Return to Iceland, Pt. 8

Whale Watching and Hot Tubbing

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Ágúst kindly offered us coffee. We drank it standing in the kitchen, listening to the radio, and watching the street outside. Ágúst moved to Akureyri thinking he’d stay a few years and ended up settling there. It reminded him of how Reykjavík was when he was a kid – a little smaller in size, a little slower in pace.

When we were ready to go, Ágúst and his girlfriend saw us to the door – an Icelandic tradition, he said, “otherwise you take the knowledge of the house with you.” He asked about our plans and remarked that Mývatn was very beautiful. “I see you have nice warm sweaters,” he said, and took this along with our small SUV as evidence that we were well-prepared. Luckily, the weather also remained calm – quite pleasant, if unusual, Ágúst said.

We left Akureyri behind and drove into Eyjafjarðarsveit, a picturesque valley stretching south of town, with no plan other than to see what we could see. The dirt track took us past farms and snow-dusted mountains. Morning dew shined in the grass and in the wool of sheep dotting the fields. I would have kept going if not for a tractor blocking our way.

iceland valley road
iceland meadow with sheep

On the other side of the valley, we stopped by Kaffi Ku for breakfast, which turned out to be Kaffi Klosed, despite the website saying it was open. It would have been cool, I think, to enjoy breakfast in the pastoral surroundings, listening to the cows lowing. Another casualty of winter hours! I preferred to continue on to Husavík rather than backtrack to Akureyri, figuring on breakfast along the way, but as our surroundings became more remote, it became clear we’d have to eat at our destination. The transitioning landscape was some consolation as the mountains gave way to rolling northern countryside.

According to the Icelandic Book of Settlement, Husavík was the first place to be settled by a Norse person, circa 870 AD.

Once we arrived in town, we stopped at the information center, where a helpful desk agent checked us in for our whale watching tour, gave us our tickets, and told us where we could get stamps for our postcards. We dashed across the street for the stamps, affixed them to the postcards, and dropped them in a red Posturinn box.

mountain town harbor husavik iceland

Lunch was creamy vegetable soup, bread, coffee and a blueberry muffin at Hvalbakur Café directly below the information center. We even got a small discount thanks to our tour tickets. All that remained was to wait for the tour to begin; we waited on a bench near the pier and watched as the boats came in. The North Sailing craft were traditional oak-hulled fishing boats dating from the 1970s. Another company appeared to be running RIBs – rigid inflatable boats. These high-speed craft were faster, but more uncomfortable.

ship masts
whale watching boats husavik iceland

Upon boarding North Sailing’s Sæborg, the captain sized us up and gave us an appropriate coverall. They were heavy, warm, and water resistant. Soon we were departing the harbor. The gentle rocking of the boat combined with the warmth of the coverall actually started to make me feel a little seasick. I felt a lot better when I stood up – I found it better to look out to the horizon and compensate for the boat’s movement with my legs.

Skjálfandi Bay gets its name from the Icelandic word for “trembling”, owing to frequent geological activity in the area.

I kept my camera secured on a strap in cross-body position with the 55-300mm mounted. A couple of spare batteries went in an outer pocket of the coveralls. I set the drive mode to slow burst and used the following settings:

  • ISO 400 – 800
  • 1/320 – 1/1000s shutter
  • f/8

Clouds gathered to the south and west, but a little sunlight managed to lance through here and there. Being on the water provided a unique and beautiful perspective after the many miles of road we’d seen. I started to realize I was probably going to enjoy the trip a lot, even if we didn’t see whales.

skjalfandi bay landscape

I needn’t have worried because the first whale was sighted about 45 minutes after leaving Husavik. It was surprisingly exciting to see the spout. The crew was constantly scanning for the telltale spray or “fluke prints” – round shapes in the water that appeared after the whales dove. We would then sail into the area in the hopes that the whale would surface, or perhaps there would be more than one whale there.

Humpback whales can grow to about 15m in length, weight up to 30 tons, and are capable of diving to a depth of 200m.

There were two other boats out – one RIB and another like ours. All the boats seemed to keep a fairly respectful distance from each other and the whales. Our guide said that some whales are quite curious about the boats. A tail slap can be a warning, but a slap followed by the whale approaching the boat indicates playfulness. In a rare occurrence, one whale chose to come alongside, passing within 10 feet; we leaned over the rail and could see its enormous shape and white fins through the water. I was humbled by seeing this creature close-up in its domain.

whale watching boats
whale diving near a boat

We spent the rest of the afternoon chasing after whales in awe-inspiring surroundings. I was surprised we didn’t have to go far to find the whales; I had assumed we’d have to go to open ocean. Catching a glimpse of them never got old. Their flukes and fins have distinct patterns, like fingerprints – we saw four distinct humpbacks. We did see one of them do a sort of half-breach – showing its white belly – which was pretty impressive considering the size of the animal. We learned that they are mostly solitary but sometimes work together to make hunting easier. The males are the ones who develop songs, and when they reach mating grounds, they actually begin to share the same songs.

Eventually we turned back toward Husavík. The crew distributed cinnamon rolls and mugs of hot chocolate just as a light rain began to fall. The guide took a moment to remind us to be conscious of how we use and dispose of plastics. The stuff is getting into every level of the food chain, and when the whales eat it, it sticks with them for life. Believing they are full, they eat less and less real food. This is thought to be one of the causes of younger whales washing up on shore more frequently.

Back in port, we doffed our coveralls and jumped in the car. It was hard to imagine how the day could be any better, but on our way out of town, we emerged from sunshowers to see a full rainbow arcing over the bay with fantastically beautiful mountains in the background.

The remainder of our drive to Laugar was uneventful. We were famished – before we even checked in at Guesthouse Storu-Laugar, we shared a pizza at local joint Dalakofinn. This was where, much to my disenchantment, I found out that there’s really nothing in Appelsin but sugar, acids and coloring. This whole time I’d been convinced there was actually some kind of orange or citrus element to it!

When we did check-in, it was after a bit of confusion following the signs for “Storu-Laugar.” They led us to Hotel Laugar, which, with winter beginning, was probably being used to board students. The guesthouse was another kilometer down the road. A friendly lady at reception checked us in. Our room was warm and spacious; we got cozy and relaxed for a while, looking at pictures from the whale watching tour. Around 8pm, we put on swimsuits and robes, then went out into the cold, crisp evening to scope out the hot tub. It was a long, rectangular concrete pool fed by a natural hot spring and covered by a mat of wooden slats that could be rolled back.

Image courtesy of

There were only two other people enjoying the hot tub – Roger and Ella (pronounced “eyja”), from Portland, Oregon. Ella is originally from Finland, though she had lived with her sister in Reykjavik for some time. We shared how our trips were going, agreeing on how remote and singular experiences in the north could be. Roger particularly enjoyed the hot springs – each one an opportunity to recharge, and occasionally, socialize. He claimed that this had eased pain in his knees; I hoped mine would benefit as well (they’re not too bad, but they get pretty stiff after a lot of walking or hiking).

The sky was almost perfectly clear and the stars were shining. We all hoped the northern lights might become visible despite a forecast calling for low activity. Roger and Ella returned to their room – we spent another 20 minutes enjoying the water and the night sky, then followed suit. It turned out that they were in the room next to ours. We wished each other a good night.

storu-laugar auroraAround 10pm, I decided to go outside with my camera equipment to see what I could see. It was very cold, clear and quiet. I took a few photos and packed it in. It was only a week after we got back to the US that I found one of the photos had captured a faint display of the aurora!

I hadn’t planned well for moving my gear from the chilly outside environment to the toasty guest room. My camera, lens and tripod all gathered condensation immediately. I did my best to keep things dry over the next couple hours; it would’ve been a lot easier if I had taken my bag outside with me, as I would have been able to zip everything in it and then let the bag warm up to room temperature when I got back.

And with that, it was time to go to bed. I was excited to visit Myvatn – we had a lot planned, including a hike in the morning – but as I drifted off to sleep, it was the whales swimming peacefully in Skjalfandi Bay that captivated my imagination.