Beyond the Surface
A Journey of Exploration into Iceland’s Natural Wonders.
Written by Belén García Ovide // Photography by Norris Niman
That evening I lie in the mossy grass by the yellow lighthouse, as I usually do when I feel like talking to myself. I look at the horizon and take a deep breath. After a quiet winter, spring comes to Iceland bringing eternal sunsets, plentiful wildlife, and magic colours to this volcanic island at the gates of the Arctic. It is May, my favourite month of the year. The month of transformation, when nature awakens from its lethargy, when the ocean calls – and we listen. I can’t wait to go sailing again.
Every year, I set sail on the schooner Opal to explore remote areas of Iceland and report signs of unhealthy oceans. It all started as a dream some years ago – a dream to become part of the change that we wanted to see in the world. As ocean scientists, guides, and sailors who care deeply about the planet, the scale of the current environmental problems is a heavy burden. We know that the unfolding changes are linked to the limited initiative of decision makers to address issues, but we still carry the load.
For centuries, most people have neglected or ignored the oceans because we haven’t been able to look beyond the surface and open our minds. We are starting to realise that without blue there is no green, that without healthy oceans we won’t be able to breathe. That the world would simply collapse. Oceans are the engine of planet Earth, home to most species, and probably the origin of life. Our human lives are bound to the blue. And this is why some friends and I created Ocean Missions – in sharing our lifestyle with other people we aim to inspire the world to stand for nature, make a contribution, support science, and create change. Nothing could make me happier.
On each journey, a group of likeminded people come together to explore ways to help preserve the ocean and coastland landscapes, based on their experiences and ideas. And it all happens in the best way you can imagine: inspired by the soul of a 70-year-old wooden sailing ship, surrounded by Iceland’s nature and guided by the power of the oceans and the wind.
Although it is mid-May, it feels like March. It is still very cold, around 5–7°C, and significant snow remains on the mountains. It’s morning, just before departure, and I am running here and there trying to not leave any scientific equipment behind. I am already stressed and tired – we have spent intense weeks working on maintenance aboard Opal – but I feel the excitement on the boat and the conversations around me. ‘I am not optimistic about the weather forecast for the week,’ Heimir, our captain, says. He is never optimistic about the weather. ‘But it is better to start with low expectations and work from there.’ We have been sailing together for many years now – things usually work out. It is 6.30am when we leave our home town of Húsavík behind us and set sail for Siglufjördur, a charming fishing village in the north where we will spend the night before heading to the remote Westfjords.
When we reach Siglufjördur, the weather is good enough for a beach clean and microplastic survey, so we spread out across the beach and begin our methodical sweep. And, just like in previous years, we find plastic everywhere. One of our participants turns towards me, holding up a piece of netting that looks twice her size. She is from England and works in a seal rescue centre. ‘Wow! I am shocked,’ she says. ‘I never expected to find so much plastic here. It feels so far away from civilisation.’
Since 2019, we have been monitoring the problem of plastic pollution in Icelandic waters and cleaning the coasts. Our goal: to alert the Icelandic government and press them for solutions. At 9.30pm we decide to keep going and sail through the night to the Westfjords. There is nothing like sailing with the wind on a wooden ship. The creaking of the timbers and the wind in the sails feel like total freedom.
Next morning, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve lies ahead, a place where the hidden people live: Huldufólk, the trolls and elves. We sail slowly in calm seas through the mist for the last bit of this leg around the Horn. Only Opal’s foresail stands visible above the waters. The chatter and squawk of birds grows louder and eventually we see the magnificent cliffs of Hornbjarg, more than 500m high, piercing through the fog like an apparition. There is an intense smell of guano and fresh kelp. We approach the area with caution and respect.
When we get close enough, Charla (whale researcher and bird expert) and I grab some binoculars and start looking for an old friend. His name is Yann, a solitary gannet who occupied a nest here some years ago and seems unable to find the right partner. He is the only gannet in the whole nesting crowd of guillemots and fulmars, and the largest bird of all. Charla looks at me and smiles. ‘Found him.’ On other expeditions we have seen gannets with fishing lines around their necks or entangled in their nests. I know she is happy to see that he is doing fine, even though he is alone.
Climate change presents challenges for birdlife in Iceland. Unpredictable weather, storms, loss of ice, and increasing water temperatures are making life tough for many birds. Some species that feed on once-reliable sources of small fish suddenly cannot find enough food. That is the case for the emblematic Atlantic puffin among others.
The weather is building and it is time to go. Suddenly we are crossing the Breiðafjördur trying to escape a big storm that has galloped up behind us. ‘All hands on deck!’ Soaking wet, my companions and I strive for balance on the pitching deck, hauling on ropes and making every effort to keep Opal ahead of the weather front. The foresail and a full reef in the mainsail help us to keep a firm course. We are looking for shelter in Grundafjörður. Finally, at 10.30pm, after an intense spell of sailing (and an intense workout), we reach a small pier and are able to take a rest. Snowflakes fly in the gale. It is so cold that I can’t feel my fingers any more. I try to sleep, but the boat keeps waking me up in the middle of the night, rubbing against the pier in winds up to 40 knots, so I decide to get up and join Heimir on watch while the others sleep. Stories, a guitar, and good coffee keep us going through the blizzard. Every now and again we have to run to adjust ropes and fenders as Opal rocks at her berth.
After another stormy day, finally the weather greets us with clear skies and following winds. Daniel – one of the crew members and a biologist – hangs his soaked clothes on deck to dry and sets up the Opal’s hammock to enjoy the morning sun. But the best part is about to come.
With all sails full we progress from Grundafjörður to Ólafsvík. At this time of year it is common to see orcas and sperm whales in the area – they come to the productive slopes of Snæfellsnes Peninsula to feed on herring. Everyone but the cooking team gathers on deck to search for these beautiful creatures, and after setting the topsail I climb all the way up the foremast. ‘This is the pirate style, girls! Look at the views!’ Now I revel in the sensations of this extraordinary moment: a vast blue ocean in front of me, the breeze in my face, a deck full of inspiring minds below, and Snæfellsjökull Glacier on the horizon. I ask myself how long this glacier will last. For a minute I think about my family back in Spain, and suddenly I want them next to me – I wish everyone could feel what I feel right now. We are one with nature, we belong to the sea, we are sailing with a purpose! Nine knots. I look down and smile to see my friend Norris almost surfing the waves on the bowsprit, capturing these vibes in images as Opal pitches up and down.
Suddenly it happens: the unmistakable black fin of a male orca cuts upward through the ocean surface. It’s huge. The crew scream in wild excitement as if they have never seen a whale before. An orca is one of the smartest and most formidable social creatures on Earth, and this guy is not alone. One of the whale specialists points, crying ‘Look at all those fins approaching behind him – and so many birds flying around over there too!’ The crew run for their camera gear.
The differences in the dorsal and the paddle patch – the white pattern on the back just behind the dorsal fin – can be used to identify individuals. This information is crucial for monitoring the movements of these ocean giants and the challenges they are facing. Altogether we count more than 30 individuals. I have never seen orcas in such great numbers. Soon we realise why: they have found a big shoal of fish near the surface and are sharing the feast. In cetaceans, it is all about family and mutual respect. Babies will stay by their mothers and learn, at least two huge males guard the whole pod, and the wise matriarch will lead the operation and teach the others. After 30 minutes of intense feeding, the whole group is joyful and playful, splashing in the waves. Their excitement is palpable. Some of them even approach the boat, curious, and stay close for a while, as if we are now part of their family pod. There is magic here.
Suddenly, every member of the crew is waving their arms in the air and hooting with joy, hugging each other, celebrating the beauty of being present and alive, the beauty of being wild. The beauty of awakening to see beyond the surface. That lesson of realisation is priceless.
Soon after our meeting with the orcas, we sail around Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It is almost sunset. The colours are going crazy. Sailing alongside the rough coast, the wind still favourable, we feel the power of the tides and localised currents against us. These conditions can be dangerous if you are not fully aware of the elements. But here we are, all in with nature, breaking through, becoming wild. Heimir and I hesitate, wary of the strengthening winds. Should we go? ‘Let’s just try it!’ I say. ‘This is a magical place.’ We change our course and anchor in front of Djúpalónssandur, a majestic black sandy beach. Daniel, Charla, and I bring the group ashore on the little grey Zodiac. A beautiful Arctic fox, already in its brown summer outfit, guards the beach and we wander for about half an hour. An orange full moon, huge and bright, appears on the horizon, illuminating a pathway to Opal on the ocean surface. It feels unreal. But now it is time to go. Strong gusts are approaching, and the captain gives the command to return before the weather strands us on this beach. The wind roars again.
After seven days of exploring, we reach our final destination: Reykjavik harbour. Each person aboard Opal feels reborn after our experience. Full of emotion Daniel, Charla, Heimir, and I say farewell to a new generation of changemakers.
During this journey, we collected 158kg of marine debris in two beach clean-ups. We also performed six microplastic surveys in different coastal areas. Microplastics were present at every site. The plastic crisis is a global problem – and we all share the responsibility to do something. Protecting the Arctic should be like taking care of our mother. She has given us food and a safe place to live for as long as we can remember, and now it is our time to give back.
One of the participants leaves me with final words that I will never forget: ‘Belén, I almost felt like giving up on my mission to help the planet. Everyone around me was saying that it doesn’t matter what we do, that it is too late. But thanks to the work and passion of your team, I am full of hope again. I feel capable of anything.’
First published in Sidetracked Volume 25