Vestmannaeyjar or the Westman Islands are located off the south coast of Iceland and are known for its stunning natural beauty, the bounty of wildlife, particularly birds and by being one of Iceland’s most significant places in terms of history and geography. The Westman Islands are 15 in total and are part of a young and still active submarine volcanic system, most of them forming 10-20.000 years ago. The youngest island, Surtsey, came into being from the sea floor in episodic eruptions from 1963 to 1966, making it the youngest island in the whole world.
Heimaey is the only one of the Westmann Islands that is inhabited and has a population of around 4100 people. The locals base their livelihood on the fishing industry. Excellent fishing grounds are located very close to the island and Westman Islands have always been country’s most profitable fishing harbour. Heimaey is only about 13 square kilometres but this small island contains enough beautiful sceneries and birdlife to keep you amazed for days.The town of Westman Islands has have many popular attractions, such as one of Iceland’s best 18 hole golf courses, deep sea fishing, bird and whale watching and endless opportunities for adventurous hikes up volcanos, over lava fields and along the seashore. Interesting museums tell the history of human and animal inhabitants of the island and that live in the sea around the island. In between activities you can enjoy some of the town excellent restaurants, cafés and shops. If you want to visit Westman Islands, the passenger and car ferry Herjólfur makes the trip from Landeyjarhöfn in 40 minutes, but you can also travel to Westman Island by air which only takes around 20 minutes.
One of the most significant events in the Icelandic history was the 1973 Heimaey eruption. It started in January and lasted until early July. During the eruption the Eldfell mountain rose, the island became 2,3 square kilometres larger and block lava flows and ash burned and buried around 400 buildings. The remains of the eruption are among the island’s most interesting historical locales. The historical significance of the eruption has attracted a vast number of visitors since its occurrence, however, tourism on the island is growing faster now than ever before.
One of the distinctive factors of the Westman Island is the incredible birdlife, and maybe most famously the puffin colony. Numerous species of seabirds nest in the steep rock cliffs along the ocean so egg collecting and bird hunting have always been a valuable source of sustenance. Westman Island holds the world biggest colony of Puffins, with over 10 million individual birds (!!!) nesting on the islands. During the months of August and September, many juvenile puffins appear in town. The parents have stopped bringing food and the hunger forces them out of the holes. At night, the lights of the town attract the young birds so they glide from the mountains in their hundreds. Many of them are not strong enough for the whole journey and many of them land on the town’s pavements or in local’s garden. During this time, local children are allowed to stay out late and lend the young birds a helping hand. They roam the town with cardboard boxes to collect the small birds and help them find the route to food and freedom. A truly unique experience for any visitor.
The local swimming pool in Westman Islands is immensely popular among the locals and is very well sought, especially by the locals kids. The outdoor area consists of a 25 x 11 metres outdoor swimming pool with a diving board, two hot tubs and a large massage hot tub. There is also a large play pool for the kids with a climbing wall, a small water slide and a wading area for the youngest children. The big water slides is always a favourite among kids, one with a trampoline at the end where you bounce off into a large pool – super fun!
The exhibition focuses on the 1973 volcanic eruption in the Westman Island’s, which is without a doubt one of Iceland’s biggest natural disasters. The eruption started in the early hours of January 23rd 1973 and it lasted for 5 months. Lava and ash destroyed almost 400 homes and businesses, which was a third of all buildings on Heimaey. Before the eruption, the population on Heimaey was around 5.300 people. The entire population, apart from about 200 rescue workers who stayed behind, fled to the mainland to live with relatives or in temporary housing. Lava and ash covered 2,5 square kilometres or about 20%, of the island. A new volcano, Eldfell, had risen 220 metres tall and Heimaey had grown 2 square kilometres.
40 years after the eruption, Eldheimar opened up as a museum of remembrance, giving visitors the chance to go back in time and learn about this dramatic event. The highlight of the exhibition is the house on Gerðisbraut 10. With the youngest child of the family living there only a few weeks old, the inhabitants were forced to leave their home in the middle of the night taking with them only a bottle for the baby. A few days later their home had drowned in ash and lava. Gerðisbraut 10, after being buried in ash and lava for over 40 years, has now been excavated and shows how cruelly nature treated the homes of so many islanders.
The exhibition also covers the Surtsey eruption, the island that emerged from the ocean south of Heimaey in 1963. The Surtsey eruption lasted for almost 4 years and ever since only scientists have been allowed on the island in order to monitor how new ecosystems come to life.