blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Whales, Puffins, and Reindeer

Recently I visited a beautiful country that had previously only been a dream in my mind--Iceland. The land and its people are both magical and mystical. I almost wish I could think of a plot with an Icelandic setting in order to have plenty of excuses to return for research trips. Alas, such is life, I think my writing, at least for now, is well grounded in US history.

Among my visits to the magnificent waterfalls, cinder cones, and glaciers, I had hoped to see a whale, some puffins, and reindeer. After two three-hour tours aboard a boat searching for whales, the only life sighted, besides other tourists looking for the same, were sea birds riding the waves, puffins that resembled black blobs on a rock, and a ghostly view of a harbor porpoise. Overall, the whale tours were a disappointment.

Upon my arrival in the town of Akureyri, the hotel clerk pointed to a picture behind his desk. The fluke of a humpback whale had been photographed in the bay across from the hotel just the evening before. Unfortunately, the whale failed to return during the two nights I stayed there, and I never fulfilled my wish of seeing a whale. At that point, I didn't really count the puffin sighting either.

During the following couple of days, I saw a number of signs for reindeer crossings. Reindeer were brought to Iceland in the 18th century. The first two herds failed to survive the winter. The third herd was brought to the country in the mid-19th century and thrived. In present day, they live mostly in the highlands during summer. After my whale experience, I truly never expected to see any reindeer, but at one point, a bunch of cars were stopped on the road itself (there were no pull offs) with people taking photographs. Sure enough, a whole herd wandered in the distance. Although they weren't right next to the road, they were close enough to observe. On another day, I spotted two more reindeer, but they paled in comparison to watching the herd.

My goal remained of finding some puffins that looked like birds rather than blobs on a rock. Iceland has one of the largest populations of puffins, and over half of the Atlantic puffins breed there. I had timed my arrival in mid-August, and with every passing day, my chances of seeing them grew dimmer because that time of the year is when puffins migrate out to sea. On the sixth day of my visit, gorgeous sunshine greeted me, but during the afternoon the skies grew stormy over the glaciers and at sea. Late in the day, I risked traveling to the cliffs of Dyrhólaey where puffins are known to congregate. The weather had begun moving inland, and the unpaved road was horrendous. At the end of the road, I was rewarded. Puffins were everywhere--on the cliffs and even nearby rocks where footpaths went. It was a photographer's paradise. The following morning the weather was once again clear and sunshiny. Hoping to view the puffins in such glorious weather, I returned to the cliff. Not a single bird was in sight. They had all flown to sea.

Even though the whale remained elusive, I was pleased. After all, two out of three goals isn't bad.

Kim Murphy


  1. Oh fabulous journey! I've often wished to see this astounding land--and wow! Puffins! Little charmers and just recently being reestablished in NEngland. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. Thanks, Juliet. Iceland truly is a magical land.