Flatey and the Whale (ESA)


Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir's picture

One week ago I traveled to a very special place. Flatey island on Skjálfandi bay in Northeast Iceland is not as well-known as its namesake on Breiðafjörður, West Iceland, but no less worthy of a visit.

However, while the ferry Baldur sails to the latter island year-round, no ferry goes to Flatey on Skjálfandi. The only way to get there is by private boat or with one of the whale watching companies in Húsavík, who make a stopover on the island on some tours.

Also, if you’re a passenger on Ocean Diamond, circling Iceland this summer, you will get a chance to visit this gem of an island.

Before going there, I was told that it was like traveling back in time and that Flatey left no one untouched. I can attest to that.

My journey began with a boat ride with a Húsavík local, a family father who renovates houses on the island, which was abandoned in 1967. The about 15 houses there were left for decay but now, thanks the efforts of him and others, the community has largely been rebuilt.

While no one has lived on Flatey in almost 50 years, house owners spend part of their summers there, enjoying the peace and quiet the island offers.

There was a dense fog on Skjálfandi and I couldn’t see anything apart from the puffins and Arctic terns diving for sandeels. Suddenly, Flatey appeared, a green oasis in the otherwise gray surroundings, dotted with colorful houses.

I’ve never experienced such birdlife before. The island was literally teeming with life. Puffins with their multicolor beaks flying in and out of their burrows, fluffy eider ducklings testing their swimming skills in the harbor and Arctic terms shrieking aggressively: a sign on the pier encouraged visitors to carry a stick around—and for good reason.

I learned that a wedding was to take place on Flatey the following day and that around 100 people were expected. What a wonderful setting for a countryside wedding, I thought.

The island has a pretty little church and a community center with a stage and a dance floor, although I believe the bride and groom were hoping for good enough weather to celebrate outside.

I was always waiting for it to clear up so that I could marvel at the surrounding mountains, which I was told were breathtaking, but all I could see of the mainland was a hint of Flateyjardalur, a remote abandoned valley only 2.5 km (1.6 miles) from Flatey.

On the way back, though, I saw something else. A fountain of air erupted from the ocean surface and then, out of the mist, the world’s largest animal appeared.

I was absolutely stunned. What luck, catching a glimpse of a blue whale, this massive but rare creature. At first I kept thinking how easily a 30-meter (98-feet), 180-ton whale could flip a little boat like ours, if only by accident.

However, without being spooked by our presence, the whale kept a safe distance, going under then resurfacing, showing us a fin and a flipper now and then. The gentle creature was feeding and neither let itself be disturbed by us nor the Artic terns hovering above.

Our captain told us that blue whales are actually spotted fairly often from whale watching boats on Skjálfandi. But they’re not the most fun whales to watch, he added. Dolphins are more playful and humpbacks jump out of the water sometimes.

It was still foggy but I didn’t mind. I may have missed out on a spectacular view, but I had visited Flatey as planned (read more about it in the August-September issue of Iceland Review) with a huge bonus to boot.

In the end, the mist had made my journey more mysterious and exciting.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.