2 weeks ago
Monday, December 11, 2006
One of the most stunningly beautiful places I have ever seen, are the Westman Islands off the southern coast of Iceland. Called Vestmannaeyjar, the Westman Islands are a group of 15-18 islands, depending on how they are classed, and about 30 skerries sand rock pillars, located off the mainland’s south coast. The islands were formed by submarine volcanic eruptions along a 30-km long fissure lying southwest to northeast. The largest island is Heimaey, 13.4 km2. Most of the islands have steep sea cliffs, and are well vegetated. Bird hunting and egg collecting are traditional to the islanders’ culture - including those cute birds, puffins.
The ride over there on the ship was really violent due to a storm, and I knew I would not escape the inevitable sea sickness... yep, spent the better part of the journey hugging the small nautical equivalent of the toilet - bleah. But it was well worth the trouble, once we arrived, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.
This is a cement water tank we saw, which was crushed by the approaching lava when there was a volcanic eruption on Heimaey island in 1973. Water is a precious commodity on the island, and we saw several holding tanks like this.
The Eruption on Heimaey, 1973
The eruption on Heimay began on 23rd January, 1973, just before two o´clock in the morning. A fissure opened on the eastern side of the island, only 300-400 metres from Kirkjubæir, the most easterly houses in the town. The inhabitants of Heimaey were woken by the police and firebrigade as they drove around, raising the alarm with their sirens. People streamed down to the docks. Fortunately the weather had been stormy the day before and most of the island´s fleet of 60-70 fishing boats had stayed in harbour. The boats ferried the town´s people to safety in Þórlákshöfn. In March, moltern lava threatened to close the harbour approaches. In a desperate attempt to stop the flow, seawater was pumped on to the lava. This method proved very effective. Today the harbour is considered to be even better than before. The eruption ended on 3rd July, 1973. In six months a new volcano, 225m high, had appeared on the island and a new lava field lay to the east and covered 3.3 square km. Around 360 houses had been buried and many others badly damaged. Before the eruption 5300 people lived on Heimaey, 2000 of these moved back immediately after the eruption ended. Slowly but surely more families returned and began to rebuild their community.
We hiked around the island, up to some steep green cliffs overlooking the water. The grassy slopes were pocked with hundreds of holes, some of which a little puffin could be seen peering out of, before it leaped out to glide away over the sea far below. The bird life was fabulous and we saw many varieties for the first time while there. I was saddened to see pictures of and read about the islanders' ancient tradition of hunting and eating the puffins & their eggs. But hey, different strokes for different folks, yes?
Iceland holds many surprises - and this one is yet another of it's many spectacular treasures.