Strong winds raged along the rocky shore and the wooden frame of the ancient boat cracked and sighed with every wave. The freezing, deep blue saltwater gushed onto the oaken deck and white caps of foam covered the ocean as far as ones’ eyes could see. Waves could be heard, hitting the front of the Sæborg while we were slowly yet steadily leaving the small harbour. It was cold that day, but astonishingly beautiful, nevertheless. It was the kind of cold that makes your nose run and your eyes water. We had all been given a flashy water- and windproof floatation suit that keeps you both warm and floating in the event of a capsize. It smelled worn and didn’t tightly fit the bottom of my legs, letting splashing water in that sluggishly oozed into my brown hiking shoes and eventually left me with soaked socks.
The further away we sailed, the more muffled and suppressed the familiar noises of the land became. The noise of the boats’ small motor, the howling of the freezing wind and the sound of waves breaking on the boat’s pointy hull took over from here. Every so often these continuous sounds would get disturbed by a cracking voice on a radio, mumbling prolonged coordinates and vague directions in an outlandish slang. Colourful houses seemed to have shrunken in size and the land resembled a medium-sized termite hill from this distant point of view. Nothing but silence filled the crisp, cold air. We were at open sea now.
A couple days earlier our boat wasn’t as charming nor as big as the Sæborg. At Jökulsárlón there was a small grey zodiac waiting for us that fitted approximately ten to fifteen average-sized people, including an experienced guide. This young, Icelandic local hopped in, started the sputtering motor and navigated us carefully through a gigantic glacial lake surrounded by mountains of ice and filled with freezing clear blue water. Hundreds of pieces of ice, crumbled from the gigantic icebergs that enclosed the well-hidden yet enormous lake, were scattered all over the place and slowly drifted eastwards to the North-Atlantic ocean. Their size stretched from pocket-sized, almost microscopic splinters of ice to gargantuan chunks that could easily be mistaken for icecaps. This glacial lake wasn’t like any other I had ever seen. The colour palette of this scenery ranged from clear white to bright blue and everything in between, and the glacial water was so pure that you could drink it from the lake without having to filter it.
The surrounding mountains were covered with blinding white powder snow and ice. They almost appeared to be a darkish blue tint and all had quite irregular shaped peaks and summits. The guide enthusiastically explained the mechanism behind the majestic glaciers, the formation of glacial lakes and what species of arctic bird call this admirable place their home. He stopped at a relatively small ridge and showed us how an arctic tern had nested on the high and steep cliffs nearby and would attack all individuals coming too close to its delicately build nest. “Just like a flotation suit protects us,” he said, “she protects her young.”
© Marie Bergmans (l) © Anne Bergmans (r)
Suddenly, the Sæborg shifted to starboard, making me lose my balance and leaving me struggling to get my stability back on this ever-moving boat. Fortunately, a sturdy wristband attached my action camera to my flotation suit, making sure it wouldn’t fall into the deep blue. I noticed some commotion turning into mild excitation on the bridge of the ship, the part in which the captain’s seated and from where he controls the vessel. Our boat guide, a young Spanish woman who was never older than twenty-five, glared through her binoculars. Her medium-long brownish dreadlocks followed the undulating movements of the old ship and her eyes were fixed on the swell. She was an adventurous spirit for sure.
I found out she had studied marine biology in Spain and would alter working places depending on the seasons. During our European summers, she works as an enthusiastic boat guide on ecological whale watching vessels in Iceland. When this season is over, she leaves and trades the Icelandic cold for the baking heat of Mexico. She explained that the Sæborg was originally made in Akureyri and later had been sold to a wealthy family in Húsavik, a small town on the north shore of the island. This robust oaken vessel from 1977 can carry 70 passengers and has been used regularly for taking excited individuals on ecological whale watching trips.
I was impressed by her extensive knowledge of the underwater fauna and flora and from this very moment on, I knew I wanted to do something with ecological tourism and marine biology as a job. I’ve always been the type of person that prefers the freezing cold of winter over the sweltering heat of summer. I’ll happily wear three layers of arctic clothes to keep me all snuggly and warm, and I feel so much more comfortable in my hiking shoes than in my everyday sneakers.
“Humpback pod on starboard! Ladies and gents, look at your right!”, she shouted abruptly. It must have been quite a funny sight from her overlooking point of view. Everyone’s head turned rightwards immediately and people looked both excited and confused at the same time. The captain of the Sæborg turned off the motor of the ship to avoid disturbance due to the roaring sound. There was something enormous in the water, not too far from the vessel. “Usually, you can find these big guys by sailing after gulls on the water”, she explained. “Seagulls are scavengers who eat the scraps that the whales left of their dinner. When you see a large group of gulls like this, floating at the surface, a pod of whales is never far away.”, and right was she. An immense spout of water suddenly interrupted her explanation and seven colossal humpback whales took turns emerging from the water.
© Anne Bergmans
I was astounded, overjoyed and extremely excited at the same time. My mouth fell wide open with surprise when not one, but seven humpbacks appeared. Tears filled my eyes and my heart immediately filled with warmth. To see these wonderful creatures in their personal habitat made me feel extremely grateful. They were as free as could be and I’m convinced that this is how these beautiful souls should always be treated: free to roam the world’s waters since the oceans are theirs. On the other hand, it made me feel sombre, knowing that we as humans are slowly ruining their territories.
The spout of water, coming from the blowhole of these gentle giants made me think of the geysers we saw the other day. These majestic creations of mother nature were truly both mesmerizing and terrifying. The constant emission of thick white smoke from what appeared to be muddy pools with some clear boiling and bubbling water in the middle, gave away that this was a remarkable piece of land that held active geysers. The wind was quite strong that day, making all the white smoke from the different puddles go in northern direction. You could tell a geyser was on the verge of eruption when the smoke would start changing directions and flow upwards instead of sideways. Not a second later, boiling hot water got forced out of the muddy ground of the Strokkur geyser and was blasted up to forty meters high into the air while producing a deafening noise. The outburst would disappear as quickly as it had arrived and the area would just fill with white steam flowing sideways again like nothing just happened. Five to ten minutes later the spectacle would start all over again.
© Marie Bergmans
The greyish head of these humpbacks was massive, and irregular bumps covered the area around their mouth. They were feeding with their monstrous mouths wide open, making it easy for us to recognize the fringe-like structures they use for filtering tons of food out of the water. The spectacle wasn’t over yet. After every feed, these marine mammals would dive back into the ocean headfirst, leaving us with spectacular photos of their characteristic tail.
The humpback slapped his tail one last time on the surface, as if he wanted to say goodbye, before diving back into the deep blue ocean and disappearing. The wrinkles he made at the surface by slapping his tail slowly faded away and the sea turned to its original state. The smell, following the sighting, was unmistakably the one of fresh fish. Seagulls swooped, and almost fought, to get to the place where these bulky beasts just had their feast meal. The Sæborg’s motor shifted back on and the boat slowly set forth to the rocky shore.