Visiting Grímsey Island - the Gem of the Arctic Circle in North-Iceland
I had forever wanted to visit Grímsey island and had planned on doing so for years, but had always left it out on my travels in Iceland. Finally, when staying for a whole week in Akureyri, the Capital of the North, for my summer vacation I did it! I visited this beautiful island on the Arctic Circle Express with the company Ambassador from Akureyri harbour.
Unfortunately, this tour is longer available. Certain northern winds on this route made people very sea-sick so it was cancelled! But the Arctic Circle Express Flight will take you on a 3-hour tour including Grímsey island.
The Arctic Circle cuts across Grímsey island, making it a very popular place to visit.
Whales blowing on the tour
To tell you a little about the tour I took: This was a new way of visiting Grímsey as the scheduled ferry for Grímsey leaves from Dalvík village. The Arctic Circle Express took about the same time to reach Grímsey - 3 hours - even though it left from Akureyri, which is 44 km away from Dalvík. That is why it was called "express". And it was for sure a speedy boat.
Earlier on the same day, I had gone whale watching with the same company as runs the Arctic Circle Express - the Ambassador, which has now merged with Elding Whale Watching. I was in awe on that tour as we saw so many whales. And when I heard that there would be some whale watching on the Arctic Circle Express as well I was so excited!
We left the harbour at 6 pm and sailed through the lovely Eyjafjörður fjord - all 60 km of it - and stopped on the way for almost half an hour in the feeding ground of the Humpback whales where we had been earlier the same morning. And again we saw myriad of whales blowing and fluking and at one point I even saw 3 whales blow in a row! It was magnificent!
When the Humpback whales dive they fluke, i.e. wave their tail. Each tail, also called a fluke, is different from the other - they are like human fingerprints, so I was on the lookout for different looking flukes.
The flukes can range from being totally white to being almost totally black. On the whale watching tour I had seen one whale with a white fluke framed in black, and another one with a black fluke with white patterns in the middle. On the Arctic Circle Express tour, I saw a very beautiful fluke when one Humpback whale dived - it was almost completely white!
After having gone whale watching twice on the same day I am now a huge fan of whales and will be frequenting whale watching tours in the future :)
Bird-watching from the boat to Grímsey
We left Eyjafjörður fjord and reached the open sea - the boat sailed at a great speed, so we relaxed in the comfort of the lounge area. I went outside a couple of times though as the sky was clear and the sun was glistening in the ocean. It was thrilling being outside when the boat was sailing at such a great speed.
After 3 hours we arrived in Grímsey. The ride didn't feel long at all and I was so excited when I saw Grímsey appear - all lit up from the orange rays of the 9 pm. August sun.
Grímsey island is known for its many bird species and its myriad of birds, so the boat sailed to the bird cliffs to show us the birds. There were so many birds flying around that it felt surreal!
Arriving at Grímsey island
There were also many puffins on the sea and on the cliffs and I heard that I was not the only one being excited about seeing this lovely bird. All around me I could hear people uttering: "Puffins - puffins!!" :)
We were greeted on the harbour by our tour guide, Halla, who has strong ties to Grímsey. She told us about the island and that we would be staying here for 1.5 hours. We could either follow her and get a guided tour of parts of the island and see the puffins - or we could walk to the Arctic Circle monument.
The major part of the group opted for the guided tour and so did I. Next time though I will walk to the Arctic Circle monument.
Our guide greeted us in Grímsey
If you look at the photo above you will see that our guide is carrying two sticks - my husband and I, being Icelanders, knew exactly what they were for. There is a lot of Arctic tern on Grímsey island and this bird will attack fearlessly if you come too close to their nesting ground.
To be continued further down in my travel-blog - when the Arctic tern attacked me...
Grímsey island harbour
Grímsey island is the northernmost inhabited island in Iceland some 41 km off the north coast of my country. Grímsey is famous for the Arctic Circle cutting through the island.
There are some 60 bird species to be found in Grímsey - but we were mainly interested in seeing the puffins. Less than 60 inhabitants on the island live on fishing, farming and they also catch birds and gather eggs. And of course, tourism, as it has become very popular to visit Grímsey.
Basalt columns on Grímsey island
When I was on the lookout for puffins I saw the most beautiful basalt columns on the island. Later to find out on a map of Grímsey that a little further on, the basalt columns are even more beautiful. I have to come back to see them as I love basalt columns!
The islanders live by the harbour and you will find a grocery store on Grímsey island, a couple of guesthouses, a campsite, a restaurant and a Community Hall, a church and a swimming pool. The children now go to school in Akureyri.
Standing by the view-dial on Grímsey island
My husband and I are always on the lookout for view-dials on our travels - and we found one on Grímsey island by the Fiskepallur platform. On these view-dials, one can see the names and height of the mountains all around.
They are very helpful and many of them are beautiful works of art. The view-dial in Grímsey was erected by the Kiwanis Club Grímur in 2002.
The view-dial in Grímsey shows the names of the surroundings - it was covered in bird droppings
The Sturlunga Saga tells of a Viking battle here in Grímsey island back in 1222 when Bishop Guðmundur Arason the Good fled to the island after his men had killed Tumi Sighvatsson. Sighvatur,
Tumi's father, and Sturla, Tumi's brother, sailed to the island with their army of men to seek revenge.
This battle resulted in the slaying of many men :( It is hard to imagine a Viking battle having taken place on such a peaceful island as Grímsey, but things were different back in the Viking times in Iceland.
Supper at Grímsey island
By now it was time to have supper in the Community House - a hearty soup on the house (included in the tour). I was eager to see the church as I visit every church in Iceland, so I left my husband at the dinner table and went exploring on my own.
I saw a polar bear skin hanging on one wall and remembered that a polar bear had come ashore on Grímsey island back in 1969. The bear is now on display at the Natural History Museum in Húsavík. I would not want to meet a polar bear on this small island for sure!
I saw a gift-shop in the same building as the restaurant and went in as I wanted a souvenir from the island.
There were such lovely items on sale made by the locals. Puffins and ravens - but one item caught my attention - small lamps made from eggshells!
Living on a remote island the Islanders have learnt to make use of the natural resources of the island and it is a tradition to go egg collecting. These tiny lamps are made from the eggshells of the common murre. Each egg pattern is unique and that is how the parents know their egg. So all the egg lamps are unique. And the artist has made different patterns in the eggs.
I especially liked the one with the tiny holes which are in the shape of Grímsey island.
Egg lamps - Grímsey design
The common murres lay their egg directly on the cliff ledge here in Grímsey. The eggs are elongated and pointed in one end, so they won't fall off the cliff edge if they were to roll. I
think this is a great idea to make use of the eggshells in this way. They are made by a local under the name of Grímsey design.
It was now time to go outside and see some puffins! I am in love with puffins, they are such cute birds. And I have seen that most visitors to Iceland want to see the puffins. So the majority of our group followed our guide to the bird cliffs where the puffins were staying in their thousands.
Puffins in Iceland
I must say that even though I live in Iceland I have not seen as many puffins in one place as on Grímsey island before. I was flabbergasted! I didn't have a decent zoom lens when I visited Grímsey, so I add photos I took of puffins the following year at Látrabjarg in the Westfjords, which is in my opinion the best place to photograph puffins in Iceland.
I have seen puffins in several places in Iceland, but have always been at their different locations around noon when the majority of the birds are still out at sea. In the evening they gather together in the cliffs. That is why the Arctic Circle Express left so late from Akureyri - at 6 pm - so we would be able to see the puffins in their thousands!
Puffins in Iceland
The puffin which breeds in Iceland is the Atlantic puffin. It is sometimes called the "prófastur" in Icelandic, meaning the dean - as it is so distinguished looking. What makes the Atlantic puffin stand out is the big orange, red and grey beak and the bright orange feet. The beak loses this colour in the wintertime, but I have never seen that as the puffins stay out on the ocean in the wintertime.
The puffin stays in Iceland from mid-April until mid-August when it starts to leave the country. In wintertime, the puffins stay on the ocean and they don't come back until the next breeding season.
Up to 60% of the Arctic puffin colony breeds in Iceland so there is a very good chance of seeing puffins if you visit Iceland during the nesting season of the puffins.
Puffins in Iceland
The wings of the puffins are a little too small so when it flies it flaps its wings very rapidly - it is very cute to see a puffin fly :) The puffin wings are perfect for catching fish though. Our guide told me that they have an activity on Grímsey, to dive with puffins, I think it is called. The sea is very clear around Grímsey island, so that must be a great thing to do!
Almost the whole group gathered by the cliffs to see the puffins. I noticed that the puffins were a bit afraid of humans - as if I went too close to the edge the whole colony on that cliff got scared and flew away. In some other locations in Iceland, like on Látrabjarg cliff, the puffins are so used to humans that they don't budge and it looks like they are even posing for the camera :)
Puffins in Iceland
Be extra careful not to go too far to the edge. The puffin burrows can make the ground closest to the cliffs hollow and dangerous to tread on.
Even though the puffins look so cute they have a powerful bite if they feel threatened - as the multi-Michelin Chef Gordon Ramsay found out the hard way when he was kissing a puffin in the Westman Islands in Iceland.
You can find a video of the puffin biting Gordon's nose in my travel-blog on the Westman Islands.
Puffins in abundance at Grímsey island
We got some good photos of the ever so cute puffins, but as the sun was seated so low in the sky then an orange hue was surrounding them. It was so special and I was reduced to tears by this beautiful sight.
A handful of the group had hiked to the Arctic Circle monument, which is almost the exact location of the Arctic Circle. We had crossed the Arctic Circle on the boat before we came ashore, so I opted for the puffins and the church. But I want to visit that monument next time I visit Grímsey island.
The group photographing puffins at Grímsey island
I visit all the churches I come across on my travels in Iceland and was happy to be able to visit the church in Grímsey, which was built of driftwood back in 1867.
Before this church was built there was a turf church in Grímsey.
On the way to the church, the road lies close to the nesting areas of the Arctic tern, which fearlessly attacked me over and over again the whole way to the church.
Miðgarðakirkja church in Grímsey
I used to be very afraid of this bird, but now it almost makes me angry, so I just yell back at it. I would have needed a stick as our guide had though.
Usually, I carry an umbrella with me and open it when I am attacked. I have found that to be the safest way to avoid getting a hole in my head.
Protecting myself from the attacks of the Arctic turn on the way to church
I made it in one piece to this beautiful Lutheran church. These churches are like a gem to me each and every one of the 378 churches in Iceland.
The altarpiece in the church dates back to 1878 and is a copy of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece "The Last Supper" painted by the noted Icelander Arngrímur Gíslason.
Miðgarðakirkja church burnt to the ground on the 22nd of September 2021 - a great loss :(
The altarpiece in Miðgarðakirkja church
Grímsey island lies so far north that during summertime the sun never stops shining - the days last for 24 hours. The same is true here in South-Iceland where I live, but the days last even longer so far up north by the Arctic Circle as they are located on 66°33,3 North.
On equinox on the 21st of June, it must be wonderful to see the sun touch the horizon and rise straight away again.
On the other hand, living so far up north, the inhabitants are also affected by the extreme winter darkness.
The Arctic Circle runs through Grímsey island at 66°33,3’N. I have heard it jokingly said that the Arctic Circle once ran through one house in the middle of the bed of a married couple. So the husband was north of the Arctic Circle and the wife was south of it :) I don't know if this is a true story or not, but it could be.
Playing chess by the outside chessboard at Grímsey
We stopped by a monument and a chessboard. A wealthy American, Daniel Willard Fiske (1831-1904), who was both a scholar and a librarian, donated a chessboard to every home on Grímsey island, as well as a library on chess - and after his death, the islanders inherited the Willard Fiske Grímsey Fund.
Daniel Willard Fiske had heard that the Islanders were skilled chess players, and as he was very fond of chess himself he decided on presenting them with such a generous gift.
The monument for Daniel Fiske
His monument is a chessboard and a sailboat above the harbour. Daniel Fiske never set foot on Grímsey island but circumnavigated it once and pondered on the resilience of the islanders living so far up north.
Back in the time when Daniel Willard Fiske was so kind to the Islanders, several baby boys were named Daniel on the island in honour of the benefactor of Grímsey :)
The Islanders also have an annual celebration on Daniel Willard Fiske's birthday on November 11th.
Dolphins playing in the sea by the boat
We left Grímsey island after a lovely 1.5 hour's visit and were back in Akureyri 2.5 hours later, so all in all this wonderful trip lasted for 8 hours.
On our way back from the island the sky was orange and pink and there were dolphins playing in the ocean. It was just perfect. I was so happy with this trip and hope to visit Grímsey island again soon. And then I am going to walk up to the Arctic Circle.
I could not have asked for a better day than this August day, two wonderful tours on the same day. This tour has stopped operating but you can take the ferry Sæfari from Dalvík and visit Grímsey on your own. Or fly with Norlandair.
If you want to go whale watching in Eyjafjörður fjord then the tours available now are:
Eyjafjörður Humpbacks - Whale Watching from Akureyri
Whale Watching in Akureyri & Reykjavík - a two Port Ticket
Whale Watching & Sea Angling from Hauganes Village
Have a lovely time and I hope you get to see plenty of whales on your tour :)
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