Hornstrandir Wildlife, North East Iceland
Iceland’s West Fjords region is one of the country’s most remote areas and offers endless outdoor pursuits in its mountains, sheltered fjords and bays. Our favourite area to explore in the West Fjords is the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, with its rich history and unspoiled landscapes. The area is virtually inaccessible. There are no roads in the nature reserve—the only way to venture there is by boat. Due to its remote location, it is very possible to stay there for days without meeting a single soul. Doing so, you will discover the essence of remote Iceland. The fjords are deep and dramatic, with marine and aviary life aplenty, and an abundance of silence and unexplored landscapes for the curious and adventurous explorer.
The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve offers adventure-seekers the perfect opportunity to fulfill their dreams. Situated on the northwest tip of Iceland, the area has been uninhabited for more than 60 years and, with no roads, boats represent the only way to reach the area. On this trip we will use the expedition sailboat as our mother ship. The ship will allow us to experience new, inspiring adventures every day, while anchoring in a different magical place each night. You will find lush valleys filled with wild flowers, beautiful sandy beaches, deep fjords and towering cliffs. Great hiking and walking routes wind their way between the desolated fjords and bays, with spectacular views from the mountains to the sea.
The island of Vigur is a unique place where man and nature have coexisted in balance and harmony and where thousands of birds such as puffins, Arctic terns and black guillemots come to breed during the short summer. Hesteyri has a rich history and offers opportunities for wonderful hikes to such enchanting places as Aðalvík Bay to the north. From here we will sail along the northern capes to the spectacular landscape of Hornvík Bay. Two of the largest bird-cliffs in Iceland exist here, as well as the world’s largest colonies of guillemots and major populations of kittiwake, razorbill and fulmars. This is also the kingdom of the Arctic fox and the only place in Iceland where they are fully protected, so they have a fairly relaxed temperament around humans. We’re confident the time spent exploring the Hornstrandir will leave you fascinated and inspired.
The expedition sailboat is our movable backcountry hut and awaits us every day with gourmet meals, warm and comfortable bunks and friendly conversation.
Iceland is a land of very mixed weather. As they say, if you don´t like the weather, wait for ten minutes! Usually the spring and summer brings higher pressure and settled weather but be prepared for everything from dead calm and warm sunny days to cold horizontal rain!
Wildlife in Iceland
The wildlife is surprisingly rich in the Hornstrandir reserve. There are over 50 birds that breed in the Westfjords, two species of seals are very common and 12 species of whales can be spotted off the coast of north Iceland. Few land mammals can be found in Iceland, but the beautiful Arctic fox can easily be spotted in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve where it is protected.
Day to day programme
Even though we may not be far from “home”, this is still true exploration and the final itinerary will only be decided upon when we leave Ísafjörður harbour. Below is the most likely itinerary, but we will take into account weather and other conditions and always look for the best possible option.
We start our journey departing from Ísafjörður at 7pm on the expedition sailboat. Sailing to Seyðisfjörður Fjord which will take 1-2 hours, and we will anchor either at Eyri or Folafótur. Onshore we will take a short walk with the opportunity to observe the many different species of birds found here, such as: puffin, black guillemot, whooper swan, eider, fulmar, oystercatcher, ringed plover, golden plover, common snipe, common redshank, glaucous gull, great black-backed gull, Arctic tern, pied wagtail, redwing, raven, cormorant, shag and many others.
After a short sail, we will arrive at the small island of Vigur and take an excursion ashore. This is a unique place where man and nature have coexisted in balance and harmony. Here, thousands of seabirds come ashore to breed during the short summer. Vigur is home to large colonies of eiders, puffins, arctic terns and black guillemots. Along with these birds, there are a number of passerine species such as snow bunting, pied wagtail and meadow pipits. With luck, we will catch sight of a white tailed eagle or gyrfalcon. It may also be possible to spot king eiders. They often pair with common eider females, producing exquisite-looking hybrids. The island also has a cultural and architectural history worth exploring. Here, the only windmill in Iceland can be found, as can the oldest house on the island—the recently renovated Viktoría House—which was built in 1860, and Vigurbreiður (an eight-person, 200 year old rowboat). We will spend a few hours walking around the island and stop for coffee and freshly baked cakes in the Viktoría house.
In the afternoon we will sail towards the Jökulfirðir Fjords (glacier fjords). Our passage takes us along the coast of Snæfjallaströnd and around the headland of Bjarnanúpur. We will be able to sail in close proximity to the towering cliffs, which house large fulmar colonies, and we will also observe ocean birds such as kittiwake, Arctic tern and guillemots. There may be an option to hike across the mountain to Grunnavík Bay. Continuing our journey we will enter Jökulfirðir and sail to the abandoned settlement of Hesteyri, where we will anchor for the night. While the last residents of Hesteyri moved away in the 1950s, many maintain their old residences and use them as summerhouses. We will explore the old village and take a short walk along its exquisite sandy beaches. We will be watchful for harlequin ducks, which are both beautiful and engaging to observe. Iceland is their only breeding ground in Europe. We also hope to see purple sandpipers, ringed plovers, golden plovers, common snipe, oystercatcher and long tailed ducks. Given this rich profusion of bird life, we expect to see the Arctic foxes that inhabit this area.
We will now be in the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, where flora and fauna rule unchallenged and unspoiled. The last permanent residents moved away in 1952, with only summer houses remaining. There are no roads in this area and the only access is by boat. The vegetation is surprisingly lush. Angelica grows down to the coast over two meters high, and the lowlands and slopes are decorated by spreading patches of wood crane’s-bill, fleabanes, cotton grass, lady smock and a profusion of other wildflowers. In the rocky and sandy areas we also have flowers such as wild thyme, oysterplant, arctic poppy, roseroot, moss campion and thrift. Later in the summer and in the hills, we can find crowberries (blackberries) and blueberries (bilberries).
During the morning we have several options for wonderful walks/hikes. We can walk to the ruins of the old whaling station where Norwegians processed around 12,000 barrels of whale-oil between 1894 and 1915 when the Icelandic government passed a law on the protection of whales in Icelandic waters. Subsequently, Icelandic companies processed herring in the same plant until it was finally shut down around 1940. There is also an option of a 5-6 hour hike across the mountain pass to Aðalvík, as well as the option to stay on board as we continue to sail around the peninsula. Later, we continue our sail along the coast of Grænahlíð, where we may see the remains of the wrecks of two British and one Icelandic trawler that ran aground during the fifties and sixties. Our voyage continues around the headland of Ritur and into Aðalvík Bay, where we will anchor at Sæból.
Sailing time today will be approximately four hours. En route, we may glimpse minke whales, porpoises and dolphins. We may also try some sea angling whilst underway and see if we can catch cod or haddock for dinner. For those who opt for the hike we will walk from Hesteyri to the abandoned farm of Slétta, where stunning vistas over the surrounding bays await us. Continuing upwards and across the mountain pass, we will visit the old church at Staður, which is situated next to a serene lake. While exploring around the old priest residence, we are likely to encounter ankle-deep birch shrubs, wood crane’s-bill and lady’s mantle. On the lake we may observe such birds as whooper swans, red-throated diver and great northern diver. We will continue onwards, rejoining Aurora where she will be anchored off Sæból.
We will sail from Sæból in Aðalvík Bay towards the headland of Straumnes. Underneath the majestic cliffs we will see remains from the wreck of the coaster Goðafoss that ran aground here in 1916. We will continue east and sail past the headland of Kögur and the bays of Fljótavík and Hlöðuvík. Entering the bay of Hornvík, under the vast cliffs of Hælavíkurbjarg, are the world’s largest colonies of common guillemot and brünnich guillemot and also major populations of kittiwake, razorbill and fulmars. We will sail in close proximity to the 300m cliffs towering overhead. Weather and sea-state permitting, we will continue through the narrow pass behind the rock of Súlnastapi. This gives us an opportunity to see thousands of birds up close as they swoop and dive under the boat. In addition to the birds previously mentioned, we may also see puffins, ravens, gyrfalcon and arctic skua. Rather rarer are great skua and gannets. We will continue towards the head of the bay and anchor there for the night. Hornvík is a prime location to see Arctic foxes, and if we are at anchor early, we may go ashore for a short walk.
We will not sail today. We will focus on the magnificent bird cliffs of Hornbjarg to survey the seabird colonies nesting here. We will walk up and along the length of the cliffs, where we will primarily see common guillemot, brünnich guillemot, razorbill, fulmar and kittiwake. It is estimated that there are about a million breeding pairs of guillemot in Hornvík and Hælavík. Twice every day huge flocks of kittiwake gather for a fresh water bath in the river and in a particular lake. This is a very captivating sight and we will try to make time for a short walk into the valley to see this. We may also see whooper swans, ringed plover, Arctic skua, snow bunting, purple sandpipers and red necked phalaropes. Hornvík is home to many Arctic Foxes — we will be on the lookout for their dens, where we hope to observe the adult foxes and their cubs. This walk will take approximately 3-5 hours.
We will depart our anchorage around 9am and head towards Ísafjörður. Depending on the weather and interests of the group, we will have the option of a small detour to the Arctic Circle. The Arctic Circle is five nautical miles north of Hornvík Bay at around 66º 33’ 39” N. En route we may see orcas, minke and humpback whales as well as porpoises and dolphins. After approximately 7-8 hours of sailing we will conclude our journey in Ísafjörður, arriving around 4pm.