Husavik in North Iceland is a magnet for mammals roaming about in cold water, and for tourists roaming about on whale watching boats trying to spot them. North Sailing offer a novel yet traditional slant on this increasingly popular activity, so we climbed on board one of their twin masted schooners for a bit of whale watching Husavik style, a morning with whales, puffins and sails…..
In the beginning there were whales…
Whales have come and gone in the subarctic Icelandic waters for decades. And so have the industries connected with them. In the old days they had commercial motives and blood on their hands. In more recent Icelandic history they came in peace; to study and watch and protect and enjoy. But in both cases, there was the same thrill of the chase…
A spout of water and an age-old rush of adrenaline
There’s a buzz in the air. A palpable excitement. A spout of water has been spotted on the horizon. The boat swings around. Everyone rushes to one side or the front and the race begins. What species might it be? Is it a false alarm? Or what we all came to Husavik for? We all have the same urge. To find it, identify it and tick it off, to watch its night-black back glide through the water. How we long to reach out and touch its slippery skin.
A race to bond with a gentle giant
There’s the thrill of being there first. Of getting close up. Of building a relationship. Will it stop to play? To breathe? To flirt? Because we are already in love. Every one of us. Praying that the captain has a sixth sense about where it might pop up. Determined not to give up pole position as the other boats crowd in to applaud and squeal appreciation. Hoping it will do one last trick before it goes back down to feed.
Following the trail of the early hunters
The Icelandic and Norwegian Whalers must have had the same surge of adrenaline and excitement all those years ago as they readied their harpoons and saw dollar signs spouting from the waves. But while they readied themselves for action, we ramp it down. The engine cuts, the boat falls silent and everyone holds their breath. Where will it re-emerge?
The fleet converges
On this whale watching trip, on one of the North Sailing fleet, you don’t have to work hard to imagine yourself being part of a powerful fleet from the past. This family run company owns an impressive range of salvaged and beautifully restored oak boats. And several of them converge in the bay near Husavik to anticipate the moment the whale will pop up again.
It’s not so different from what used to go on. And yet it is. We are warm and snug on deck in one piece boiler suits, with hot chocolate and cinnamon pastries warming up downstairs. When the humpback resurfaces and curves seamlessly through the water, we will do nothing more sinister than clap and cheer. The only thing we are killing here is knots. And the knots seem to go even faster when we have the wind on our tail and life in the sails.
While other whale watching companies might head home to log the humpback, blue or minke, our crew from North Sailing moves into another mode. It’s time to go sailing; because this is a traditional two masted schooner. And if you book a trip on Hauker or one of her elegant sister boats, you are encouraged, and even expected, to help rig and gyb. Huge sails combine with the blowy weather to take us effortlessly through the bay. And what a bay; known as Skjálfandi, it’s classic postcard stuff; the choppy sea framed by the colourful and cheery harbour.
New life for an old design
Our boat was restored in Reykjavik in 1973. Designed as a fishing boat, the hull shape resembles the old shark and fishing schooners common in Iceland in the 19th century. And it’s a peaceful and traditional way to see the whales that frequent this bay during the summer months. In fact there is a 98% chance of spotting one today. We spot more than one; two humpbacks and a minke to be exact. But whales aren’t the only creatures ripe for hunting.
Puffins are friends not food
Last night I started a flurry of activity on twitter when I announced I was going whale watching and puffin hunting. ‘Puffin hunting on a family holiday?’ came the shocked responses. But I didn’t mean I was going to slaughter one for dinner. I just wanted to meet one. And we do. 200,000 of them; nesting on Puffin Island before heading off to spend the winter months at sea. The cliffs are swarming with these beaky creatures.
Whales, puffins, sails and zzzzzzzzz….
The crew haul down the sails to take us back into the harbour. But they don’t get much help from us. In the late morning sunshine all three of my kids are asleep on the deck.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We spent summer 2012 exploring Iceland and The Faroes, researching what’s on offer for adventure seeking families. We’re grateful to Smyril Line for help with transport, to Berghaus and Thule who helped equip us for the journey. Thanks also to North Sailing for their support which enabled us to bring you this story. You can see a map of our journey on The Family Adventure Project Punkt! and view some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of what we got up to.