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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Whales and auroras

Today was whale-watching day. It was a late start, because we'd all stayed up late looking for the northern lights. While the house to the north does have lights on it, we didn't see the aurora. If we don't see anything tonight from the house, we're going to pile into the car and head out into the countryside, away from town.

I've stopped noticing the sulfur smell in the hot water, which is nice. More Cheerios for breakfast, then we headed out. There are some whale-watching companies in Akureyri, but we've been told that Húsavík is better. Húsavik is a small town about 70 minutes northeast of Akureyri, on the east side of the next fjord over. It's where commercial whale-watching started in Iceland, and there are four companies that run tours. We spent some time last night deciding and booking tickets. One company only operates during the summer, and one was significantly more expensive than the others, so we were left with Gentle Giants and North Sailing to choose from. GG offers tours in a couple of larger boats, but features their rigid inflatable boats, whereas North Sailing uses restored oak whaling boats. Since Mom and I both enjoy sailing, we chose North Sailing, and booked online.

This turned out to be a great decision. The boat we went on was the Náttfari, a trawler built in 1965. It has a listed passenger load capacity of 90, and the tour that returned as we were arriving was pretty full, but our tour only had 12 people on it. As soon as we got on board, we were handed warm waterproof coveralls to put on. These were very comfortable, and I'm thinking about getting a pair for working out in the rain or getting field deployed at home (UPDATE: Nope. Further research indicates these were immersion survival suits and cost upwards of $900).

Almost as soon as we got started, there were white-beaked dolphins around us. We also saw a humpback whale, which got very close a couple of times. Like... I could have jumped over the side and ridden a whale. Much different than in the States where the ecology laws prevent tour operators from getting very close to the animals. It was a very slow day for whale-watching though, I suppose - two boats on the water in the morning and two more in the afternoon. During the summer, there can be dozens of tours running, and that would get more stressful for the whales, I would think.

After that there was a reported sighting of a Minke whale, but I didn't see it. We did see another, larger pod of dolphins, and a different humpback whale. This one was so close we watched it through an entire dive cycle; it blew on the surface, and we could see the white on its flippers as it sank back down, swam alongside the boat, and surfaced again. On the way back to the harbor, the crew served hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls, which were delicious.

After we arrived back in the harbor, we headed out to a spot we'd seen on the way into town. Near the Húsavík airport is a memorial to Jóhann Sigurjónsson, a poet in the early 1900s. More importantly for us, though, was the river a few hundred feet away that emptied into the bay. It was without a doubt the most beautiful place we've seen so far, and that's where we decided to scatter my grandfather's ashes, returning him to be with his ancestors.

After eating in town, we headed back to the apartment in Akureyri. We charged devices, downloaded pictures, and swapped out memory cards. Then when it was fully dark, we headed east again, away from the valley full of city light. We found a turn-off just east of the base of the pass, turned off all the lights, and waited. It's a full moon, or close to it, so it washed quite a bit of it out, but we did see the aurora for a while. We got some long-exposure pictures that are pretty good, but I'll have to wait until we get home to clean them up and post them.

Best of luck to everyone back home, and stay safe out in the storm.

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