Iceland: Watchin’ the whales

May 15, 2014

This latest Iceland posting from blood, dirt & angels‘ de facto foreign correspondent takes place aboard a schooner off that mid-Atlantic island’s north coast.

By Jack Schnedler
for blood, dirt & angels

HUSAVIK, Iceland — Two Americans, two Germans and two Romanians went to sea on a chilly afternoon this week in search of whales, puffins and other marvels of nature in a bay along Iceland’s northern coast.

 Jack Schnedler is outfitted to seek whales and puffins on a two-masted schooner. ©Marcia Schnedler 2014

Jack Schnedler is outfitted to seek whales and puffins on a two-masted schooner. ©Marcia Schnedler 2014

Their guide was a jolly Icelander named Nils, fluent in both English and German — and displaying a brisk sense of humor in both those tongues. The Romanian couple knew enough English to follow his sometimes jocular commentary.

Wife Marcia and I were the two Americans, midway through 24 days of circumnavigating Iceland — in a rented Dacia Duster made in Romania, a coincidence that amused the fellow voyagers from Bucharest.

We spent four hours in the sometimes choppy waters of Skjalfandi Bay aboard the two-masted oak schooner Hildur, which often does part of the journey under sail. On our trip, because of the distance it took to reach whale territory, the sails stayed furled and faster speed was provided by the vessel’s engine.

Temperatures hovered in the mid-30s, so we were happy to have been equipped by the North Sailing crew with bulky one-piece outerwear — even if the garb did make me look like I might be preparing to audition as the Michelin Man.

Marcia, the naturalist in our family, has seen puffins in other sub-Arctic locales — but never so many as on the cliffs of Lundey Island and its adjacent waters. Myriad little seabirds — I’d have guessed a gazillion — dotted the water and the island’s cliffs under overcast skies. It was easy to accept Nils’ assertion that more than half the world’s population of Atlantic puffins breeds in Iceland. That’s somewhere between 8 and 10 million birds.

The puffin is one of Iceland’s national symbols. So it’s no surprise that puffin dolls of various sizes are sold as souvenirs across this island three-fourths the size of Arkansas with a human population of 325,000. Most of these stuffed puffins look rather cheesy, but then that’s true of a good many souvenirs.

What makes the stubby puffin most adorable is its prominent and brightly colored beak, displayed in hues of orange during the breeding season. Puffins fly low over the water while beating their short wings up to 400 times per minute. When submerged to feed, they use the wings to swim almost as though they were flying. They make no noise when out on the water.

Before reaching the puffins, we were delighted to sight a pod of white beaked dolphins. They are the largest species of that cetacean group, Nils told us, because they are also the northernmost. That calls for extra blubber as insulation against the cold sub-Arctic waters.

Our schooner spent some 15 minutes close to the dolphins, noting their white noses and very curved dorsal fins as they repeatedly broke the bay’s surface. It’s estimated that several hundred thousand of these playful creatures inhabit the North Atlantic, and it was a joy to observe this pod.

A white beaked dolphin surfaces in Iceland’s Skjalfandi Bay. © 2012 Marcia Schnedler

A white beaked dolphin surfaces in Iceland’s Skjalfandi Bay. © 2012 Marcia Schnedler

Getting from Lundey Island in the bay’s east to whale territory near its western shore brought rougher sailing. Nils pointed out that prime whale-watching time here runs from mid-June through July. In mid-May, the whales (as many as 10 species) have recently arrived after their abstemious winter and are focused on feeding rather than surfacing any more than needed to breathe.

We settled for reasonably close views of two minke whales, one of the smaller species of baleen whale, which eat by straining krill and other tiny prey through fringed keratin plates attached to their upper jaw. There are abundant minkes in both hemispheres, so they are among the most commonly sighted.

Unlike humpback whales, minkes do not raise their flukes out of the water when diving and are less likely to jump clear of the sea surface. That, plus their ability to stay submerged up to 20 minutes, has led some whale watchers to dub them “stinky minkes.”

Even without any acrobatics, the minke pair was a welcome sight for us Americans, Germans and Romanians. No more whales turned up as the Hildur headed back to port at Husavik, while Nils broke out hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls. The chocolate was better than the rolls.

 Guide Nils talks with German tourists on the schooner Hildur. © Marcia Schnedler

Guide Nils talks with German tourists on the schooner Hildur. © Marcia Schnedler

Back ashore, Marcia and I enlarged our knowledge of cetaceans at Husavik’s excellent Whale Museum. Its most striking feature is an assortment of 10 full-size whale and dolphin skeletons suspended overhead.

We learned that the hunting of whales is no longer the greatest threat to their survival, given the widely observed international ban on the practice. Bigger threats today include the rising amounts of pollutants being released into the oceans, along with the sounds made by ships, submarines and other ocean-going vessels.

It also was sad to find out that Iceland, despite the substantial tourism revenue that comes from whale watching, has resumed commercial whaling despite international condemnation. In fact, the government has increased the limit on killing minke whales to 229 this year, a 6 percent increase over 2013.

The hunting, as might be imagined, takes place well away from prime whale-watching locations such as Husavik.

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