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Articles Blog

Heimaey, Iceland

Karyn Planett

The Puffins of Pompeii 

Well, the Puffins of Pompeii might be a bit of a stretch but not by much when you hear the tale of this windswept rocky outpost you’re about to visit. It has all the makings of a NatGeo-meets-Hitchcock blockbuster sci-fi thriller. And, for such a tiny little place with a population of only 4500 people, it’s got a very big story to tell. So let’s get the facts and stats out of the way then get straight to the heart of the plot. 

Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago 

For the record Heimaey is the largest island in the entire Vestmannaeyjar Archipelago and it’s only five square miles big, or small as the case may be. Some call them the Westman Islands with Heimaey only four miles from Iceland’s chilly southern shores. And, it’s the only island in the chain of fifteen that’s inhabited though that was very much in doubt in 1973 but that story follows. Heimaey, by the way, means “Home Island.” 

If you want to go back to the beginning, however, pick up a copy of “Landnámabók”, which is “The Book of Settlement” relating the events of the 9th and 10th centuries AD when the Norse people settled Iceland. Evidently, in the very early days there was a lad named Ingólfur Arnarson who was the first to actually carve out a base in Iceland proper. Meanwhile, and I’m cutting to the chase here, his close friend (also referred to as his brother) Hjõrleifr Hróõmarsson established a fledgling community elsewhere with a band of ragged Irish slaves who’d been kidnapped from Northern Ireland. Ingólfur discovered his friend had been killed and the slaves had escaped. Distraught and raging with anger, Ingólfur went off in hot pursuit and found the slaves had taken refuge in the rugged mountains of Heimaey Island. Ingólfur tracked them down like animals and slew them for taking his brother’s life. 

So, the moral to the story is… if you want some islands named after you then become an escaped Irish slave who gets killed after fleeing from your Viking masters. You see, the Irish were referred to as “west men” because their homeland was, you guessed it, west of the Viking’s Scandinavia. 

A Real Drama Unfolds 

It was January 23rd, 1973. Just a moment shy of 2:00am, the fine people of Heimaey were rumbled awake by all hell truly breaking loose. A massive fissure measuring one mile long ripped the earth in two. Molten lava spewed into the night sky like a pathway to Armageddon. Terrified and trembling, the townspeople fled to the tiny harbor where some 65 boats from the island’s fishing fleet had taken refuge from a storm the day before. Planes from nearby airfields evacuated 300, mostly elderly or infirm, throughout the night. In all, some 5,000 islanders and visitors were safely evacuated within hours of the eruption leaving behind a cadre of brave people to address the ever-changing situation. Within one week, the town was buried under 12 feet of ash. By Week Two, firemen had set up water cannons to cool the lava flow that threatened to close off the entrance to the harbor. Within one month of the eruption, lava buried seventy homes. Another 41 were set alight by another lava flow days later. Ultimately 19 miles of pipe and 43 pumps sprayed eight million cubic yards of seawater onto the lava flows to save their town. 

Man and Mother Nature played this dramatic tug of war for a total of five months and ten days, day by wearying day, night by exhausting night. In total, 360 houses were destroyed while 400 were left untouched. An additional 400 suffered varying degrees of damage. Scientists estimate 1.5 million tons of ash, ejecta, and tephra rained down on Heimaey’s tiny town and 30 million tons of lava buried much of the village. 

The good news is, of course, no one died during this epic cataclysm and the locals now harness the volcanic heat to warm their homes and offices. If you want to know more, pick up John McPhee’s book The Control of Nature. 

Back To The Puffins 

The Icelandic Puffin calls Heimaey home. That would be six to eight million of them, about half the total population, making it one of the world’s largest colonies of Icelandic puffins. Every August, local schoolchildren go on Puffin Patrol picking up the fledgling puffins called Pysja that, instead of flying toward the moon, fly confusedly toward the city lights. The kids gather them up in cardboard boxes and take them to the sea and freedom. 

If you sit quietly on some grassy hill you just might hear the puffins communicating underground. They do that, you know. From their tunnels. Heimaey is also home to one of the world’s largest gannet and guillemot colonies. The surrounding sea is the aquatic haunt of porpoises, dolphins and orcas. 

And speaking of orcas, Willy of “Free Willy” fame was taken by a US military aircraft to Klettsvik Bay in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland where he learned to go back to the wild. This story had a very happy ending. Hey, maybe they should make a movie about Willy!