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Iceland – Land of Fire and Ice (Orcas, Aurora Borealis and The Golden Circle)

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Northern lights in Iceland

Northern lights in Iceland

 

There’s a gale force wind raging at 100 miles per hour at Keflavik airport when we touch down in Iceland. We have landed in Iceland in search of the aurora borealis and orcas. It has always been on my bucket list to see this mysterious natural phenomenon more commonly known as the northern lights. We have our first initiation of the unpredictable and extreme weather of this tiny island in the North Atlantic. Iceland endures long winter and short summer. It has a temperate climate warmed by the Gulf Stream despite its position in high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. It is volcanically and geologically active with lakes and glaciers covering 14.3% of its surface. Its landscape is defined by dramatic wild beauty of glacial and lava fields, gushing geysers, smouldering volcanoes and beautiful waterfalls that tumble down majestic mountains. Its rugged coastlines of 4,970km are punctuated by fjords and peppered with sea stacks, natural arches and strange rock formations that the locals believe are trolls, which have turned into stones.  Trolls are supernatural beings in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. Indeed the stunning beauty of the mysterious landscape has given rise to many a legend and saga among the Icelanders of trolls, monsters and elves. This travel article covers the orca watching, Aurora Borealis search and completing The Golden Circle.

The dramatic scenery of Iceland is laid bare.

The dramatic scenery of Iceland is laid bare.

 

The mountains and waterfalls of Iceland.

The mountains and waterfalls of Iceland.

 

Riding The Waves With Orcas

The next morning the wind has calmed down and we set off to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the Snaefellsnes National Park to the small fishing village of Grundarfjorour. The peninsula is of outstanding beauty dominated by the Snaefellsjokull icecap, which was the inspiration and setting of Jules Verne’s classic novel “Journey To The Centre of the Earth”. We stay at Hotel Frammes, a homely small hotel by the harbour that serves as the perfect base for whale watching. The sea is still choppy when we set sail in a fishing boat in search of orcas which are supposed to be around at this time of the year due the abundance of herring in the sea, the orca’s staple diet. After a few hours of non-sighting of the whales, we head back to the harbour disappointed. The next we are in luck. Led by Alexa, our guide who is a cetacean researcher and conservationist, we spot the pods of orcas of adults and a baby frolicking in the water. They seem to enjoy our company swimming metres from our boat. Further out in the sea, we spot another two different pods surfing in and out of the water blowing bubbles and generally having a goodtime cavorting in the gentle waves. Orcas are the biggest species of the oceanic dolphin family and it is a misnomer to call them killer whales. It is believed that the name maybe a mistranslation of the Spanish name “asesina ballenas” which literally means “whale killers” after Spanish whalers witnessed them hunting whales in the 18th century. The orcas are apex predators and top of the food chain in the ocean. They have no place in a marine amusement park.

A pod of Orcas by the bay by fishing village of Grundarfjorour in the Snaefellsnes National Park

A pod of Orcas by the bay by fishing village of Grundarfjorour in the Snaefellsnes National Park

 

A pod of Orcas, adults and a baby, frolicking in the sea.

A pod of Orcas, adults and a baby, frolicking in the sea.

 

The Magic of Aurora Borealis

Many have gone in quest of the aurora borealis (from the Latin words “northern dawn”) and fail to see them. As with any natural phenomenon, it is a game of chance. After an unsuccessful chase in a dark and cold peninsula for the aurora for a few hours, we are once again disappointed and head back to the hotel. The hotel has an aurora wake-up calls that you can sign up to be awaken should the northern lights make an appearance when you are asleep in your rooms. It needs a clear sky and darkness to see the aurora but tonight the sky is cloudy. Just as we are about to give up by midnight, the cloud clears and as if by magic, eerie shapes like swathes of silk, shafts and swirls begin to dance and twirl, unfurling and re-shaping like ghost riders in the sky. Behold the aurora borealis! The surreal spectres are slightly tinted with green lights with hints of purple and pink to the naked eye but the lens of the camera capture the magnificent colours of the northern lights.

 

Ancient people in Greenland thought the aurora were cosmic messages from their ancestors in heaven while the Romans venerated Aurora as the goddess of dawn, flying across the sky to announce the arrival of sunrise everyday. Scientists have a more earthly explanation that the aurora is caused by the collision of energetic charged solar particles ejected from the sun with atoms and molecules in the earth’s magnetic fields at its polar regions in high altitude.

The aurora borealis over the village of Grundarfjorour. These northern lights performed for us for more than 2 hours.

The aurora borealis over the village of Grundarfjorour (Hotel Frammes in hte foreground). These northern lights performed for us for more than 2 hours.

 

More views of the aurora borealis.

More views of the aurora borealis.

 

 The Golden Circle in Iceland

On the last leg of our journey we embark on a scenic route known as the ‘Golden Circle” traversing through three of Iceland’s enchanting natural wonders.  First stop is the rift valley on which Iceland is straddled on both the North American and Eurasian continental plates in the Pingvellir National Park. It is also the site of the first parliament of Iceland established in the year 930 till 1798 where political assembly were held for supreme legislative and judicial authority mostly in the hands of chieftains. Because of its historical and geological importance, the area is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Next stop is Gullfoss, a spectacular three-tiered waterfall in the canyon of the Hvita river tumbling 32m into the raging canyon. Our final stop takes us to the Great Geysir area, a geothermal park of spouting geysers, mud pots and hot springs. The volcanic vapour from the hot springs reek of sulphur. The most active hot spring in the area is Strokkur, which erupts every 5-10 minutes spouting hot water up to 20-35m high. We spend the night in Reykjavik, the world’s most northerly capital city. It is a charming city with a lovely harbour and quaint Nordic buildings.  Iceland should be on everyone’s bucket list.

The 1st stop of The Golden Circle – The rift valley on which Iceland is straddled on both the North American and Eurasian continental plates in the Pingvellir National Park. It is also the site of the first parliament of Iceland established in the year 930.

The 1st stop of The Golden Circle – The rift valley on which Iceland is straddled on both the North American and Eurasian continental plates in the Pingvellir National Park. It is also the site of the first parliament of Iceland established in the year 930.

 

The second stop in The Golden Circle is Gullfoss, a spectacular three-tiered waterfall in the canyon of the Hvita river tumbling 32m into the raging canyon.

The second stop in The Golden Circle is Gullfoss, a spectacular three-tiered waterfall in the canyon of the Hvita river tumbling 32m into the raging canyon.

 

Our final stop in The Golden Circle is the Great Geysir area, a geothermal park of spouting geysers, mud pots and hot springs. This geyser erupts every 5-10 minutes spouting hot water up to 20-35m high.

Our final stop in The Golden Circle is the Great Geysir area, a geothermal park of spouting geysers, mud pots and hot springs. This geyser erupts every 5-10 minutes spouting hot water up to 20-35m high.

 

The Reykjavik Cathedral dominates Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Back to reality – Iceland has a modern and busy city.

The Reykjavik Cathedral dominates Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Back to reality – Iceland has a modern and busy city.

This travel article has covered the highlights of visiting Iceland in Winter – The watching of Orcas, chasing the Aurora Borealis and completing The Golden Circle.

 

Discover the World, specialists in Iceland, northern lights and Arctic holidays offer year-round tailor-made and small group escorted tours. www.discover-the-world.co.uk  Email: travel@discover-the-world.co.uk

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