On one of my visits to the Westfjords of Iceland, I visited Arnarfjörður, the second longest fjord in the Westfjords. It is believed that nowhere else in Iceland have there been more sightings of sea monsters than in this beautiful fjord in Iceland's mysterious Westfjords.
We Icelanders have known about the sea monsters ever since the Vikings settled Iceland around 874. Throughout the centuries there have been over 4,000 recorded sightings of sea monsters and lake monsters all around Iceland!
Many of the sea monsters have been seen in Arnarfjörður and the Westfjords of Iceland. There have been some 180 recorded sightings of sea monsters in Arnarfjörður fjord alone!
Arnarfjörður is a beautiful fjord, 30 km long and 10 km at its widest. There are many beautiful inlets in Arnarfjörður fjord and the Jewel of the Westfjords, Dynjandi waterfall is to be found in Dynjandisvogur cove in this lovely, but monster-filled, fjord.
Sea monster stories have become a bit of a taboo, but as we all know that there are endless species of fish in the ocean, both large and small - so why not something which looks like sea monsters? I, for sure, believe that they exist, I don't know what they are, but there are for sure more creatures lurking in the sea than we know of!
In Hólmavík on the east-side of the Westfjords, a huge sea-turtle was found - the biggest species of sea turtles in the world! How did such a big sea-turtle come to be found in the cold sea around Iceland? If it had been found in the olden times it would for sure have been called a sea monster.
On one of my travels to the Westfjords, I spent 9 days exploring this quiet area of Iceland. I slept in hotels and with relatives, but for one night I slept in a tent in a remote valley in Arnarfjörður.
I was coming from Patreksfjörður village and took road 63 towards Bíldudalur village. I then turned on road 619 and drove to the end of it (26 km) as I knew that there I would find a camping place and interesting things to see. Road 619 is a very bumpy gravel road, so it took me a longer time than I had planned on to reach my destination. Plus that I was always stopping to have a look at this and that and to take photos.
The church, the home and the art museum of Samúel Jónsson
Then an encounter with a fellow Icelander made me change my plans. I had already started putting up my tent on the campsite by the sea in Selárdalur valley but changed my mind when an Icelandic traveller scolded me and told me - in English - that I could not camp anywhere I liked!
The campsite is in fact by the Art Museum of Samúel Jónsson at Brautarholt, but Samúel - "Sambi" (1884-1969) was a well-known folk-artist, who was often called "Listamaðurinn með barnshjartað" or the Artist with the naive heart. He built a church on his land, even though another church, Selárdalskirkja, is only 1 km away.
Samúel had painted an altarpiece to donate to the existent church on its 100th anniversary, but it wasn't needed, as the church already owned a valuable old altarpiece. So Samúel built his own church around his altarpiece. This extraordinary man also painted a myriad of paintings.
Outside, you can see a likeness of the famous fountain (Patio de los Leones) in the Alhambra palace in Granada Spain, amongst many other of his artworks. Like Leif the Lucky looking at America (Vínland) and a boy feeding sea-cows.
For 20 years now the Association for the restoration of the Art Museum of Samúel Jónsson has maintained the artwork and saved it from destruction. When you visit it please leave a donation in the collection box, it means a lot for the upkeep of this quaint little museum.
Now back to my camping predicament - I tried to explain to my countrywoman - in Icelandic, which is our common language - that this was indeed a marked campsite, but she kept on telling me in English that I could not camp just anywhere I wanted.
It wasn't until I showed her that this was, in fact, a legitimate campsite that she understood that I was Icelandic and knew that I could not camp outside of the campsites in Iceland. But this put me off camping here.
We have recently been seeing tourists camping literally everywhere, which is such a nuisance, so I understand why she felt the need to tell me to go to a campsite.
I moved my tent further up into Selárdalur valley. In Iceland it is only allowed to camp on campsites unless there is a dire need for camping for one night - and then you must get permission from the landowner first.
I was a bit reluctant putting my tent up in the valley, but as it was getting very late and there was nobody in this remote valley - and the closest farm, Uppsalir, was abandoned - I decided that my situation was indeed a dire need and camped here for one night. I didn't sleep well though and thought that somebody would show up and scold me and tell me to leave.
Sure enough, I was awakened a couple of times during the night by heavy tramping by the tent. I woke up with such heart palpitations and didn't dare to look out - but then I heard bleating and realized that the local sheep had come to check out my tent.
When I left the next morning the sheep were standing by the car looking at me accusingly as this spot was seemingly their night-lodging in the valley!
Don't follow my example, this was a one-off and no sleep to be had. If you are going to camp in this area opt for the campsite at Bíldudalur village, which is renowned for its calm weathers. You could then pay a visit to the Sea Monster Museum in the morning.
This was the night before I visited the Sea Monster Museum, so I didn't know that sea monsters had been seen in this exact area in Arnarfjörður - Iceland's most notorious sea monster fjord! Live and learn, eh!
There is a sea monster tale from Selárdalur: "A man named Árni went from Selárdalur to hunt foxes at a cliff called Gammur. While he was waiting for the fox to appear a creature appeared from the sea, as tall as a man, but with thick legs with claws. It moved slowly towards Árni. Árni got frightened and shot at the creature, which hurried back into the sea and disappeared" (retold from an account at Skrímslasetrið - Sea Monster Museum).
And here I was camping in this area, totally oblivious of the sea monsters! I am glad that I didn't choose to camp by the sea in Arnarfjörður as I had planned on - as I would not have wanted to wake up to a sea creature crawling into my tent...
Bíldudalur is a small village in Arnarfjörður with a population of fewer than 200 people. This lovely little village has been called "The Good Weather Capital of the Westfjords" as the mountains shelter the village from the wind. The 2 days I visited Bíldudalur the weather was totally still and lovely.
In the old dilapidated building of the "Matvælaiðjan" food processing, especially known for their Bíldudalur green beans, work started in 2007 on creating a sea monster museum with the help of many a people, who had moved away from Arnarfjörður and wanted to do something for their old village. The museum building was restored with many a helping hand, which shows the solidarity of the people in Bíldudalur.
I visited the museum as I wanted to get to know more about the sea monsters in Iceland. I timidly walked down a spooky corridor only to be greeted by 2 ugly monsters, the Shore Laddie and the Sea Man!
The Shore Laddie and the Sea Man have frequently been seen on the shore in Iceland! What are these creatures and why have they so often been seen on the shore in Iceland? The Shore Laddie is even the most commonly seen sea monster in Iceland!
Icelanders have through the ages believed in monsters, trolls and elves - we have myriad of such stories written f.ex. in Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar - the Folklore of Jón Árnason, which I refer to a lot in my travel-blogs. I am very interested in folklore and seek out elf locations in Iceland, which I have read about in this series of books.
But it is only after I visited the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum that I became interested in these scary creatures walking ashore from the cold sea surrounding Iceland.
At the museum, you can watch accounts on-screen from people who actually encountered sea monsters. And listen to stories on sightings and encounters with the sea monsters.
Eiríkur Eiríksson told of a monster he had seen both at Sperðlahlíð and at Krosseyri. He claimed to have seen its excrement, which lay in three huge clumps and looked like chalk-coloured mud covered in green slime!
The monsters seen around Iceland can be divided into 4 main monster categories - the Shore Laddie, the Sea Man, the Shell Monster and the Sea Horse. What makes Arnarfjörður fjord stand out is that all of these monsters have been seen here in this fjord! And many other extremely large monsters and other smaller.
So this beautiful, tranquil fjord in the Westfjords stands out as being the Sea Monster Fjord in Iceland. I shot this short video in Arnarfjörður during one of my visits to the Westfjords, just to show you how beautiful it is:
There is an account of the six-oared boat "Heppinn" or Lucky running aground on a Sea Horse in 1915 at the mouth of Arnarfjörður. Other sightings took place in 2000 and 2002, when the Icelandic fisherman, Sverrir Garðarsson, encountered this monster twice! It apparently raised its long neck up by Sverrir's boat and the monster hovered high above the wheelhouse of the boat, where Sverrir was standing!
The former farm of Gísli at Uppsalir
I noticed the following advice at the interactive monster table at the museum from the recluse, Gísli at Uppsalir in Selárdalur valley, and what he had to say about meeting sea monsters:
"Mætirðu skrímsli mátti ei trega, maður þá vex þín neyð. Heilsaðu bara hæverkslega, haltu svo þína leið". It goes something like this, loosely translated: "If you meet a monster, don't be afraid, you will only be in a worse place by fearing the monster. Just great it politely and carry on walking"!
Gísli (1907-1986) obviously knew what he was talking about, having lived his life as a recluse in Uppsalir in the remote valley of Selárdalur. Which incidentally is the same place where I camped for one night.
Above you can watch the episode of Ómar Ragnarsson's Stiklur, when he visited Gísli at Uppsalir back in 1981. It is in Icelandic only though, but gives you an idea of what the life of a recluse in a remote valley in the Westfjords of Iceland was like.
The video was shot by my brother-in-law, Páll Reynisson, who now runs the Wildlife Museum in Stokkseyri in South-Iceland. I own the entire video series of Stiklur, but found this video on Youtube. I don't know if I have permission to repost it though as our state-run broadcasting company RÚV had the rights to it.
The turf sheep-barn at Uppsalir
Gísli didn't interact with many people and we Icelanders cannot even understand what he was saying in the video. What a lonely life he must have lived.
These sea monster stories, which I have told you here, are only a few of thousands of stories on human encounters with sea monsters in Iceland. Maybe the sea monsters don't appear any longer - who knows - maybe they do, but I am pretty sure that you will have a different view on the existence of sea monsters when you leave the Westfjords.
Driving on road 619 on the way to Selárdalur you might notice information signs and an archaeological excavation site. This is Hringdalskumlið pagan graves, which are believed to date back to the 10th century!
These pagan graves are really close to the sea and the sea is, unfortunately, eroding the graves. Thus a thigh-bone of a man was discovered here back in 2006 and archaeologists were sent to Arnarfjörður for experimental digs.
They dug up 5 pagan graves and even a boat grave. The graves contained skeletons and grave goods; an axe, a Viking sword, a comb, a spear-head and a boss (a knob on a shield).
This yellow R "friðlýstar fornleifar" sign means that it is a protected archaeological site
This was indeed a pagan grave as in pagan times animals, grave-goods and sometimes boats were buried with their owner, which was not the case with Christian graves.
These pagan graves might have been the graves of one of the Viking settlers in this area, Hringur, who gave his name to Hringdsalur valley and thus the archaeological dig. He lost his life here and might have been buried in one of these graves - wouldn't that be amazing, to have found the burial mound of one of the settlers of this area?
According to Landnáma, Iceland's Book of Settlements, then many of the place names in Arnarfjörður derive from the settlers of this area. Arnarfjörður itself is named after the settler Örn and Geirþjófur Valþjófsson settled Geirþjófsdalur.
Tread lightly when you visit archaeological sites as they are delicate areas. Plastic and rocks have been used to cover up the burial mound and fingers crossed that the sea will not erode more of it. If you want to read up other archaeological excavations in Iceland then I have written a special travel-blog on that subject:
Asyou will notice then the sand is pink or yellow, which is characteristic of the Westfjords of Iceland and some of the Snæfellsnes peninsula beaches. Most beaches in Iceland are black lava sand beaches.
Arnarfjörður fjord is very long with many smaller fjords and coves, and there is so much to see here. The Arnarfjörður fjord system consists of: Dynjandisvogur, Borgarfjörður, Bíldudalsvogur, Fossfjörður, Reykjarfjörður, Trostansfjörður and Geirþjófsfjörður.
When I returned back to Bíldudalur I drove further along the road 63 and reached the hot pools of Reykjarfjörður, which are right by the road. There you will find both Reykjafjarðarlaug swimming pool and a warm creek in which you can bathe.
The road 63 then merges with road 60 as you pass the Dynjandisheiði heath (24 km long with the highest level being 500 metres). Dynjandisheiði heath is closed in the winter time due to weather conditions and can be closed up to 5 months per year.
While driving on the bumpy russet road in the summertime you have a partial view of Trostansfjörður and the beautiful Geirþjófsfjörður fjords (see my first photo in this travel-blog). In this area the Viking Saga Gísla Saga Súrssonar took place and on the heath, you will find information signs on special events in this well-known Saga.
After passing Dynjandisheiði heath the road takes you down to Dynjandisvogur cove to the massive Dynjandi waterfall, the Jewel of the Westfjords. On the heath, you will be driving on top of the river creating this beautiful waterfall. Dynjandi waterfall is my second most favourite waterfall in Iceland, absolutely stunning! See also:
Dynjandi cascades 99-100 metres in the shape of a bridal veil as on top it is 30 metres wide and 60 metres wide at the bottom. On the upwards hike to Dynjandi, you will find 6 other waterfalls, making it such a scenic route :)
After visiting Dynjandi waterfall driving on road 60 you will see several other beautiful waterfalls. You will also pass Mjólkárvirkjun power plant in the Borgarfjörður part of Arnarfjörður, which generates electricity for the area. Here a tunnel is being built.
Driving on along the coastline of Arnarfjörður the road will take you to Hrafnseyri, the birthplace of our national independence hero Jón Sigurðsson (1811-1879). Jón was such an important man in Iceland's history that we celebrate our national day on the 17th of June, the birthdate of Jón Sigurðsson.
At Hranfseyri you will find a museum, a church and a replica of the turf house (built in 1997) in which Jón lived. The turf house is a café which is lovely to visit. I have visited the museum on 2 occasions and recommend paying it a visit.
I love turf houses and have written a travel-blog with a list of all the turf houses I have visited in Iceland.
A small Viking longhouse was discovered in an archaeological excavation in 1977-1978 at Hrafnseyri and the biggest Viking longhouse in the Westfjords was discovered during an archaeological dig at Auðkúla only a km away from Hrafnseyri.
It is 23 metres long and here some wealthy Vikings seem to have lived in the 9th or 10th century. Five longhouses have been discovered in the Westfjords already and there are most likely many more, which are still undiscovered.
Remember to look back as there is a wonderful view of Dynjandi waterfall from this side of the road. It is difficult to get a good enough photo of it though from the car window.
The road 60 now leads up to Hrafnseyrarheiði heath leading to Dýrafjörður and Þingeyri village. But another beautiful part of Arnarfjörður leading to Dýrafjörður fjord is the drive on the most dangerous road in Iceland, Svalvogar and the Kjaran's Avenue. This is not even a marked road and is only open a couple of months a year.
Instead of driving up on Hrafnseyrarheiði heath you carry on driving along the coastline. This is a road for 4x4 only and only if you have nerves of steel and come fully prepared. Read my travel-blog on this drive to see what I am talking about.
My photos above and below are from the Arnarfjörður part of the drive, but on the Dýrafjörður part you will be driving on a tiny road carved into the steep mountainside and even the Road Administration of Iceland gave up on this project.
It is best to join a guided tour of this hazardous road with an experienced local driver:
To reach the Westfjords you can rent a car in Reykjavík and include the Westfjords in your drive around Iceland. I would say that 4-5 days were sufficient to see the main sights of the Westfjords.
I spent 9 days exploring this area back in 2016 and 8 days in 2017 as I wanted to see everything :)
Once in the Westfjords, you can join many interesting guided tours by the locals:
You can also fly to the Westfjords on a 2-day guided Winter break to the Westfjords with a flight to Bíldudalur.
Also check out:
And if you want to get better acquainted with the Westfjords, then I have written many travel-blogs on this interesting area of Iceland, with many more to come:
I am only a 1/4 Vestfirðingur (people from the Westfjords), but hope that my love for this beautiful area of Iceland shines through in my travel-blogs :)
Have a lovely time in the beautiful Westfjords of Iceland :)