Iceland's Westman Islands are a bird watcher's paradise
Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) archipelago is just off the south coast of Iceland - by ferry, it's about 30 minutes from Landeyjahöfn (Landeyjahofn), or 3 hours from Þorlákshöfn (Thorlakshofn); or by plane - 20 minutes from Reykjavík. The archipelago consists of around 15 islands. Heimaey, at 13.4 km2, is the largest and the only inhabited isle, with a population of around 4, 500.
Ideal for either a day-trip or a longer stay, the Westman Islands are a particular favourite with bird watchers. The largest puffin colony in the North Atlantic is in the Westman Islands. It's estimated that the habitat contains 1/5 of the world´s total number of puffins, making it the largest single puffin colony in the world. From April through August, Heimaey in the Westman Islands is a must for all puffin enthusiasts.
The Westman Islands are also known for their volcanic history. Formed by submarine volcanic eruptions between 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, the latest volcanic eruption took place in 1973 when a 1,600 metre long fissure opened, traversing Heimaey from shore to shore. Within 2 days a cinder-spatter cone rose more than a 100 metres above sea level.The cone was later named Eldfell or "fire mountain". The eruption lasted nearly 5 months, but, miraculously, no lives were lost. The fishing port, also called Vestmannaeyjar, on Heimaey island was almost ruined, and the effects are still visible in the town in a project called “Pompeii of the North” - an enterprise to excavate some of the almost 400 homes and buildings still covered by lava and ash from the eruption.
At the time of the eruption, all Iceland, directly or indirectly, participated in helping the residents of Heimaey. On the advice of the Icelandic geologists and geophysicists, it was decided to fight the lava flows that were threatening to destroy the town and the fishing port completely. An operation was mounted to cool the advancing lava flows by pumping seawater onto it, thereby managing to slow, divert or stop the flows. Not only was the endeavour successful in preventing the loss of the harbour, but the lava that almost blocked the harbour entrance has been turned into an asset and is now acting as a breakwater, helping to protect the harbour from storms. In the booklet describing these events, Man Against Volcano: The Eruption on Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland by Richard S. Williams, Jr., and James G. Moore, the writers conclude: “Vestmannaeyjar once again has become a vigorous fishing community, a laboratory for geologists, a major tourist attraction, and a testimony to the perseverance and courage of the islanders to turn, with the help of other Icelanders and foreign friends, a seemingly hopeless situation into a bright future.”
Probably the most tragic event in the history of the Westman Islands was the raid by Barbary corsairs in 1627 when the pirates abducted 234 people, nearly half of the inhabitants at that time, and took them away into slavery in Algeria. Most of them were never able to return to Iceland. Many place names on Heimaey are a reminder of this heartrending event.
Today, the Westman Islands remain one of the most important fishing centres in Iceland. Surrounded by mountains, isles, volcanoes and seabirds, Westman Islands is also one of the major tourist destinations in Iceland. Among the many attractions are deep sea fishing, bird and whale watching, horse riding; natural history and folk museums, to name a few. Heimaey also has one of the most beautiful and extraordinary 18 hole golf courses in the world. Hiking up volcanoes, over lava fields or along the shoreline are also favourites.
The locals are famed for their hospitality which is also greatly in evidence during the major Westman Islands annual festival - Þjóðhátíð (National Festival),“The Festival”, which attracts thousands of people. The Festival is usually held on the first weekend in August; it’s a 3-4 day outdoor festival with various kinds of entertainment, including a traditional bonfire and fireworks.
Another annual event, unique to the Westman Islands and a special children’s favourite is the “puffling-rescue-time” during August when the young puffin chicks leave their cliff nests to fly off across the North Atlantic. Since they navigate by moonlight, they often become confused by the city lights, and crash land in the streets instead. But, the Heimaey children are there to rush to the young pufflings’ rescue, and release them to the sea. The annual search-and-rescue of the young puffins is a custom passed from generation to generation.