As I followed the commotion around the recent Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions in Iceland, I became worried for the humpbacks of Skjálfandi. I called North Sailing in Iceland to ask if the volcano had affected the humpback’s migration and sightings. The answer was reassuring: more humpbacks were in the Bay this year. As I spoke to Thorunn, North Sailing’s whale-watching guide, my mind went floating back to two years ago, when my family and I were watching the gentle giants in the choppy Arctic waters.

We went whale-watching with Thorunn’s colleague Nils, a stocky blond man with a French goatee. I remember his strong voice introducing us to the world of the humpback whale as we sailed on the icy North Atlantic waters. “It is always fun to see humpback whales because they have so many interesting behaviours to express anger, keep in touch and scare food into a tighter ball so they may get more of it or just play with it. They may even jump out of the water completely!”

The 50-foot schooner, Haukur, skimmed through the inky blue waters. We were setting out to watch whales, off the bay of Skjálfandi, near Húsavík in northern Iceland. And humpbacks were the most common in these waters. As our boat pulled out of the bay, we could see the sleepy harbour town recede. With a population of only 2,300, this little town boasts of a well-appointed whale museum and the world’s only phallic museum. It has two restaurants, two hotels and one small supermarket. Even by European standards, this really is a tiny town.

But size notwithstanding, Húsavík is the whale-watching capital of the world. North Sailing claims to have a 98 per cent success rate on its whale-watching trips. But this is an activity restricted to the four summer months, starting May. Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales migrate north, travelling up to 25,000km, each year. They feed only in summer in these polar waters, and return to the tropical waters to breed and give birth in winter. So a typical humpback may have travelled from the Caribbean waters to the Bay of Skjálfandi, to feed on krill and small schooling fish. There are about 80,000 humpback whales worldwide. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, whale-watchers now seek humpbacks out in an effort to support their population.

“There is the spout,” shrieked Nils, his excitement rising above the cacophony of the motley crowd on the Haukur. At a distance of about 200 metres on our left, I saw the first signs of a whale. The famous spout and a whale exhale! A 10-foot spray up in the air. In the next 10 minutes, there was another sighting, about 150 metres to our right. Turned out, it was the same whale and we were moving closer to it. All 15 of us on the boat, from different corners of the world, were first-time whale-watchers and all in a state of high excitement. Videos and SLRs were being readied. Another whale, now just about 100 metres away! I saw a 15-foot spout and perhaps the pectoral fin and a bit of the grey back. But I wasn’t sure. “Humpback,” declared Nils. My gloved hand was barely able to hold the Nikon D300 in place for the money shot.

And then all of a sudden, there was a lull. No more spouts. The whale had just vanished — if you’ll believe that of a creature that’s 50 feet long. Frantic lookouts for the lost mammal followed. Whales tend to dive for about eight to ten minutes to hunt and then come up to catch their breath, but sometimes it could be longer. Disappointment was writ large on all our faces. Like a good guide, Nils tried to dispel the discontent and keep our interest going with an explanation about whale behaviour. “You also get to see blue whales here, though not too often. After the humpbacks, the most popular are the minke whales. And of course dolphins, especially the white-beaked dolphins. The smallest mammals in these waters are the harbour porpoises. Only 1.5 metres.”

Meanwhile, the humpback refused to surface. As the schooner went spearing in one direction and then the other in search of the elusive spout, we found nothing. Well, not entirely nothing. In the distance was a school of dolphins. The captain quickly made an arc of 30 degrees to the left, so we could meet the trajectory of the jumping dolphins. They were the white-beaked variety that Nils had spoken of. A school of at least 10. As we approached their path, the captain slowed down. We saw them crossing right in front of our now gently bobbing boat. The dolphins would jump up three metres and throw themselves back in the water, landing on their backs, their white bellies up — and creating a massive splash. They do it again and then again. Obviously they were having great fun obliging the people on the Hakur.

The videos were whirring again, the cameras clicking, recording the antics of the dolphin school. We were particularly taken with a mother and baby pair, and even tried to follow them for some distance. The baby couldn’t hold its breath under water for long and so would surface quite often. The mother, in tandem with her baby, kept bobbing in and out of the water. This was Olympic-standard synchronised swimming. Soon the dolphins went their way and quiet returned to the boat.

Nils then walked up and asked me if I had ever visited Alang, on the shores of Gujarat. I hadn’t, but I did know that Alang has a flourishing ship-breaking industry that flouts all health and labour regulations. But also, Nils informed me, Alang sells top-class wood to make boats like the Hakur. He would go to Alang after the whale season was over, as he had done a couple times before, and source wood. This he’d bring back to Europe and resell to ship-builders across the world. It was amazing: a German from the Black Forest area, working in Iceland, meets an Indian on the Arctic Ocean and talks about Alang.

I was joining the dots on these connections and smiling to myself, when Nils shouted out to us. All heads turned in the direction of Nils’s hand; 20 metres from the bow of the ship, the sea was making huge waves. Without warning, the mammoth head of a humpback appeared, tearing the grey waters of the North Sea. Its head fell into the water and up came the back, the pectoral fin and then the large fluke, its tail. The unmistakable V of the humpback! The fluke gracefully slipped into the water right near our boat, which rocked with the impact of the big waves crashing on its side. A collective ‘wow’ emerged. Not a single photo was taken, for who could shake off the spell of this sight to lift a camera? This 50-footer, weighing 36,000kg, had suddenly entered our world and then vanished into the depths of the ocean. We could barely believe it happened.

But Nils looked joyous. He recognised this humpback and was seeing it after two years. “It will be back. This one is very comfortable with boats and loves to play with them. Wait. It will be back.”

And it was. Several times. For 20 minutes, the humpback played with us. It would appear on the right, flash its back and the fluke would go up, and it would gently glide into the water. Then again in five minutes, it would reappear from the left. It actually swam under our boat. (A confession: I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the humpback reared its head just when it was under the boat.)

The photo ops were abundant. It was almost posing for all our cameras, from the point-and-shoots to the D300s. Slowly, the mammal receded.

Nils reminded us that around the Icelandic waters, this humpback is safe but only because of the many efforts to protect it. Like other large whales, the humpback was — and is — a target for the whaling industry, even after the whaling moratorium of 1966. But stocks of the species have since partially recovered.

As we caught the familiar sights of Húsavík dancing in the horizon, our joy in seeing the whale was tempered with fear for its survival and hope that these efforts will be enough.

The information

Getting there
Reykjavik
: Though there are no direct flights to Reykjavik from India, there are several one-stop flights via Helsinki, Copenhagen or Amsterdam. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (www.klm.com). Keflavik airport is 50km from the city centre. Bus services to the city are very good and are the best way to get there.

Husavik: Buses from Reykjavik to Akureyri (approx. Kr 10,000), 250km away, take around six hours. Akureyri is the large harbour town near Húsavík and is the closest airport and bus depot. The drive cuts across the country and is quite spectacular, going as it does through hot springs, glaciers and vast barren spaces. Alternatively, you could take a flight to Akureyri from Reykjavik (www.airiceland.is; approx. Kr 9,000 one way).

Getting around
Reykjavik:
The bus service is very good for travelling in the city and to the suburbs. The city itself is small and easily explored on foot.

Husavik: This town in Nordurping municipality, on the shores of Skjálfandi bay, too is small enough to walk around in.

Where to stay
Reykjavik:
We stayed at the Hotel Frón (from $108; www.hotelfron.is), a friendly apartment hotel situated in the heart of Reykjavik on the main shopping street, Laugavegur. But there are a number of luxury and budget options available here, including a few bed-and-breakfast places. Radisson Blu 1919 (from $155; www.radissonblu.com), Park Inn Island (from $123; www.rezidorparkinn.com) and Hilton (from $315; www1.hilton.com). Icelandair Hotels (www.icelandairhotels.com) has a couple of hotels in Reykjavik that cost $70-80. Budget options include Guesthouse Isafold (from $56) and BB 44 (from $49; www.bb44.is). It makes sense to stay near the city centre, though. Watch out for the sulphur content in the tap water, especially in budget places. Though safe, the stink can be killing.

Husavik: We stayed at the Kaldbaks — Kot cottages on the edge of the town (from $150; www.cottages.is). There are several other options too, like Adalbjörg Birgisdóttir (from $80; +354-4641005) at the budget end and Fosshótel Húsavík (from $200; www.fosshotel.is) at the higher end.

What to see & do
Reykjavik:
The world’s most northerly capital has all the appointments of a large European city: cosy cafés, classy restaurants, museums and galleries, and state-of-the-art geothermal pools. It is famous for its kicking music scene and its rúntur, the wild pub crawl that lasts from Friday night to Sunday morning. Reykjavik is also rumoured to have the highest concentration of poets in a city.

We took the Golden Circle Tour (Kr 7,900; www.icelandhorizon.is), which is a whole day bus trip taking you through famous geysers, thundering waterfalls, extinct volcanoes and their crater lakes. Blue Lagoon (www.bluelagoon.com), the famous geothermal spa, right next to the international airport, is worth a visit. Most airport bus services include a trip to the spa, where a perfectly coordinated locker system (for a price, of course!) helps you store your baggage safely, while you enjoy the spa’s services.

Husavik: The whale-watching central in Iceland is a picturesque fishing town on the northeast coast. There are two whale-watching companies: North Sailing (www.northsailing.is) and Gentle Giants (www.gentlegiants.is). Apart from the whale-watching trips, Húsavík has several interesting museums to offer: the award-winning Húsavík Whale Museum (www.whalemuseum.is), the bizarre (and possibly the only one of its kind) Icelandic Phallological Museum (www.phallus.is) and a rather good local-history museum. The town has a quaint and relaxed atmosphere.

Where to eat
Reykjavik
: Café Paris (www.cafeparis.is), Austur Indía Félagio (www.austurindia.is) is sold as the northernmost Indian restaurant in the world. Fish Market (www.fiskmarkadurinn.is) and Fjalakötturinn (www.fjalakotturinn.is) are well-recommended, albeit more expensive, options.

Husavik: Gamli Baukur (www.gamlibaukur.is) and Restaurant Salka (www.salkarestaurant.is). The restaurant-bar Gamli Baukur serves a good selection of fish and seafood dishes. Salka, located in a historic building, too serves great seafood and pizza. It also had smoked puffin on its menu.

What to buy: Shopping is expensive in Iceland. But if you are willing to spend, Reykjavik has some great options. The main shopping area is Laugavegur (and nearby Skólavödustígur) in the city centre. A big attraction here is 66. North (www.66north.com), the outdoor-clothing store. There’s a branch of it in Húsavík as well.

For the more adventurous shopper, there is the covered Kolaportid Flea Market by Reykjavik Harbour, which is open on Saturdays and Sundays (11am-5pm). The huge shopping mall Kringlan (www.kringlan.is) is another option. The souvenir shop Íslandia here is said to be a good place to shop. You could also try Iceland Gift Store (www.icelandgiftstore.com), a well-known souvenir store that has been around since 1940. A must-buy souvenir is the ‘lava jewellery’ (from $23 at IGS).

When to go: Summer, from May to July, is the driest time of the year. Mid-June to August, when the whales migrate, is high season. The almost-24 hours of daylight during these months gives you more time to enjoy the outdoors, but could also disturb your sleep pattern. At other times, many tourist facilities outside Reykjavik might be closed.



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