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The Land of Ice and Fire

Updated: Oct 21, 2023

REMOTE AND RUGGED ICELAND PART ONE



Thursday, 14 September 2023


Lunchtime in Liverpool with my partner Michelle, to join the cruise ship Borealis as the Team Leader for Ocean Wildlife Encounters (OWE). Alongside Dave ‘Fisons’ McGrath (DMcG) (this would be our second adventure together aboard this ship with OWE, the previous one was a rather rough and windy jaunt to eastern Canada last October), and newbie to OWE Ian Hadwin (IH), a good mate and top birder/naturalist and seeker of all things blubber.

Borealis at Pier Head Liverpool


PIC DMcG

After a fruitless scan of the river for Harbour Porpoises and the ‘world heritage’ waterfront for Peregrines, we retired to the buffet area to plan and discuss the voyage ahead.

Then with time to kill before setting sail we had a look off the back of Deck 3 where several Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls were successfully catching plenty of small fish out of the very murky water racing by as the tide ebbed.

After a fair old feast in the buffet restaurant, it was time to don the fetching purple official OWE tabard and start work as the ship began to move off its berth. Our route would take us past the west side of the Isle of Man, through the North Channel then out into the Atlantic south of St Kilda.

Our OWE mission was to show as many of our fellow passengers as much wildlife as we could from small shoals of jellyfish to massive Blue Whales, and everything else in between. One thing we hoped for was plenty of seabirds, particularly storm petrels, and other northern hemisphere specialties'.


Working our way out of the river and into Liverpool Bay there wasn't much happening, although excitement rose considerably when a small flock of Oystercatchers then a lone Woodpigeon flew across in front of us. No Harbour Porpoises were found, nor were there any Grey Seals on their favoured haul-out sandbank, which had only just been uncovered by the dropping tide. In fact much of Liverpool Bay seemed devoid of life, there were very few Kittiwakes, just one reasonably sized flock of Manx Shearwaters with precious few others, just a handful of Gannets and very sadly far more dead than alive - bird flu victims presumably? - a solitary Fulmar, no skuas, no divers, no terns, no Common Scoters, no Little Gulls; it was very quiet out there. The highlight was a small flock of about a dozen Golden Plovers whizzing past the observation area.

North of the Isle of Man we came across the first auks, small flotillas of Guillemots scattered here and there, and we hit our first blubber, with at least two Bottlenose Dolphins seen.

Rain showers were a feature in the morning of Day 2 but they faded away to give long sunny spells by the afternoon. New birds encountered for the trip today included a few Razorbills and the first of many Puffins with a few Sooty Shearwaters and Great Skuas.

There were many more Manx Shearwaters and Guillemots too and everywhere you looked there were Fulmars.

It was good to see far more live Gannets than dead ones today too...a big relief really. We also saw our first European Storm Petrels, several small groups...brilliant, but a nightmare to photograph such a tiny scrap of feathers from so high up on the ship, so please excuse the poor pics!

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The enigmatic form of St Kilda loomed low in the distance as we spotted a lone Leach's Petrel.


Petrels can be a serious challenge in terms of locating them for the benefit of passengers and the general technique is really to keep scanning and suddenly one will be picked up in the eyeline via binoculars, but they can be frustrating to see for even seasoned watchers like ourselves.

The only Grey Seals of the trip were seen today, just two, a brief sighting of one diving far away from the boat and one that swam beneath our bow. Suddenly I saw what I describe as a 'wobbly old-fashioned plastic school ruler' on the surface - the tall dorsal fin of a Sun Fish, one of many encountered on the trip.

As for finned blubber an odd cloud in the shape of a whale's tail was a good omen, but too far on the horizon to nail an identification.

Passing beyond St Kilda we had pods of Common, Bottlenose and White-beaked Dolphins, a couple of Minke Whales and a small school of Long-finned Pilot Whales, passengers also reported seeing Harbour Porpoises in the flat calm sea too.

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One of the passengers, Richard Davison, kindly provided a 'Back-of-Camera' pic of the Long-finned Pilot Whales as we failed spectacularly to get any shots off. This one is a female without the big curled 'Smurf's hat' dorsal fin of the males.


At dusk, a series of blows on the port side alerted us to a couple, or maybe even three, logging Sperm Whales...job done...the first encounter with the largest toothed whale in existence - get in!

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As the last of the tails disappeared into the depths so the light went too - time for a well-earned pint and an exhausted collapse into the cabin ready for Day 3.


The third day brought more showers on a cool breeze but still only a slight sea. We now had a 'Big Four' thing going on; Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Puffins and Gannets were ever-present in varying numbers all day but bird-wise the shearwaters were the stars today, plenty of Manxies, at least five Sooty and more Great Shearwaters than you could shake a stick at. We also had a Blue Fulmar and small flocks of Arctic Terns, along with couple of juvenile Black-headed Gulls far away from land and going even further away. Auks were not so well represented, other than the Puffins, but several distant tiny blobs of black and white scooting through the troughs could only have been Little Auks...it took a while to get a handle on them and they were impossible to photograph but it wasn't until we realised they were still in breeding plumage that we worked out what they were. Tricky things are sea birds at distance!

Out of nowhere a Turnstone turned up on the bow and pottered around in front of several admirers for an hour or so. It really shouldn't have stayed so long as it was now at least 30 miles closer to where it had come from than where it was going to.

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A young Gannet also cruised round the ship circumnavigating us several times during the morning.

There was plenty of cetacean action throughout the day too. Pods of Common Dolphins and White-beaked Dolphins both evading the lens. We did manage to get lots of shots of empty sea though...

Whale-wise Dave clawed back his Canadian Blue Whale dip and got lots of passengers onto one of the two seen during the day...so many passengers in fact that they were all stood in front of us and we couldn’t get a shot through the crowd!

Talking of Fin Whales, we saw lots, well lots of blows and some of them were close enough to resolve into a bit of the animal.

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The Fin Whales had a supporting cast of Minke Whales too -

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For an hour or so we had the cruise's Special Guest Speaker join us (as if AB wasn’t special enough!). Michaela is probably familiar to many of you, and she came up for a chat and a bit of an interview thing, as well as joining in with the wildlife watching. Here is a screenshot of her Twitter (now X) feed from that day.


From L-R Dave, Michaela S, Ian


She certainly filled her boots with cetacean sightings while watching with us but we just couldn't rustle up the Blue Whale she really wanted. Good of her to be wearing an almost matching uniform too!


Introductions on stage - AB / IH / DMcG and MS -

PIC courtesy of John Riley


Day 4 saw us dock just offshore at Heimaey Island, situated a few miles off the southeast corner of Iceland. A small island which had suffered an almost catastrophic volcanic eruption in the early 1970's with many interpretive boards and monuments, however today it was warm and sunny, t-shirt weather.

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While waiting for the tenders to take us to shore we watched from Deck 3 as lots of Fulmars surrounded us giving some good photo opportunities.

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A Wheatear briefly hopped around the boat while White Wagtails flew back and forth overhead. Further away from the boat we had an Arctic Skua and a couple of Great Skuas, although sadly not as close as the Fulmars.

There were plenty of Kittiwakes and Puffins and a Minke Whale was fairly close to our mooring position too.

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Eventually it was our turn to head for shore for a bit of sightseeing. Black Guillemots welcomed us as we sailed towards the harbour entrance, while Glaucous Gulls soared overhead. The ride also gave the chance to get some eye-level pics of the Fulmars on the water but keeping them in the frame, as the little boat wallowed around in a rather large swell, was tricky to say the least.


It was a warm day and the popular walk up the volcano that nearly destroyed the town was over-subscribed so we had a lower level wander around the larva fields it had buried half the town with. There were some poignant signs indicating where former homes stood, now buried in 30 feet of basalt.

PIC IH

We heard Meadow Pipits and saw a flock of pigeons, or rather Rock Doves - a large flock of which almost all were the original 'wild type'.

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The rocky larva field had some weird and wonderful shapes and, in its crevices, grew some interesting plants.


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After a circuit of the lower boulder fields we weren't sure where to head for next, when another passenger told us of the old church and there was a bit of a sandy bay beyond where they had seen some unidentified waders, so that made our mind up and off we went down the hill.


A few yards further on from the church the mystery wader turned into a Turnstone and a short walk through a quarry brought us to the beach, where we found a flighty Redshank, which we accidentally flushed, and a Ringed Plover which sat atop a pile of quarry waste - did it have a nest or chicks nearby?

PIC AB

The scenery was spectacular too, with a huge, sheer cliff face on the opposite side of the inlet to the harbour that was packed with interesting geology and other features, like this more recent larva flow maybe a few millions of years old, sitting over much older rock.

Or the singing cave where tourist boats moored up for the occupants to have a warble in the fantastic acoustics. Looking above the cave you can just make out a small house and an overhang with some nets - we think this is probably a Puffin hunter's lodge. Sadly, Puffin is still very much on the menu for the locals and also in some more touristy restaurants.

PIC AB

Back in the harbour, IH and DMcG had marvelous views of a Black Guillemot swimming in the crystal clear water right below them, showing the diagnostic red feet of this species.

In the outer harbour there was a well grown juvenile Black Guillemot too.

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Time was pushing on and it was back to the ship for the sail out, which turned out to be spectacular, as we sailed past the enigmatic Elephant Rock.

PIC AB

One place we've always been fascinated by is the Island of Surtsey, it's one of our older crews earliest memories, watching black and white telly of it bubbling up molten hot from out of the sea forming new land way back in 1963 and as luck would have it we sailed right around it, well the best part of three sides anyway. Fabulous, although it doesn't look much in the photo, just being there was good enough for us as it's a place we've always wanted to see. The colours, random huge rocks scattered about and different strata in the rocks all told the story of a new land being formed, and new it is as there's still very little vegetation able to get a toehold on there.

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There were still a few daylight hours for us to watch the sea but it was fairly quiet other than the Big Four seabirds, Kittiwakes, Puffins, Fulmars and Gannets. AB managed to get his attendant passengers on to a couple of Blue Whales, unfortunately our two-way radios were having charging issues and a ‘one-way’ radio is no use really, so by the time a runner had been sent to the side of the ship and everyone had raced back across there was nothing to see. Luckily, there were plenty of Fin Whales at both sides of the ship for us to point out to the passengers. Not a dolphin, nor a seal, in sight though, which we thought a little odd, where were they?

As darkness fell it was time for some late dinner, a well-earned pint and thoughts about tomorrow's port of call, Reykjavik.


The ship docked early, and we had a little time to scan the harbour before disembarking for a wander round Iceland’s capital.

The first birds you see from the ship are the ComMon Eiders in the harbour and these brightly coloured beauties.

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Which are not to scale we hasten to add. Clockwise from the top Common Redpoll, Goldcrest, Wren, Redwing, White Wagtail, and (we're guessing) Honey Bee.

Once ashore we did a bit of sightseeing, marvelling at the impressive glass Opera House, but somehow missing the Whale Museum, which other passengers told us later was “really good”.


We found the lake in the centre of town and enjoyed splendid close-up views of Greater Scaup, we rarely get point blank views of this species in the UK. And they had ducklings.

PIC IH

SCAUP PIC DMcG

The lake held a good selection of waterfowl and we probably should have walked all the way round but more sightseeing was on the cards. We had families of Tufted Ducks; some Whooper Swans being fed bread by the locals - why are they so wary in the UK? - Mallard, Wigeon, more Common Eiders, Greylag Geese, Black-headed and Glaucous Gulls.

Around town we saw numerous 'ordinary' Feral Pigeons and several Starlings but missed the Blackbird and Redwings that other passengers spotted in gardens on their perambulations around town. We also got our only in focus shot of a Puffin of the whole trip, how we managed that we've no idea, we saw thousands, but mostly on the sea scuttering flightlessly away from the ship, or distantly flying past with beaks full of Sand Eels, we saw none close up on rocks or the sea; so this somewhat frightening thing will have to do.

PIC AB

Reykjavik cathedral is an impressive and striking piece of architecture. Along with a statue of a potentially (very) distant relative Leif Erikson, well we all have some Viking blood in us don’t we?

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Down at the waterside we made our way to the arty Viking longboat known as the Sun Voyager.

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In the bay adjacent a small group of Arctic Terns fished and further along towards our bus stop a Glaucous Gull probed the seaweed for whatever edible delights might be lurking beneath.

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Earlier, at the park lake, we'd chatted to a local family about nearby birding sites, and they told us it was a very hot (by their standards) day, it was comfortably t-shirt sleeves weather about 18 or 19C so maybe just warm enough to set off the unexpected thunderstorm. Researching Icelandic thunderstorms, back at Base camp, we learned they only have between 250 and 600 lightning strikes per year and we saw five of them!

Once again the ship set off, with plenty of daylight still to come and we were hopeful of coming across the local Orcas, which were being seen daily from a whale watching boat off the next peninsula to the north of us...right where we were headed.

But it wasn't to be, the sail northwards was fairly quiet, we saw a distant single dolphin breach and a couple of passengers reported seeing a Harbour Porpoise. A non-blowing, or a missed blow, whale was put down as a possible Minke Whale. Bird-wise just the Big Four were still about. However, one of the passengers had struck lucky with a pod of White Beaked Dolphins which we had totally missed...must have been during our dinner break, honest!

A big shout out to John Riley, a fine upstanding Yorkshire lad, for letting us use his fabulous pics.

White Beaked Dolphins with a Fin Whale photobombing beyond!

Darkness was falling now, a fog bank developed and we were still nowhere near the Orca area, we were going to pass right by them in the middle of the night, how annoying - but that's how it is on cruises, they're set up to visit ports and places of interest for the passengers during the day and sail between them at night, whereas we would probably prefer it the other way round of course!

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We continued northwards heading towards Isafjordur, which, although isolated, is the biggest town in the Fjord lands of northwest Iceland. It was a sunny day with a cool breeze, but nice in the sun and out of the wind. From the ship in the harbour there were lots of Arctic Terns buzzing about back-and-forth fishing and then taking said fish over the town to their nesting area and then flying straight back for more fish in a constant stream.

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The town itself was a modern, utilitarian affair with a few veteran buildings scattered around the older parts of the harbour. Around the harbour Kittiwakes loafed about on the warehouse rooftops. A bit different to the more usual Herring and Black-headed Gulls back home, and instead of Carrion Crows hanging out around town it was Ravens cronking from the rooftops.

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Just outside the ship's berth a small dock for fishing boats held a flock of 30-40 Purple Sandpipers, easily the most we've ever seen together and probably more individuals than we've ever seen before too.



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There was a large Lion's Mane Jellyfish in the dock too, we tried to get a pic, but without a polarising filter it proved impossible.

Outside the dock gate was a sandwich board advertising a two-hour afternoon whale watching trip...yes! But would we get back to Borealis before she set sail, 'all aboard' time was 15.30. The extremely helpful young lady behind the desk in the adjacent lodge assured us the skipper knew about our timings and 'promised' we would see whales as there were about 60 in the local fjords. Too good to miss - out came the credit cards!

We had a little time to kill, so went to find some more onshore wildlife, some snacks for lunch and a mooch around town. All the Arctic Tern activity naturally attracted the attention of the local Arctic and Great Skuas and every so often there would be a commotion as a gang of terns mobbed an approaching skua, the nearer the skua got to the nesting area the more terns joined in and the louder the commotion became. But suddenly, the terns began making a very different agitated call and dozens of them went skywards a hundred or more feet and continuing to rise. Dave put his bins up and just caught a large falcon streaking away from us beneath them...no terns were mobbing this one, far too risky? He had just seen the back end of a Gyr Falcon and later confirmed by a passenger who'd had better views of it going the opposite way back towards the cliffs on the other side of the bay to the ship.


One type of bird we had expected to come across by now was a diver, if only we'd looked in this bay as one of the passengers, a young (by cruising standards) birder had a cracking summer plumaged Red-throated Diver.

Butties were scoffed by the dock whilst waiting for our ride, which duly arrived on time, off-loaded a family that looked like they'd been on a camping expedition somewhere up-country, and once they were off, we were on.

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Soon out into the fjord, leaving Borealis behind, where, hopefully, whales awaited us.


As you can see, this far north there was some snow and ice still lingering on the higher, more sheltered parts of the hills, and it wasn't long before our keen-eyed skipper spotted a distant whale blow, he put the hammer down to get us in good viewing range.


The next hour and a half were spectacular, dreams come true time!

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PIC AB

Spectacular views somewhere between 15 and 20 Humpback Whales altogether, all against the spectacular backdrop of Iceland's rugged scenery.

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Also, out in the fjord were lots of Puffins and we certainly tried to get an in-focus snap of one/some and failing miserably. The ones on the water dived before we got close enough and those flying past, laden with Sand Eels, were fast and very tricky from a very wobbly small boat - there was quite a bit of swell out there too.


We did get one flying close by, but just as the camera was about to lock-on it changed its mind and locked on to the huge photobombing Humpback Whale that surfaced in front of it instead - how annoying...Not!


And just in case you'd forgotten what Puffins look like when they're close and properly focused here's a lovely pic by passenger Karen Burns taken on a sightseeing boat down a different fjord.

What a fantabulous boat ride and as guaranteed we were back aboard Borealis just in time for afternoon tea and a very welcome brew.


As the crew pulled up the anchor and we started to move away from the dock IH noticed that the moon was in a ridiculously photogenic position against the cliff opposite.



PIC DMcG


A Viking cruise ship left minutes before us, and they should have secured fantastic views of a Fin Whale just off their port bow just a bit too far ahead of us for decent pics. There was plenty of other whale activity too with a couple of big breaches from Humpbacks, but unfortunately very distant.


Before we had reached the mouth of the fjord, AB picked up a Grey Phalarope fairly close to the boat and a guest reported a Minke Whale that we'd all missed. Once out of the fjord the Viking boat went north along the coast, whilst we headed south-west into the open ocean. Close to the coast there were a few more auks, including Brunnich's Guillemots and Razorbills, further offshore shearwaters came back into play with plenty of Manxies, a couple of Cory's Shearwaters, and four Sooty Shearwaters but, strangely considering how many we'd seen so far during the voyage, no Great Shearwaters. All too soon it was sunset and the last chance to find a whale blow.


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The following day was cooler with some cloud and a sea-state 4, lots of white-caps making spotting difficult with the wind moving whale blows around making them problematic to discern to species. It was a long slow day that improved as the afternoon turned to evening, although guests had reported both dolphins (probable White-beaked) and a Minke Whale before breakfast. Our notebook says we had a Humpback Whale at lunchtime and Sperm Whales and Fin Whale blows after dinner.


Bird-wise it was shearwaters again. The Big Four had been reduced to a Big Two as there were far fewer Puffins and only a couple of Gannets seen all day. We spotted a distant petrel which could only have been a Leach's Petrel up this way. IH found a flock of 'probable' Grey Phalaropes and AB saw a juvenile Sabine's Gull. A Dunlin called as it flew round the ship a couple of times without landing, and a flock of Golden Plover went past us early in the morning. Another totally lost Black-headed Gull was also seen. Once again, the day belonged to the shearwaters and now that we were a bit further south Great Shearwaters were by far the most numerous.

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With a supporting cast of fewer than 10 Cory's Shearwaters, several Manx Shearwaters (including a weird pale one that might have been a leucistic individual, a trick of the light or something else altogether!) and a single Sooty Shearwater. The only other bird of note was an Arctic Skua, giving one of the many Kittiwakes a whole load of grief right above the ship.

We would wake the following morning to calmer seas, blue skies and the Greenland coast.

PIC DMcG


END OF PART ONE

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