A Journey to Vestmannaeyjar

HON195 Student Post By: William Jack Hahn III, History Major; Honors Minor

Career Aspirations: I hope to become a teacher at the secondary level.

A Journey to Vestmannaeyjar

Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, are a group of islands located off of the southern coast of Iceland. The island was named “Westman” because some of its first inhabitants were escaped slaves from Ireland, whom the Vikings referred to as “Westmen.” Today, the island has evolved into much more than a temporary refuge for slaves–it is an active fishing village and tourist attraction.

The largest island in the archipelago, Heimaey, has always been at the forefront of the Icelandic fishing industry. For decades, this relatively small island community of 5,000 has remained the most productive fishery in the whole of Iceland. It is no accident, then, that the Icelandic shipping company Eimskip has a strong presence there.

The most common way to get to the island is to take a 30-minute ferry ride. This ferry is owned and operated by Eimskip, and their name is boldly emblazoned on the outside of the loading terminal. After bobbing through and around multiple islands, I could start to see why they are so interested in contributing to the islands continued success. In addition to all of the tourist and sightseeing boats, a plethora of fishing boats and ships were parked along the harborside. While walking through the small town located on the island of Heimaey, Eimskip shipping containers seemed a regular sight. As we made our ascent through town toward the local volcano museum, I witnessed at least three or four of these massive containers, adorning people’s yards like lawn decorations.


Getting to the island was no small feat. A storm had been raging since the night before. From the ferry terminal, we could all see what awaited us as we disembarked for the island. The ocean was rippling violently with waves, white foam mixing with the gray sea. As the boat rocked violently side to side, sending my classmates and I stumbling, I saw an Icelandic woman calmly sitting and knitting on one of the couches on the inside of the boat as if she were sitting at home.

Not everyone had such a tranquil experience as this woman though. At one point, I was out on the deck looking over the railing. Suddenly, I heard a loud bang from the deck above. A second after, I saw a pair of sunglasses fall onto my deck and get lodged under a bench. I ran over to grab them. When I did I realized that they belonged to my friend and classmate, Ben. He told me that the wind had blown them off of his hat and in an attempt to grab them, slipped on the wet deck and slammed his head into the railing [don’t worry! He’s ok!].

The ride was rough. Many students felt sick. Paper buckets were abundant on board, but thankfully none of us had to use any. The sky was dark and dreary, the sea grey and choppy. It was hard to keep balanced on deck through the constant swaying of the boat, the high winds, and the slippery surfaces. In addition to the rain, the spray from the ocean was constantly pounding the deck. By the time the ferry had docked, my glasses were caked with dried salt water. Even our Icelandic guide said it was a very rough ride. Donning his heavy rain jacket, sunglasses, and a balaclava, he sat at the stern of the ship and stared out at the horizon for a majority of the trip.


Besides the volcano museum, multiple attractions dot the town’s landscape. After arriving on the island, soaked to the bone from the wild storm we weathered to get there, we immediately made our way to the warmth of Tanginn. This restaurant had a weather beaten look on the outside, but on the inside it was warm and welcoming. The menu contained everything from the mundane burger all the way to the quintessential “catch of the day” and even the controversial whale steak.


After lunch, the storm had cleared and the full beauty of the town could be admired. Surrounded by mountains and volcanos, some with sheep grazing atop their peaks, the island looked like a setting out of fantasy novel.


Further in the town, almost hidden away, was a small but interesting aquarium. In addition to having exhibits of both live and stuffed Icelandic nautical animals, the museum also housed a live puffin! Allowed to roam the museum, acting almost as a pet, the little guy was rescued as a baby six years ago and was kept there ever since. After awing over the bird for a good five minutes, the museum curator told us an interesting story about a heartwarming yearly event that takes place on the island. The islands have a large population of puffins that live among their craggy shores. Each year during the hatching season, thousands of pufflings head out in search of their homes. Thousands never make it; instead, they wander into town, attracted by the lights. So it has become a tradition on the island to have the local children go out and collect all of the birds and release them near their homes. The children must use cardboard boxes or other similar objects to pick them up with. They try to avoid touching them as much as possible. Puffins excrete a substance that coats their bodies, making them water resistant. If people touch them too much, the oils from our hands could rub the substance off. This would make it impossible for them the swim. For this reason, the museum forbids visitors to touch or pick up the resident puffin.


The whole experience was an unforgettable one. The boat trip, the attractions, the exploration of the island. They all seemed to blend seamlessly and create an experience that cannot be recreated.