Call Me Ishmael: Humpbacks in Husavik

Having spent several summers on the river, one would think I’d have a greater familiarity with boats. This would be untrue, as I mentioned when writing about my snorkeling weekend a few years ago. While I’ve enjoyed escaping oppressive summer heat and chugging along the murky Navesink river, I’ve never really gained my sea legs – or stomach. This doesn’t deter me from boats, though, so I was more than happy to sign on to a “Whales, Puffins, and Sails” tour on Easter Saturday in Husavik.

Prior to arriving in Iceland, I’d discovered that we’d be visiting during puffin mating season, so I fully expected to see puffins out in droves along Iceland’s rocky shores. With this in mind, I’d brushed up on some fun facts about puffins and performed Google searches of baby puffins (which are simultaneously adorable and peculiar). I hadn’t seen any yet, but perhaps my luck would change on the boat tour.

At 9:30 in the morning, Jamie and I grabbed some semi-pricey tickets at the North Sailing booth and hopped on a schooner rigged with flapping sails and coils of heavy rope. We were handed bulky red coveralls, warm and water-resistant, that I struggled into with Jamie’s help. (It was very large and it limited mobility!)

On board, we were greeted by a young Icelandic guide named Kristopher, who later told me about a sailing trip he took to Greenland with fourteen other North Sailing members, only two of whom did not get seasick on the trip. Our captain, a salty man with a strong jaw and jaunty hat, proudly sailed us out of the harbor and toward puffin island. (I half-expected him to strike up a sea tune or remove a pipe from his pocket, but alas, he did neither of these things.)

Suited up

Suited up

More boats

More boats

Puffin island was a quick and easy journey, with mild weather and calm sailing. Kristopher clambered about the schooner, inviting passengers to assist with raising sails and pulling ropes. The whole endeavor looked difficult and tangled, so I was happy enough to observe quietly from my warm spot on the bench. Once near the island, Kristopher directed our attention to a series of specks in the distance.

“If you look ahead, there are puffins!” he cried, excited. Eager, Jamie and I shuffled to the bow and squinted ahead. There really was no telling if they were puffins or not. Dozens of black dots zipped toward the island, where they quickly became indistinguishable from the rocky backdrop. I attempted to photograph them, but it was futile without a better zoom lens. Kristopher announced that we would now power up the engine and head out into the bay, a journey that would take a full hour.

By this time, Jamie and I noticed a striking difference between sitting toward the stern on a bench and standing at the bow. Here, blustery gusts of wind slammed you in the face as waves crashed against the bow, swinging it up in the air before it crashed down against the water, bits of frigid spray slapping your cheeks in earnest. As we picked up speed, I realized I needed to safely conceal the camera in its case and shield it from the water, which was a difficult task to perform with gloves and what felt like a space suit.

I wobbled unsteadily on the slippery deck as the ship plowed forward, swinging up and crashing down as I fumbled with the camera strap. Jamie put my hood up at this point, a welcome addition to the suit, and we decided to return to our original seats. Unfortunately, the rest of the passengers realized the benefit of sitting at the back more quickly than we did, so we were forced to sit on a wet slab of bench near the bow.

For one hour, I sat with my head bowed, chin against chest, blinking away wave after wave of water that crashed over the side and soaked me. After about thirty minutes, my fingers went numb. Thirty more, and my face was soaked. The suit did its best to keep me warm and dry, but by the time we reached the whale-watching site, my bones felt as cold and wet as my nose. Jamie looked as miserable as I felt, but I did my best to keep my spirits up. I tried to convince myself we might see a whale, but our experience with the puffins rendered me less optimistic.

“We are stopping here, because a whale was reported here a few minutes ago,” Kristopher announced excitedly as we putted to a stop near another ship. “It is diving down, and it should resurface soon. Keep your eyes out!”

He’d taught us to use times to note location, so when someone shouted out, “10 o’clock!” I jumped to my feet. Directly in front of us, a great black curve broke the surface of the water before disappearing. Then, the wide spade of a tail.

Kristopher told us it was a humpback whale, and we watched in awe as a spray of water gushed up, the whale diving down again, flicking its massive tail behind it.

For the next thirty minutes, I forgot about my frigid fingers and instead watched as the surface of the water was broken by a humpback whale, impervious to the icy temperatures. I’ve never seen a whale before, so each time somebody shouted “11 o’clock!” or “3 o’clock!” I stumbled to my feet to catch a glimpse. It was incredible.

Husavik is the whale-watching capital of Iceland; in summer months, both whale watching companies boast 99% success rates. It was both surprising and thrilling to spot the giants then, on a shivery morning in April.

Despite the excitement of the whales, I felt the cold numbness from my fingers creep to the rest of my limbs and silently prayed we’d turn back soon. When Kristopher announced that we would raise the sails and glide back into the harbor, I immediately felt a lot happier. Once we’d nestled snugly in the harbor mouth, we were given cinnamon buns and creamy hot chocolate from a thermos, a very welcoming treat. It was even better when the captain produced a bottle of rum and added a shot to everyone’s mug.

In the end, we’d spent four hours at sea, so we were both eager to return to the hotel for hot showers and a nap. Saving our energy for the northern lights – a solar flare had occurred the previous night while we were fast asleep, apparently causing quite the activity – we explored the harbor for dinner and decided on a pub/restaurant with a fishy vibe called Gamla Baukur. A blond-wooden affair with ship wheels mounted on the walls and Viking on tap, it was the perfect place to end a day on the sea.

Fisherman bar

Fisherman bar

Another sunset in Husavik

Another sunset in Husavik

3 replies »

  1. Would you recommend doing this tour to see puffins ? Or you think it is best to walk near some sea cliffs to see nesting birds and have a better close-up ? Because it sounds very uncomfortable 😉

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