Iceland’s Westman Islands – Whales, Puffins and Black Sand Beaches!

If I had to pick the very best thing we did in Iceland, I would jam our entire day at Westman Island into that “thing” and call that the winner.  Hands down the best day.  Come along with us while we journey through the day….

Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar, is a small archipelago located off the South of Iceland.  Though technically an archipelago, we went just to one island, the largest and only inhabited one, Heimay.  The ferry from the mainland was only a 1/2 car ride from the Airbnb we were staying in, so we left early to catch the 9:45 ferry, which took only 35 minutes to get to Heimay.  We took our rental car over, so C drove the car onto the ferry, then met up with us in the ferry for the ride over.

The ferry. We just called him Herj.

We started out the ferry ride inside, since there was a kid area with cartoons playing.

The playroom in the ferry with legos and cartoons.  Iceland knows how to make kids happy!

However, since it was a nice day, I headed outside to check out the views.  As I was hanging on one side of the ferry, the older non-English speaking gentleman standing next to me nudged me and pointed out to sea.  I saw a circle of water and realized I had missed a whale.  No worries, I kept my eyes on the area and saw the the whale resurface a few times as it calmly swam through the water, getting further away from us (or we got further away from it).  It was really cool to see, and most of my side of the boat was watching it.

He went inside before we saw the whale. In the background is the nice gentleman who pointed out the whale to me.

After it swam out of sight, I was determined to spot another one, and I did! It was a bit further away than the first one when I first spotted it, and I’m not sure anyone else saw this one, but I got to see it a few times as it swam away from us.  Not bad for a 35 minute ferry ride!  Unfortunately, the boys missed it (and I wasn’t about to leave and give up my chance of seeing another one to drag them outside).  I hoped they would get a chance to see one on the way back.

As we approached Heimay, we started seeing gorgeous towering cliffs where the elusive puffins, along with other sea birds, were nesting.


towering cliff with lots of nesting birds (hmm, what gave it away? #birdpoop)


IMG_1733 (3)
the specks in the sky are just some of the hundreds (okay maybe not that many – but tens doesn’t sound as impressive and it was a lot) of birds flying over the cliff

Once we got off the ferry, we got our car and set out to see what we could get done before our ferry ride back at 4pm.  First thing was first, we headed straight to the top of the island for a nice 360 degree view.



Of course, kids will be kids, and the boys were more interested in playing…


which inevitably leads to fighting….


but who cares when this is your view? not me!


We headed back down the hill and stopped at a random, beautiful and nearly deserted black sand beach.



The little boys couldn’t even be bothered to get out of the car, so it was just A & I.


If it wasn’t obvious by the black sand beach, the Westman Islands are volcanic in origin, and quite new by geological standards, about 10,000 – 20,000 years old.  Except one island, that is – Surtsey.  Surtsey has an amazing story (well, for my fellow dorky geology lovers out there!)  Surtsey is a brand-new island formed by a volcanic eruption that started underwater one day in November of 1963.  The eruption continued for almost four years, and a new island (the second biggest in the Westman Islands) was created.  Can you imagine being on the fishing boat that first discovered that a new island was forming?

Surtsey, 13 days after it started erupting in 1963, courtesy of wikipedia

People have been studying the island since it formed, and, in fact, other than scientists there for specific research purposes, no one is allowed on the island, so they can study how life forms on the island naturally.   How cool!  To read more about the island check out its wikipedia page or the UNESCO site (did I mention it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site?)  We obviously didn’t visit Surtsey, but were able to learn about it at a museum on Heimay.

After the beach, we headed back into town (I use “town” loosely, the island has a population of 4,500) to visit the Saeheimar Aquarium.  This aquarium was tiny and expensive (what isn’t expensive in Iceland?), and only worth it if you really want to see a live puffin.   We did, so we went.


First, we saw a baby puffin briefly.


The Westman Islands is pretty famous for an adorable reason.  It involves kids and baby puffins.  Already adorable, right?

In August and September, baby puffins who were born in nests on Heimay head out to sea.  However, the lights of the town confuse the birds and many baby puffins end up in the town, instead of out at sea where they need to go.  So, according to the Visit Westman Islands website, children stay up late in August and September and go at night to rescue these poor baby puffins.  They bring the puffins home in a box overnight, then release them on the beach the next morning.  How cute is that?!  Don’t you want to be a kid who rescues puffins?

Back to the the aquarium.  While there, we saw Toti, the star attraction.  He was born too late in the season and wouldn’t have survived in the wild, so they kept him at the aquarium. Puffins live a long time – 20 years or more, and Toti, at 5 years old, had already gained local celebrity status (including being an honorary member of the local football (soccer) team).

The boys and Toti, the puffin

Our afternoon featured our best meal in Iceland (in fact, maybe our best meal ever!) and a climb up a recently-erupted volcano, but this post is getting long, so you will have to wait until the next post to read all about it!  Stay tuned….

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