Monday, February 18, 2013


No, not in our streams (more's the pity). Last week Team Benstead drove up to Grundarfjördur on the Snaefjellsnaes peninsula, where orcas congregate in numbers every winter to feed on herring that are schooling in their millions as they prepare to spawn. We went out with Láki Tours, who operate a small converted (and very open) fishing boat for whale-watching. We were joined by a large group of English wildlife tourists and everyone suited up in one-piece waterproof overalls. I grabbed mine but, wearing 7 layers already, elected not to don it immediately. This turned out to be a mistake. All was calm as we left the harbor and sailed up the fjord. No sign of whales, so we continued out to round the headland and try the next fjord. At this point, I was glued to the bow like Garfield, but conditions were rapidly going downhill and I was starting to get very wet from the spray. My eventual retreat turned out to be well-timed, as a huge wave came over the bow that would have had me flat on my back. Everyone got absolutely sopped. But this was just the start. Soon, it was so bad on deck that the first mate suggested Lillian get in the wheelhouse. This was all very well, but she couldn't see out and promptly threw up (one of the tourists had been chumming over the side for some time and there were green faces everywhere). There are no photos of this part of the day. Just at the point that I thought it could not get any more miserable, someone shouted "Whale!" We had found them. We headed into the fjord and things became miraculously calmer. Everyone cheered up as the whales started showing in numbers. 

There were an estimated 60 orcas inside the fjord, in several family groups. Everything from large old females to mere babies. They seemed to take little notice of the boat (we were the only one there) and carried on feeding and resting. The herring schools have been measured at 10 m thick and extend for hectares, so there's clearly plenty to go around. We watched them for 45 minutes, before heading back to the dock. And, yes, it was calmer on the way home.

The upper fjord has been the site of two mass die-offs of herring in the last few weeks. In total, an estimated 35,000 TONS of dead fish now litter the beach and sea bed. We stopped on the road as we left town, where we were able to watch the whales with binoculars (how many places in the world could you do that?). We also walked on the beach to survey the scene (this was ill-advised: perhaps not surprisingly, decomposing herring has the exact consistency of axle grease). It was very scenic, but the smell cannot be described. You can see what's left of some of the herring on the far shore.

At this point, the tide was going out. Photographs cannot do justice to the sheer numbers of gulls that were feeding downtide of the bridge. Apparently, a large proportion of the population in western Iceland has decamped to the fjord to feed on the dead herring. I would estimate that between 5,000 and 10,000 individuals were inside, stretching as far as the eye could see, but who knows. It was utter mayhem, and proof that there can be plenty going on in the subarctic in February. 

Just up the road, two white-tailed sea eagles were soaring - there for the same reason as the gulls. All in all, a great trip. And we saw an Arctic fox on the drive up! After the boat ride from hell, it also felt well deserved. I'll end with a shot of my brave little sailor, enjoying the whales only minutes after seeing her breakfast for the second time. She's a trooper.

1 comment: