The Westman Islands
The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) are a small archipelago off the Icelandic coast, including the country’s furthest southerly point. Although that violently and abruptly changed one day in 1963.
Iceland’s southernmost point is the volcanic island of Surtsey, which was created by – you guessed it – an underwater volcanic eruption. And a long eruption at that. It broke the surface of the sea in November 1963 and didn’t stop erupting fully until 1967 and that makes it one of the newest landmasses on earth. The island was declared a living laboratory for the study of how life colonises new land – and that means you can’t go there. In fact nobody can, except for a select few scientists and journalists…even then, only once a year.
The Westmans consist of about eight islands and various sea stacks (depending on definition) but Heimaey and Surtsey are by far the biggest two and linked by a metaphorical Bond of Lava: less than six years after Surtsey stopped erupting, Heimaey began one of the most world-famous eruptions in recent decades.
Heimaey is the only inhabited Westman Island and has a huge city (by Icelandic standards) of around 4,500 people. But that is only true today thanks to luck and some extremely hard work by quick-thinking locals.
Locals usually curse storms; but the storm that kept all the fishing boats in port on 22nd January 1973 probably saved a lot of lives, as all the town’s inhabitants were able to find safe passage to the mainland. The refugees were warmly received and generously accommodated by friends and strangers alike and as the eruption ground on and on until early July, burying much of the town, the consensus among some was that they may never be able to return home.
But the life of Heimaey has always revolved around its excellent harbour and rich fishing grounds and that was where the hard work came in: as the lava threatened to encroach the harbour and permanently render it useless, locals came up with the crazy idea of dousing it with millions of litres of cool seawater in the hope of diverting the flow. Amazingly the plan worked and the harbour was saved (in fact it may even be a little better now than before the eruption). With the town’s livelihood secured, the surviving houses could be resettled and new ones built. And that’s exactly what happened.
The story of the eruption really comes to life on Heimaey – not least through the fascinating Pompeii of the North project, whereby a few of the 400 buried homes are being excavated and provide visitors a unique glimpse at the force of nature, and also at life in the early 70s, as the ash has preserved a lot of artifacts perfectly.
Nowadays the Westman Islands are as famous for having the world’s biggest puffin colony and millions of other seabirds, as they are for their volcanoes. You are also far more likely to notice the luminous bright green pastures than the black volcanic ash.
Heimaey is an exciting place to get to as well, which is nice. You have three main options: take the car ferry (with or without your car), fly from Reykjavík (takes all of 20 minutes), or swim. We do not recommend this last option – but at 4 nautical miles from the mainland it is at least possible. Stupid, but possible.