On day five, we spent the morning of day four exploring Reykjavik. The clear weather rewarded us with some excellent views of the city from the observation deck of the Perlan, and we also admired the stunning architecture of Halsgrimkirkja.
The afternoon was devoted to a whale watching trip, and we enjoyed fantastic views of both Minke whales and Bottle-nosed dolphins. The thermal pool at Laugardalslaug provided some relaxation for the group before we returned to our hostel.
For day six, we took the 35 minute ferry from Landeyjahofn to the volcanic island of Heimaey, the only inhabited Westmann island. This archipelago of 15 islands and 30 islets and skerries is located either side of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, and is fed from a magma chamber between 15 and 30 kilometres below the surface. Heimaey itself began life as two separate volcanic islands formed from a sea bed eruption that took place around 10 to 12 thousand years ago. A third island was then formed around 6 thousand years ago, and the lava shield that poured out from this giant crater linked all three islands together around 5 thousand years ago.
But it was a more recent eruptive event that has made a name for Heimaey. On January 23rd 1973, a 1.6 kilometre fissure opened up on the island, throwing fountains of lava, volcanic bombs and tephra (ash and dust) into the air. After two days, the eruption localised at one central vent, and by February 15th, Eldfell (‘fire mountain’) had grown to a height of 220 metres. Much of Westmannaejar town below the volcano was buried in tephra – in some places up to six metres deep – but the biggest worry for the island was that the lava flows from Eldfell would block the harbour that is so important to the local economy. Around 250 residents stayed on the island (while the rest of the population was evacuated), and they helped to slow the progress of the lava by spraying it with cold seawater. The eruption ended on June 25th, with the harbour still open – and now protected by a natural breakwater courtesy of the newly created nearby lava fields.
After arriving at the harbour, it was just a short walk to the old lava flows, where a multitude of paths led towards the slopes of Eldfell volcano. Yellow-topped marker posts led us through stands of lavender-blue lupins, and we passed an old pump that was used to douse the lava in cold sea water as we slowly gained in height. It was a steep and steady slog to the top of the volcano, where we were rewarded with views of Surtsey island to the south west – forming the outline of a crouching cat in the blue-green ocean. Also to the south, it was clear to see the old fissure line where the 1973 eruption began. The last stretch of the path ran along a short knife- edge, taking us to a sheltered spot where we could look down on the harbour and the town. Parts of the ground here are still quite hot, and provided a warm, comfortable seat to enjoy lunch. It was easy to see how close the lava flow came to blocking off the harbour entrance, and we could also pick out the remains of the north rim of the crater – known as the ‘wanderer’ – that was carried northwards towards the harbour by the flowing lava. After enjoying the scenery for a while, we retraced our steps back towards the town, taking in some great views of the extinct neighbouring volcano of Helgafell in the near distance.
We navigated our way through the outer streets of the town to find the Eldheimar Museum, and really enjoyed the modern exhibition housed inside that told the full story of Heimaey’s 1973 eruption. An audio tour guided us around buildings excavated from metres of deposited tephra, and introduced us to interactive models, photographs and rock samples. The first floor of the museum was given over to an exhibition of Surtsey – the volcanic island we saw from the top of Eldfell. Surtsey is a recent arrival on the Icelandic landscape, appearing above the surface of the sea following a submarine eruption in 1962.
We finished the day with our customary dip in the local swimming pool before strolling back to the harbour for our return ferry to the mainland.