Water and Fire: A Day on the Westman Islands

HON195 Student Post: Lexi Bartlett, Political Science Major, Economics Major; Honors Minor

Career Goals: Foreign service officer, ambassador

Water and Fire: A Day on the Westman Islands

Thirty minutes. Thirty terrifying, exhilarating minutes is how long it took for the Eimskip ferry to travel from Landeyjahofn, on the southeastern coast of Iceland to the Westman Islands. As we boarded the vessel, my stomach churned as the relentless wind and enormous waves rocked us back and forth–and we hadn’t even left the sheltered bay yet. There had been torrential downpouring and ghastly winds all morning, weather that made us question if the ferry would even make its scheduled run. The film Titanic somehow meandered its way into my thoughts. Was I making a mistake getting on this boat? The captain made an announcement that we were departing, first in Icelandic, and then in English, and off we went.


As the ferry rose and fell with the crests of the frigid ocean, a few of us struggled to gain our sea legs. However, with the help of dramamine and ginger, we all managed to survive the voyage! Up and down, left and right, we clung to the railing as the waves rocked us. Throughout the ferry ride, I peered over the railing and down towards the water and watched as a swarm of small birds maneuvered their way around and above the waves, searching for their next meal. Their movements were calm compared to our experience on the boat.


The Westman Islands, which looked like small rocks from a distance, came to life as we approached the harbor. I am not exaggerating when I say that the view was absolutely breathtaking. As our boat drew nearer, we were overtaken by massive, cliff-covered islands. As you can see in photograph of the harbor, the cliffs appeared colossal when contrasted with the large fishing vessels in the harbor.  Somehow, sheep are able to get up on these giant, grassy cliffs. It was really interesting to see them running around up there, even though they looked miniscule from where we were standing. People can also climb up the cliffs, something that the more adventurous people in our group immediately wanted to try.

Our first stop off the boat was one of dire importance: lunch. A few of our more adventurous eaters tried whale steak, a delicacy that is illegal to eat in many countries, including the United States. I, however, stuck with hamburger. After our bellies were full, the sun began peer out from behind the gloomy clouds, which lifted all of our formally-drenched spirits. We then made our way to the newly opened Eldheimer Museum to learn about the devastating eruption of the volcano Eldfell (one of two on the island) that took place in 1973. After all, the island of Heimaey is not referred to as the “Pompeii of the North” for nothing. The coolest part of the museum was that it was built around a house that was destroyed by the volcano, but was still somewhat preserved beneath the volcanic ash (see images below). We were guided by an audio tour through the wreckage.

It was very surreal to hear the first hand accounts of the people who lived in, and then hastily fled, this house and this island. On the recording, the woman who once lived here recalled seeing the glow of the lava out of her bedroom window after having tucked her children into bed.  It was at that moment that she realized her family’s life would never be the same. What was even more surreal was that the volcano that did this damage was directly behind the museum. But don’t worry— it’s dormant now. Not only did the museum cover the explosion and the damage it caused, but it also covered the rebuilding of the island’s society. And I can say from experience, the island is definitely flourishing once again. It has one of the most active fishing harbors in the south of Iceland and is a tourist hotspot (literally).

After the museum, half of the members of our group were inspired to climb the volcano. I did not go as I am terrified of volcanos, but I am told that the views were spectacular. Apparently, at the top, there was hole you could stick your hand into that was extremely hot from the geothermal energy underneath the crust. Someone had even tried to roast a marshmallow over it, but it fell in. (Volcano photo credits: Emma Quinn, my roommate).

While my classmates were exploring the domineering (but dormant) volcano, the rest of us  visited the Sæheimar aquarium where we met Tóti, the resident puffin. And let me tell you, he was adorable. Completely unfazed by the crowd surrounding him, Tóti strutted his stuff and definitely enjoyed the attention. While at the aquarium, many of us wanted to touch the puffin, but we were not allowed to because they have a natural oil on their feathers which helps them to swim. If humans touch them, the oil can come off and the puffin could drown. Needless to say, we wouldn’t want that!


With the sun shining and the winds at bay, we boarded our vessel once more and headed back to the mainland. The now calm sea carried us back safely, and so was the end of a perfect day. Our adventures on the Westman Islands enlightened me about the tenacity of Icelanders. Their homes and livelihoods were literally melted away by Eldfell, and yet, not even 50 years later, the harbor is booming with tourism and fisheries, and nearly 4500 residents have returned to the thriving community.




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