As we drove north along the Ring Road, the landscape changed from one of flat plains marked with stark plateaus and cliffs, to gentler mountains and undulating hills rolling by the sea. Iceland’s north west is home to its largest seal colonies and the origin of many a troll in the island’s folklore and tales.
Seals of the Vatnsnes Peninsula
In the North, the sea plays a big part in the lives of the Icelanders who live in the area. The waters here have seals, dolphins (like the Orca and the Pilot Whale – which are not whales but dolphins), and whales like the Minke whale and the Humpback whale.
Our first stop was along the coastal road near Illugastaðir. There’s a main seal watching point at Illugastaðir, but we noticed a few cars parked at another location, about a kilometre before, and decided to stop there instead. Although there’s supposed to be lots of seals in the area, you still have to be lucky to spot them up close. Although the ones we saw came pretty close to land, we still had to scramble over a few meters of rock that led out into the ocean before we got into close proximity with the creatures. The frustrating thing was, sometimes when you feel like you’re finally up close and personal with them, they decide to swim away!
We spotted four seals. There were a mother and a pup beached on the far island, and two adolescents playing in the water only a few feet away from the rocks we stood on. These seals were harbour seals, the most common sort. You can identify them from their round head and short snout. Sometimes I thought they looked a little bit like Jake the Dog from Adventure Time with their cute, fatty V-shaped muzzles. They also have large, round, dark eyes that absolutely warm your heart. As you can see from the photographs, they also do not have any external ears. Instead, they have an ear canal with a specialised inner ear for underwater communication. Many species of seals do not have external ears, these seals are called the earless seals, and they are distinct from fur seals (that have the cutest little ears) and sea lions.
These seals were not that difficult to spot, and we didn’t have to wait long for the adolescents to swim closer to shore. I’m not sure whether it’s a common occurrence in these waters, but we felt pretty fortunate that they came so close to land. I suppose they didn’t haul themselves onto the shore because there were people on it – I’m not sure. I’ve been on beaches in New Zealand where the seals hang out on the sand, completely ignoring the people on it. The ancestor of all seals and seal-like creatures (including walruses) – which is most closely related to modern day bears – used to have to take its food onto land to tear, slice and masticate it.
I’ve seen seals in zoos, and also hanging out in bays where there are lots of fishing boats (and the fishermen feed them the fish they can’t sell), but it was great to see them in an environment that was not influenced by human activity. They behave very differently. There was something really special about seeing them in this isolated beach so far up north. We really felt like we were transient visitors to their environment – as opposed to them being circus acts in ours. These were some very special moments – there are so few truly wild animals on the land and in the waters that surround human populated areas.
Along the eastern shore of the Vatnsnes peninsula, in the northwestern part of Iceland, there is a 15 metre high basalt rock. The rock stands alone, a striking figure on the stark black lava beach. Unfortunately it was a cloudy day when we got there.
I can imagine the rock strikes an impressive figure seen from its base, when lit dramatically by a rising or setting sun.
Nevertheless the views of the northern peninsula are gorgeous from this point.
The Atlantic Ocean stretches out ahead of you, while the imposing mountains that make up the peninsula dominate the view to the right.
The coast of Hofsós is lined with impressive basalt columns. These seemingly perfect geological artifacts are the result of magma cooling into mainly hexagonal patterns.
The plates form parallel to the flow surface (in this case the area facing the sky), while the columns form perpendicular to the cooling surface.
This results in what looks like lots of hexagonal bricks being laid onto one another to form the cliffs. If you’re interested, Wired has a great article about this phenomenon – How Do Volcanoes Create Towering Columns in Rock?
There’s also a community pool here in Hofsós you can visit if you feel like a dip, but when we got there, it was pretty crowded. Also, just about every hotel in Iceland has a hot tub, so we gave this one a miss.
To spend our night, we made it to Siglufjörður and checked into the Sigló Hotel.
Siglufjörður is a gorgeous little town hemmed into a fjord (as is obvious in its name).
Like most other places in Iceland, stepping into the town was like stepping back in time, into a sheltered safe space hidden among the surrounding peaks.
The hotel itself is one of the main attractions, and makes a pretty picture, against the backdrop of the mountains that border the fjord. The rooms are well appointed and it has a lovely hot pool overlooking the bay.
There was something magical about the town and the hotel. Maybe it was the calm vibes, the blue skies and the almost perfectly reflecting still water in the bay.
So far, the north of Iceland has proved to be exceptionally beautiful and full of natural charm. The landscape, the animals, the people and its towns are wonderful – picture perfect and completely inspiring.