Of Birds and Men - Mathieu Meur

I travelled to Iceland full of joyful apprehension. A few years ago, I had spent a couple of weeks travelling all around the coast of Iceland, stopping along the way for dives, trekking up volcanoes, riding the diminutive local species of sheep, exploring underground caves, taking dips in natural geothermal pools and a host of other activities that left me with a sense of wonder that had yet to be matched by other destinations, despite having had amazing adventures across five continents in the intervening years. 

Granted, Iceland is not exactly the first place one thinks of when looking for an exotic destination. Yet, with its 5,000 kilometres of coastline, countless waterfalls, lakes, ponds and rivers, this is a country that has its geography thoroughly intertwined with water. Over the past few years, the incredibly clear waters of Silfra, a crack between the American and European tectonic plate (“the dive between continents”) has consistently gained popularity among dive aficionados as a place to see at least once before you die, and this reputation is well deserved. From the entry point where you jump into the crystal-clear spring water, you can easily see the far end of the “lagoon”, over 100 metres away.

A few privileged others have been fortunate enough to explore some of the other absolutely unique underwater terrain that Iceland has to offer, like the Kleifarvatn Lake with its streams of bubbles and fragile volcanic topography, the massive WWII wreck of El Grillo in Seyðisfjörður, the volcanic chimneys of Strýtan spewing spring water at 80˚C in the middle of the sea and literally plastered with marine life, the Bjarnagjá crack with its ultra-clear water and eerie plumes of yellow weeds barely clinging to its sides, the mesmerising shifting sands at the bottom of the Litlaá river, and many other distinctive locations. On the other hand, the Westfjords region, the massive protruding peninsula in the Northwest, remains largely unexplored as far as the underwater scenery is concerned, and undoubtedly constitutes Europe’s last true wilderness.

During my first trip, we had ostensibly left out the Westfjords region in our discovery tour of Iceland's coastline. "The region is too remote and isolated, it would take too much time and effort", Davíð Sigurþórsson, our genial and multi-talented guide, had declared then when questioned him about including it in our itinerary. The Westfjords occupy a special place in the local culture. Many of the famed sagas, the narratives based on historical events that took place between the 9th and 11th centuries, feature the region as mythological, and historically important. Yet, speaking to some Icelanders in Reykjavik revealed that many had never even stepped foot in this province.

A few years on, and things have now changed. The lure of the Westfjords was simply too great to resist. After an initial reconnaissance conducted exclusively by their own staff, Iceland Dive Expeditions have decided to overcome the odds, and tailor a dive-and-trek exploratory trip especially for those with adventure and discovery in mind. This was not going to be one of those organised tours with masses of tourists, but instead a journey for only a select few. 

With this in mind, our small troupe of six intrepid divers met near the harbour in Reykjavik, and headed on North with Davið in the driver’s seat. The images of our long drives through mountains and plains of Iceland from my first trip were still etched in my memories. Somehow, the sights that kept unfolding outside the window of our van seemed to surpass those older ones. The raw beauty of the chiselled Icelandic coast is a sight to behold, and never cease to surprise, like this wide white sandy bay framing a sea tinted in multiple cerulean shades as we approached the famous Látrabjarg cliffs for a quick peek at nesting puffins. The location seems to be the ideal refuge for these small sea birds, with its sheer faces and small recesses and steps in which the puffins form burrows to shield their eggs. Undertaking the perilous task of carefully leaning over the edge of the cliff reveals, we managed to catch a good look of the nesting parents, with an incessant ballet of sea gulls hovering from the cliff’s edge down to the sea and back again, collecting food and seaweed along the way. Extreme caution is required, as the brink of the cliff is rather fragile, and more than one have fallen to their death while trying to capture a better image of the puffins. 

After several hours of driving northward along winding and scenic mountain roads, we managed to squeeze in a quick dive on a superb macro dive site in Birgisklettur. The stunned look on the bystanders’ face as we stripped and changed into our dive suits in a carpark was enough to make my day. However, the richness of the marine life left me dumbfounded in my turn. From the unusually yellow-hued moustache sculpin (Triglops murrayi), to the countless whelks, hermit crabs, sea stars, sunstars, nudibranchs, sea snails to the alien-looking worm and myriad ribbons of nudibranch eggs, this dive put us all in a really good disposition for the rest of the trip. This was followed by a ferry ride and a night in little chalets straight out of The Lord of The Rings, half-buried under sloping turf, we finally reached the regional capital of Ísafjörður, and boarded Britta, the spanking new 60-foot sailing boat that would be our operating platform form the next week or so. 

Six hours of smooth sailing under clear blues skies took us to the very North of Iceland’s mainland, at the edge magnificent Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, and only a few nautical miles shy of the Arctic Circle. Right at the Northwestern tip of the peninsula, at a location known as Súlnastapi, a jagged rock, about 100 metres across, juts out of the ocean just off the coastline. All around this small outcrop, flocks of black and white guillemot bob around on the surface, seemingly waiting for the distraction that we will be providing presently. As we drop into the frigid water, comfortably wrapped into our drysuits, the curious birds immediately follow suit, easily reaching depths of 12 or 15 metres, air pockets trailing in their wake.

With their diminutive wings, guillemots, just like their distant cousins the puffins, look like they should not be able to fly. In the air, it is comical to watch them flap away furiously and constantly just to remain a few metres off the ground. Underwater however, it is a completely different story. The birds zip around, ever curious of the divers and their bubbles, totally at ease in this seemingly alien environment. The guillemots appear to be able to see clearly underwater, for they seem to delight in avoiding the camera. As soon as you turn the camera to face them, they dash away in the opposite direction or head back to the surface. For the better part of an hour, we remained in awe of this continuous organised chaos, with hundreds of birds speeding into the water to observe us, but never accidentally hitting us or each other. The experience was so exhilarating that we unanimously decided to be back the next day. On cue, the birds started dashing into the water once again the second we started our descent. Nestled in a forest of gently undulating kelp and oarweeds, with the occasional cod passing by, scores of guillemots graciously come to greet us, maybe to mock this lumbering lot in our cumbersome drysuits. 

On a planet where air travel has shrunk distances incredibly in the span of a century, few places on Earth remain inaccessible. Compared to crowded dive destinations elsewhere, the only divers in the water within a radius of a hundred kilometres were the coast guards salvaging a sunken barge in Ísafjörður. In fact, I would happily wager that fewer people have explored the Westfjords underwater than have dived in Antarctica.

In between these two dives, our invigorated band headed to shore for a trek through the Hornstrandir reserve, and a chance to observe arctic foxes. The foxes prey on the thousands of gulls, terns and other birds that call this spit of land home. This was the time of the year when pups start leaving their burrows, so we had to remain alert at all times so as not to scare them off. Our path took us on a long loop, several kilometres long, through a hilly terrain completely overgrown with heather and flowers of all imaginable colours. The odd dead bird carcass strewn in the landscape bear testimony to the presence of the foxes. The narrow and winding path that takes us to the highest point of Hornstrandir closely follows the cliffs that host countless gulls and terns in every nook and cranny, with many more in the air, catching the sea breeze. Once at the top, wispy clouds descended upon us and started to engulf us, the view down onto the fjord is simply breathtaking, our sailboat a mere dot in the distance, and the strangely even tops of the surrounding hills looking like as many folds in a fabric, dusted in white snowy patches even at the height of summer. Ironically, despite several encounters from a distance, we only managed to observe an arctic fox up close once we had gone full circle and returned to our starting point. The diminutive animal did not seem to mind us, to the point that it even curled up for a quick nap right at our feet - a magical moment for us all.

From research ahead of the expedition and discussions with our knowledgeable guide, it is clear that the history of the Westfjords is intimately linked with birds. Even with modern modes of transportation, it takes hours to get from one part of the fjords to another. Life in the early days, particularly in the Middle Ages, must have been eminently difficult. Men would have needed strong motivation to settle there. While it appears that in a few cases this may have had to do with escaping justice, in most instances, the reason was simple: the abundance of food. The rugged Icelandic men of yesteryear would wield nets attached to oversized pitchforks to catch birds for meat. Using ropes to rappel down the cliffs, they would carry large fabric sacks around their necks to collect eggs from nests. Stories abound of the abundant harvests. One particular account speaks of a young boy who fell to his death on the rocks below, after the rope snapped, so loaded was his bag. Diving on the tip of Aðalvík the next day, at the base of a massive cliff, we could see the remnants of abseiling cords bearing testimony to this intertwined history of birds and men. As we were about to jump in, a sudden commotion engulfed the whole area, with hundreds of gulls, terns and guillemots suddenly taking off in a dense white and black plume. As it turned out, a pair of large skuas had decided to reap their share of “free meals”. Life in this isolated region is decidedly hard for the birds, with both human and non-human predators. As we reached the bottom in about 10 metres, broken egg shells confirmed that the skua raid had been successful.

Later that day, after almost two hours of snorkelling with grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), the animals testing our patience all the while, with the ubiquitous guillemots and gulls bobbing around on the surface, we dropped onto a small, flat island for a break before the next dive. Hopping from slippery rock to slippery rock, a cloud of Arctic terns descended on us, picking at our hats and caps, in futile attempts at deterring us from exploring further. Our guide Davið had warned us that eggs and nests lay haphazardly all over the ground. Even skirting around the nests was not totally safe. Thousands of puffins have burrowed into the soil for the safety of their fledglings, literally turning the ground into a gigantic Swiss cheese.  Leaving the seals observing us from the safety of the water's edge, we ventured deeper into the island, dodging nests, eggs and burrows along the way. Just like underwater, in order to capture the best images, observation is key. Patterns emerged, behaviours became apparent, and flight paths of gulls and puffins revealed themselves to us. Selecting the best vantage points, we were able to observe the avian crowd peacefully from up close, including puffins with their favourite snack in the beak, the capelin (Mallotus villosus, a small silvery fish abundant in Icelandic waters). Barely hidden in the undergrowth, we came across eider duck nests, each with a few eggs. The soft down that lined the nests, plucked from the female's breast, have for generations been sought-after and reaped by Icelanders after the nesting season to make warm jackets, quilts and pillows.

We made the following dive at an uncharted and unnamed site, with one of the strangest bottom topography that I have seen to date. Starting at 10 metres and sloping gently down to 20 metres depth, the site is literally covered with fist-sized convoluted pink coral-looking concretions. As it turned out, these stoneshrubs, also known as maerl, really are a form of red algae belonging to the Lithothamnion genus, and hardened by calcareous deposits. Lying here and there on top of the maerl, large red sunstars, massive crabs, whelks and sea urchins vie for space with nudibranchs and small sea snails. The maerl is an important economic resource locally. It is mined for use in the pharmaceutical industry, as a construction material, and as a soil conditioner. The slow growth of maerl over hundreds of years means that it should be considered as a non-renewable resource, rendering its exploitation questionable, especially when other more ecological alternatives are readily available. Old habits die hard, though, especially in such isolated locations. After another long, fulfilling day, our band of explorers gladly retired to a much-needed bath in a geothermal pool under the midnight sun.

The next day saw us reach a long-disused whaling station not far from Hesteyri. The ancient brick structure had all but crumbled under the weight of the years, with various esoteric bits of machinery scattered across the lush Icelandic summer landscape. We could only imagine the harsh lives of the rugged men inhabiting this forsaken fjord back in the days. The mere thought of the countless whales processed in this facility was enough to send chills down our spines. Dropping into the frigid waters, these dark deeds were confirmed by the numerous calcified whale bones littering the seabed, encrusted in gaudy sea urchins and common sea stars. All around the site, we come across great spider crabs (Hyas araneus), shy plaice and the odd-looking armed bullhead fish (Agonus cataphractus), its mouth lined with rows of barbels, protruding nostrils, and umber coat blending into the silty bottom, itself covered in thousands of brittle stars. On our way to the shallows, after passing rusty wheels, encrusted rails and random bits of machinery, sad reminders of the history of that location, the water suddenly turns dizzyingly blurry under the potent combined effects of a thermocline from geothermal activity, and a halocline from the small meltwater streams pouring into the sea.

Back from the dive, our small group undertakes a 6-hour long trek over the hills into the next fjord, encountering what seems like all four seasons along the way, with continuously changing temperature and fauna, carpets of flowers, and clouds rolling down over the peaks. With never-ending days, it is possible to really make the most of our time. The next dive takes us once again to a carefully selected yet never-dived location. There are always inherent risks to trying out uncharted sites, both in terms of safety and of the marine life that is present. In this case, though, the location delivered beyond our expectations: a pink rocky pinnacle, with a flat top at about five metres, completely covered with limpets, encrusting red algae, chitons, and mussels larger than our fists. In the vertical cracks that run through the steep sides, we first come across a gap-toothed wolf eel, a colourful but ridiculous-looking male lumpsucker fish (Cyclopterus lumpus), and several spider crabs. Easing on down to the bottom at about 20 metres, I encounter a massive bulgy-eyed sculpin and several common green crabs (Carcinus maenas) before turning back. On the way up, I decide to check out the numerous clumps of yellow sea weeds that cling on to the rock, and to my surprise uncover in each of them a whole minuscule ecosystem consisting of numerous species of diminutive opisthobranchs and amphipods, none larger than 5 millimetres. As if all this was not enough, while inspecting a floating strand of fluorescent green algae during my safety stop, I realise that a couple of minute juvenile fish are nestled inside, for protection. This has to be frontier diving at its best: dropping into a place where no one has dived, that very few will be fortunate to visit in the future, and discovering a stunningly beautiful environment in the process.

Between the dives and the nature walks, the week passes quickly and it is soon time to sail back to Ísafjörður. On the way, we all reflect on those privileged moments we’ve had, the magical scenery and lush nature we’ve encountered. Armed with the knowledge that only one or two such exploratory trips will be run each year, we already know that we will have to be back.

• Author note: The title of this article, other than its obvious relation to the story, is a barely disguised reference to famed Icelandic folk-pop band Of Monsters And Men.  For those not already familiar with their music, it is well worth a listen

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by Mathieu Meur ( OG 38)

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