You probably have seen on the internet photos of the “Elephant Rock” and also photos of an island that has only a building on it. Those are some of the most popular photos from Iceland that you will see online, but where were they taken? Westman Islands!
Located in the South of Iceland, Vestmannaeyjar is an archipelago that has 15 islands and 30 rock stacks around them. Is one of the most interesting places in Iceland as it has a rich and not-so-happy history and rich geology also.
The history of the Westman Islands begins after Iceland was settled for the first time by Ingólfr Arnarson who came to the island with his wife and their slaves. A few years later his half-brother, joined him. Shortly after that, Ingólfr Arnarson was killed by two of his slaves. His half-brother wanted revenge on Ingólfr death and wanted to find the slaves and kill them. The slaves went to Westman Islands to hide from the fear of the vengeful brother.
The slaves were caught and killed on Westman Islands and since then the islands took their name. The slaves were Irish and were called Westmen because, at that time, Ireland was considered to be the westernmost landmass before Iceland was discovered.
Further on, the history of the islands continued to be dark. The largest island from the archipelago is Heymaey and there were people who have lived there since an early era. They used the natural resources as the ocean, puffins and birds egg to live there. In 1627 Barbary Pirates from Algiers took control over the island. They stayed there for three days and took back home with them 237 slaves. The majority of people who were taken as slaved lived their life in bondage.
Another black chapter in the history of Vestmannaeyjar was in 1974. The Islands were in a modern stage, the connection with the mainland was stronger and easier. On the 20th of January at 1:55 am a fissure open right in the middle of the Heymaey town, the Eldfell volcano started to erupt violently. No one was killed during this event as the people were prepared for such unfortunate events. The lucky thing was that a day before, a strong storm kept all the ships docked in the harbors so when the volcano started to erupt, everyone on the island was saved by being transported to the mainland with the ships.
The whole town was covered with lava and volcanic ash. 3500 houses were destroyed and the Icelandic authorities were desperate to help the inhabitants as much as they could. At that time, there was a US-NATO base in Iceland and they helped the authorities face the force of nature. They used a new technique that proved to be effective in protecting the harbor. They pumped the seawater on the lava flows to cool it down and to change its direction. In this way they managed to protect the harbor and after the eruption ended people repopulated the island.
Now they use their history to attract people and Vestmannaeyjar was one of the most visited places in Iceland until the pandemic happened. There is a museum where you can see pictures and learn about the eruption that happened in 1974 and also you can see the crater of the volcano.
Vestmannaeyjar has many experiences to offer. It is the place with the largest population of Atlantic Puffins. Although, puffins are coming later there than in the rest of the country. During the month of August, when puffins are leaving there is an interesting phenomenon that you might experience there. Puffins are guided by the light of the moon to fly from the islands to the ocean, but because of the lights in the Heymaey town, they got distracted and end up in the streets. Every year, kids are taking the puffins found on the streets and took them to the vet to be checked before getting released on the cliffs. If you are lucky, you can participate in this action too, but keep in mind that nothing is guaranteed. There are also many other species of birds that are nesting on Westman islands.
When it comes to wildlife, Westman islands are offering also the chance to see whales. There is also a Beluga Whale sanctuary which is the first of this kind in the world. On the boat tours that are organized around the islands, you can see also during the summer Fin, Minke, and Humpback Whales and Orcas throughout the year. Also, on the boat tours, people are interested to see and take pictures of the “Elephant” rock.
To get to Westman island there are two options: to take the ferry or to fly from Reykjavik domestic airport. The ferry may be the handiest way as you can go to the ferry harbor if you are around the area. Before the pandemic, the tickets for the ferry were booked in advance and the ferry was always fully booked. You can take your car on the ferry also, but you have to book in advance as there are limited numbers of cars that can be taken on the ferry. Of course, you can go there without a car, the island is small and can be discovered on foot if you are lucky and the weather is beautiful. If the weather is bad you may need a car. Also, if you are on the Heymaey island and the weather is bad, the price for the ferry is changing and you may be sent to another harbor to take the ferry.
The island is very visited during the summertime as then the weather is beautiful and less changeable during the day. According to the visitwestmanislands.com, the prices for the ferry are: “adults (16-66 years old) 2.000 isk, teens (12 – 15 years old) 1.000 isk, seniors (67 years and older) 1.000 isk, children (0 -11 years old) free of charge. Prices for vehicles are Motorcycle: 2.000 isk, Bicycle: 300 isk, Car under 5 m length*: 3.000 isk, Car over 5 m length*: 4.000 isk, Automobiles with trailers, etc. 6-10 m*: 6.000 isk, Automobiles with trailers, etc. 10-16 m*: 8.000 isk.” Please check the website mentioned to check the prices updates.