drive back to Akureyri. This was where we had an encounter with the rather common species known as “Grumpius Passengeri” who shared our bus. Steve and I decided not to go to the restrooms, both feeling that we could make it back to the ship (about ninety minutes). Unfortunately, there were only four restrooms in the buildings nearby and another bus pulled up, so the 10-minute break rapidly became more than 20 minutes waiting for people. I was somewhat annoyed to see some people on our bus coming back from the tourist information center (where some restrooms were located) carrying brochures and maps, keeping the rest of us waiting. Finally, everyone was on board except one person who was still gone. I muttered something about hoping that person wasn’t shopping (a common behavior that sometimes keeps people waiting on buses) and I noticed the man that was sitting in the row across from us get up in the aisle to keep the bus from going. I asked aloud who we were waiting on (not addressing him in particular) and he whirled and yelled at me, “It’s my wife we’re waiting on, is that ok with you?”. He then told me to shut up. People were stunned at this behavior; I wasn’t the only one annoyed by the longer than planned stop and the laggards getting back to the bus. I was at a loss for words with this hot-tempered blowhard, which was probably a good thing. His wife finally made it back, apologizing to everyone. She was sitting behind us and I told her I did not appreciate her husband’s horrible temper and she said that he does that all the time, especially to her, and she would suffer a lot of recriminations when they got back for making everyone wait on the bus. She seemed pleasant enough, but he was certainly not a happy man. She told us later that his job is particularly stressful; if his work is that bad that it turns him into an ogre, he might want to consider his career choices. I felt sorry for her; when we got back he got off immediately and walked away in a huff and she was left to find her own way to the ship.

Our drive back was uneventful and he spent most of the trip, even before this outburst, taking thousands of pictures out the window of the bus (I would love to see that slideshow). We arrived back at the ship at 5:00 pm and sailed just after 6:00 pm; we stayed in Horizons lounge until we left the fjord and were rewarded with several whale sightings. I saw one breach and come down with a huge splash (Steve saw part of the breach and the tail end). I believe there were three species involved in this water ballet in the fjord, including Orcas, Minkes (who rarely breach) and a rogue humpback. The humpbacks are more commonly found in western Iceland, but the animal we saw breach was definitely a humpback. We had dinner in the terrace late and looked at the beautiful coastline, lit by the summer sun.

We got another hour back last night as we continue westward to southern Greenland. We’re in Horizons right now relaxing on this day at sea and have a wine tasting at 1:30 pm in Toscana and dinner tonight in the Polo Grill, so time to starve so we can eat a steak. Tomorrow we journey through the Prince Christian Sound in Greenland and have two port stops (tendering operations) in Southern Greenland towns on Friday and Saturday.

More soon from our fascinating journey!

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