Heimaey

Heimaey is the largest island (5 sq. miles) in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland. It is best known (by tourists anyway) for the puffins and the 1973 volcanic erruption.

We took a long distance bus for the 140 km ride to the ferry terminal. The day was cloudy and windy. Along the way, we began to see the unusual landscape of Iceland - vast stretches of lava filds, jagged mountains, and steam plumes from geothermal power plants.

The bus stopped at a few towns. There were not many riders to the ferry terminal. We noticed that this long-distance bus served a second purpose. We saw high schoolers got on the bus in a small town and then got off at the school in a bigger town.

(L) Steam from geothermal power plant on bus ride to ferry terminal
(R) Heimaey ferry terminal parking area

It was sunny on Heimaey when we disembarked. After dropping our luggage at our guest house, we hiked up a steep hill next to the harbor. The climb is complete with wooden ladders and a rope chain, finally up to a well-trodden narrow path over the summit. It is not very high but it overlooks a green grassy hillside below, full of puffin burrows and puffins flying around but they were too far away and flew too fast for good photos. But it was a lovely, strenuous hike in great weather.

The hill also provides an amazing view of the harbor, the 1973 eruption lava flow, 2 volcano cones and other sea stacks and small islands in the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago.

(L) Natural harbor in Heimaey
(R) Town of Heimaey in foreground. In the background is the harbor and the hill we climbed.

         
(L) Ladders and stairs on steep hill climb           (R) Sally on ladder

       
(L) Fish waste outfall from fish processing plant. Sea gulls are having a field day.
(R) Sea stacks viewed from top of hill

(L) View from top of hill - there were puffins somewhere
(R) Lava flow area from 1973 Eldfell eruption (closer cone). The farther cone is the extinct volcano Helgafell. Harbor in foreground.

It was rainy, dark and chilly that night. We felt quite at home at this Seattle-like weather. The next day was overcast but not rainy. We were told by the locals that the best place to see puffins is at the southern end of the island. So we called the only taxi on the island to take us there. This is the place to see puffins. There were hundreds of them hanging out on the steep grassy hilll side, flying in and out and swooping across our field of view, and plunging down to the water fish. There is a puffin blind to shelter us from the cold wind - it was cold and very windy. It also provides a great vantage point to take pictures.

(L) Hillside full of puffins                                         (R) Puffin with fish in mouth

Here is a video of puffins in action

We also saw a couple of white wagtails and a pipit.

                        (L) White wigtails                                                 (R) Pipit

After seeing the puffins, we got the cab back to center of island, where we hiked up the two volcanoes, the dormant Helgafell and the recently erupted Eldfell, and then learned more about their history at a good, new museum.

In 1973 Heimaey's 5,000 residents had to be completely evacuated to the mainland when Eldfell erupted. This was done all in one night using the fishing fleet which was unusually in harbor that night because of rough weather. Unlike the very explosive eruption of Mount St. Helens, the Edlfell eruption started with the opening of a fissure followed by lava flows and cone building (more like the Hawaiian volcanoes).

The lava flow continued for several months, destroying houses near the volcano. It also moved into the sea, creating new land. At the same time, it was threatening the harbor which is central to the fishing industry, the main livelihood of the island. Innovative work to keep the lava flow away from central harbor was done using giant seawater pumps to spray the lava to form a dam that then kept future flows away from the harbor.

(L) Dormant volcano Helgafell    (R) Volcano Eldfell which erupted in 1973. Helgafell in the back

(L) Lava field created in 1973 eruption                        (R) The lava flow was very close to the town

(L) Half buried house from 1973 eruption                 (R) Preserved house inside Volcanic Museum

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