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Vestmannaeyjar, the Island that fought a Volcano

After the Volcano

Seawater is pumped onto lava during 1973's eruption.The eruption in 1973, Image Eldfell museum, Kristins H. Benediktssonar

 

If you’ve caught the volcano bug and would to get closer to the action without being instantly incinerated, a trip to Vestmannaeyjabær (Westman islands) might be for you.  A two hour drive and 40 minute ferry ride from Reykjavík lies the island of Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited island of the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago. There are lots of things to see and do on the tiny island, but first, volcano business. 

Almost fifty years ago, in the small hours of January 23rd 1973, the sleepy fishing island of Heimaey woke to the roar of a huge fissure opening at the edge of town. Luckily the seas had been rough earlier, so the fleet was in port and by morning the Island’s population of 5000 was safely on the mainland.  The handful of Islanders that stayed on and were soon joined scientists and geologists monitoring the birth of the Eldfell volcano. Heimaey was, and is all about fishing, and when the lava began flowing towards the harbour, it threatened the future of the island.

The view from the crater rim on top of Edfell

The Island of Fire and icecold seawater

 

The idea was Thorbjörn Sigurgeirsson’s, proving it’s always handy to have a theoretical Physicist hanging about.  A former collegue of Niles Bohr, Thorbjörn suggested that dredging pumps and hoses could slow the progress of the lava. The island’s defenders began pumping ice-cold sea water at the leading edge of the lava flow advancing towards the harbour. Once the viability of lava cooling had been proven, they got all gangster on the lava.  Pumping equipment flooded in from the mainland and abroad. Soon a massive cooling operation was underway.  ‘Suicide squads’ worked tirelessly dragging pipes and hoses across smoking lava fields into position. Over four months 8 million cubic yards of seawater was pumped onto the lava. When the eruption finally ended in early July, a ninety-foot rock tsumani stood frozen, just yards from the harbour. There was so much seawater sprayed on the lava that it was estimated that 220,000 tonnes of salt was left behind.  I didn’t see any salt laying around. But then it has been fifty years. 

 

Despite the success of saving the harbour, when the eruption finally stopped in early July, the eastern side of the town was buried under 40 meters (120 feet) of lava, with a total of 112 houses destroyed, either burned or buried entirely. Islanders began to return and joined in a massive clean up removing half million cubic metres of tephra from the streets.  

 

Gerðisbraut 10, former home of Mrs. Gerður Sigurðardóttir and Mr. Guðni Ólafsson and children.

A museum  opened in 2013 dedicated to the Edfell eruption. Perched on the hill above the town, the museum is constructed around the remains of a house, excavated in situ.  Closer to town, around the edges of the Lava flow, the terrain does feel strange, but wandering around the gentle rolling grass hills and the small forest on the way to Eldfell, it felt incongruous knowing that beneath were street lights and TVs and washing machines and coffee makers and lawnmowers, trapped in a sort of 1970’s Pompeii.  A friend told me that as they were planning the excavation for the museum exhibit, several of the families approached declined the offer to have their homes excavated, preferring to leave the past buried. 

 

The Eldfell volcano is not far from the museum, and both are easily walkable from the village, in fact the whole island is pretty user-friendly at just under 14 Km2, though you can of course bring your car on the ferry (before the eruption Hemimay was just over 11 km2, but even with the recent expansion it’s doable by foot). The hike up  to the rim of Eldfell and back, plus a picnic among the psychedelic rocks took a leisurely 4 hours. We just stayed for one night, but a day trip is also doable. 

But wait, there's more....

Little Grey or Little White, I'm not sure, but it's definitely a Beluga. They normally swim free in the bay but were in the pool when we visited.

The Sea Life sanctuary is home to Little White and Little Grey, a pair of beluga whales airlifted from China in 2020. The whales have the run of a large section of the fjord by the harbour that’s been fenced off for them as they were reared in captivity. The sanctuary is a non-profit and also looks after injured Puffins. Speaking of Puffins…

Puffins from Stórhöfði puffin hut, full disclosure, this is an iPhone view through a binocular lens.

Puffin stuff

The island is also home to eight million Puffins. Though they are mostly be gone by mid August when we visited, there were still hundreds on the cliffs by the puffin hut on Stórhöfði. The Super cute seabirds don’t exactly look built for spanning oceans, they’re not what you’d call aerodynamic and their wings look like an afterthought, despite this every year they leave for Scotland, Ireland and the south of England. The young often leave for their first migration ahead of their parents, and will often go to separate destinations. Go Puffins!

Puffin
A recuperating puffin at the Sea life sanctuary

Gourmets by the dozen

 

There are a few well-known restaurants on the island, the most famous is Slippurinn, a gourmet experience on an impressively industrial scale. The night we were there, there were over 80 gortexed and hungry souls packed in crunching crispy cod skin crackers and slurping skewers of hand-dived scallops from the 7-course menu.  Slippurinn also make great cocktails from herbs, foraged on the island.  It’s at the pricier end, but hey!  It’s Iceland, and after doing the math on the first round of drinks, nothing will ever shock you again.  

Speaking of which, If you like beer, check out the local microbrewery, the very pleasant Brothers Brewery. It also has the best selection of board games I’ve ever seen in a bar. 

There’s also a nice public pool with several slides, one of which ejects you onto a kind of a trampoline, the challenge, if you’re looking, is to stay upright and water ski the 5 or 6 meters descent to the pool. This will keep kids entertained for hours. Local kids were playing another game, the winner was the first one to get a warning over the Public Address from the lifeguard.  I don’t have any pictures from the pool because it’s just plain wrong to take photos at the pool. 

 

 

Post script. Who were the West men? 

The Vestmannaeyjar or ‘west man’ islands are named after  a boatload of Irish slaves that took refuge there after killing their Norse master Hjörleifur Arnarson. They were tracked down to the island and killed by his brother, Ingólfur the Norse settler and Iceland numero uno primo citizen.  The Irish were known as ‘Westmen’ because that’s what the Irish were called by the Norse, Ireland being west of Scandinavia.  We don’t know much more than that, but it seems to me the Irish fellas get a bad rap, they were kidnapped after all and they made a break for it. In the movie in my Irish head, the noble Mick chooses freedom and death above slavery. Go Vestmann!  

Psychadelic rock on top of Edfell

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