A Visit to the Queen of the Atlantic 

Northern Gannet colony on the remote Langanes Peninsula in northeastern Iceland
Northern Gannet colony on the remote Langanes Peninsula in northeastern Iceland

We hadn’t planned to visit her.

But after overhearing a couple deride the steep, back-jolting road to Askja, an all-day event to see an Icelandic crater we weren’t that keen about (a major attraction!), we revised our plans and the next day, drove north on the Arctic Coast Way. 

You might say the town we stayed at, Raufarhöfn, has cratered. In the Hotel Nordurljos, at one time entirely taken over by herring workers, only two rooms were occupied.

The owner, back from a trip to Rejkavik to visit his wife, whom he hadn’t seen for six weeks, was keen to tell us about his home territory.

We asked him about the likelihood of spotting puffins at Rauðinúpur this late in the year, September 3. He wasn’t hopeful. 

However, he told us the Langanes Peninsula had a gannet nesting site. Some say it’s the third-largest in the world. 

“From Rauðinúpur it’s a nice drive, about 20 kilometres. And the locals built a viewing platform several years back that I hear is pretty nice.” 

Remembering the great time we had gannet-watching at Cape St. Mary’s in Newfoundland, we followed his recommendation.

The uninhabited Langanes Peninsula thrusts 40 kilometres out to sea, its shape resembling a duck’s head and beak. According to our guidebook, “Many people get the feeling of being at the end of the world, surrounded by cliffs and the sea.“ 

Not a puffin did we see at Rauðinúpur, nor were many other birds puffing their chests against the brisk wind. 

To the end of the world we went, on a single-track road, more dirt than gravel. 

Though the 869 road is part of the Arctic Coast Way and supposedly follows the coast to the old and new bird blinds.

Rain sluiced over the windshield, the wipers beating a steady Charlie Watts’ rhythm in the mid-day darkness. The road was slow-going. Every kilometre felt weighted. Time elongated. The place freighted with abandon: no inhabitants, no vehicles, nothing but weather and wondering whether we should turn around. But where? 

Northern Gannets. An elegance worthy of the title bestowed upon them: queen of the Atlantic.

Every year between mid-January and late March, they return to their exact same nest on the wind-swept Stóri Karl, pinnacled sea-stacks battered by stormy waters. Northern Gannets nest in the far north where the water is cold enough and deep enough for herring and Atlantic mackeral, their main food source. Gannets have elegant bodies designed to dive to great depths, their large beaks powerful enough to capture strong muscular fish.

Monogamous, Northern Gannets typically mate for their 30-year life spans, hooking up at about age five. Gannet couples produce one egg, which hatches by the end of July. We don’t know how many Northern Gannets nest at Stóri Karl, but it’s estimated 32,000 pairs breed in Iceland, and their population is increasing 2% each year.

We drove on.

The last fishing village out here, Skálar, was abandoned fifty years ago. Settled in 1869, people built homes from stones fetched by sled in winter from far away and carved washed-ashore trunks of teakwood trees into front doors. It was a coveted parish: abundant driftwood, good pastures, fat seals and plenty of birdlife.

The razor wind lashed at the rain. Who’s boss? it seemed to be asking, me or the rain.

Winds in Iceland blow cars off the road. They warn you not to drive if the wind speed exceeds 60 km/h. To tune into the Iceland Meteorological Office for updates. To park your car into the wind. To open your car door using both hands, one to steady the door and the other to open it. Have your rental car door snatched away by the wind and you’ll face a hefty insurance bill. 

We drove on.

Chubby sheep shambled off the road as we neared the Skorvík Cliffs. 

After what seemed like a day, we arrived at the small parking area and signpost at Stóri Karl, very carefully opening the doors of our Dacia SUV. 

The wind threatened our stability, muffled our voices, limited our time outside. 

A dozen years ago the residents of Langanes came up with the idea of building a viewing platform at this gannet nesting sites. The first of its kind in the country and an important development in tourism in northeast Iceland, the platform extends about ten metres from the cliff that overlooks Stóri Karl. I don’t think we stood on it for longer than ten, exhilarating, brain-freshening minutes.

A modern wooden blind was constructed more recently. But we couldn’t see the gannets from this location; perhaps it was built for viewing other birds, now departed?

We drove on.

A week or so later the Northern Gannets would be leaving Stóri Karl, the juveniles, the black-and-white ones, headed for Northern Africa, 6,100 kilometres away. In a few hours we would be back on the Ring Road. 

Was it worth it? 

I suppose it’s like asking people if it was worth it to line up for hours to catch a glimpse of the Queen. If you’re into royalty, avian or human, it’s a thrill.

Navigation

“At the End of the World – The Langanes Peninsul.Icelandic Times.

Nowack, Dr. Christian;  Kluche, Hans; Hug, Odin; Mecke, Andrea; and Fischer, Robert. Marco Polo Iceland. United Kingdom: Marco Polo Travel Publishing Ltd, 2019. This excellent guide had an entry on Stóri Karl!

13 Responses

  1. Loved the picture of the Arctic Henge. So interesting.
    Nice that they built a viewing station to bird watch. Now they need to fix the road to get there.

    1. One day we will do a full story on the Arctic Henge—it’s quite amazing.

      With the huge number of tourists visiting Iceland, it wouldn’t surprise me to see that road improved in the next ten years.

  2. Of course it was worth .To see the birds , the chicks , the ambience with all the shade of grey …
    The nostalgia reaching its zenith .The lonely bird cabin on the green grass of hope ..absolutly beautiful .It was like some modern painting from Guggenheim Museum .
    Thank you Gloria .

    1. “nostalgia reaching its zenith. The lonely bird cabin on the green grass of hope,” in your poetic words, the essence of our experience. Now you’ve got me thinking about a painting that expresses the mood…

      Okay how about this by Julie Mehretu?

      Tsuema, 2014

      1. Gloria , maybe it was a sudden burst of inspiration .Now , i am afraid , that my creativity has left me .
        The intensity and saturation of black and grey somwhere , somehow, for me ofcoures turns into green or something in this direction .There is no powerlessness there .There is a life and a movement and a light .

  3. Looks like normal coast weather to me, when the clouds close in around you and vision is limited to almost arms length, part of the territory and to be expected any where on any coast. Of course not complete without rain and sheets of the ever present moisture, be it rain, or snow.

    I like your new viewing boxes, you can choose when you see the pictures, great to have a choice as to when that happens.

    Quite the drive along the peninsula, no place to have your mind wander, of course you will be instantly reminded if you error too far 🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔

    Cheers,

  4. Loved hearing about the Gannets..They are lovely to look at. I remember Norah and Bill telling of the gannets on a wee island off Lewis. Each year a try of the men in small boats getting the incredible birds and bringing them home for the women to prepare. Seems to me it was a once a year event and was considered good luck? It was years ago hearing this, I now feel sorry for the poor birds! Thanks again. Heather

    1. Yes, I remember them telling us about that, too. Men on ropes above stormy seas getting at the birds and their eggs. I think it was St Kilda, which has one of the world’s largest gannet colonies, 60,000 breeding pairs according to Google.

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