Animals of the North

Yesterday, I saw whales and ate reindeer.

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I had never been whale watching before we departed from Reykjavik's inner harbor in the early afternoon.  The sky was a tad overcast, but the wind wasn't too unruly, so the sea wasn't terribly choppy as we steamed out into Flaxifloi Bay, framed by low-hanging clouds and the steep stone green cliffs of Mt. Esja.

We stopped first at a few "puffin islands" on our way out.  Puffins, beating their black wings at over 400 times per minute, are very fast as they zoom in low over the water with fish for their chicks.  It was difficult to follow their sweeping paths with a camera, as they were constantly intersecting the paths of gannets, gulls, and other seabirds swirling in a cloud off the rocky islet.

Then heading, out into the bay itself, we got down to the whale watching.

Watching whale watchers, I discovered, was just as fun as watching for whales.  A motley crew had assembled topside aboard our vessel, most decked out in several layers of winterwear.  A few had binoculars, almost all had cameras (like me).  As we plowed out into heavier, undulating waters, the female guide in the highest crowsnest educated us about whales, noting that they rest only half of their brains at a time to avoid drowning...perhaps something for scientists to study to "improve human efficiency."

Anyway, as we proceeded, we were instructed to watch for four telltale signs: flocks of birds feeding on the surface, whale spouts, splashes, and the whales backs themselves.  With each wave crested, the passengers crowded farther forward into the railings of the bow.  Everyone went silent as a knot of birds emerged over one spot in the heaving gray.  Nothing, though.

The tension built and finally, in the middle of the guide's drone, as every eye scanned a new patch of horizon, she shouted "One o'clock!"  The captain cut the engine.  Sure enough, a black innertube-like surface broke smoothly out of one wave and slipped into another, a small black triangular dorsal fin appearing momentarily as the jostling crowd gasped and clicked away.

It really was cool.  As the boat bobbed, we saw additional whales, now two at a time, break to the surface in shallow dives before making a greater arch and diving deep, not to be seen again.

The most transcendent aspect of the afternoon was hearing whales breathe.  I went to the opposite side of the boat from where the busiest watching was going on at one point.  With only a handful of us as witnesses, a lone Minke surfaced quite close to the vessel, exposing more of its back than most.  I saw its blowhole open and heard the "whchoosh" before it closed and then disappeared again below the water.  Oh yeah - we are all mammals, I couldn't help but note.

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The salad that Gylfi's mother set before me that evening didn't look quite like normal salads.  But the mix -  a blend of reindeer meat (shot by the librarian at the school where she serves as principal), cognac-marinated seabird, smoked seabird, garden greens, seeds, and homemade rhubarb spread - was uniquely delicious as we sat under the low hanging light in sky blue designer chairs.

Arctic lobsters (smaller than what we eat in the U.S., but also a bit tastier) comprised the main course.  Gylfi's father, Geir, told of working on a farm in the south of the country in his younger years - at the tale end of the time when electricity had not yet reached the farm.

After a walk up to the top of the Seltjarnarnes peninsula to take in the sunsettish view, we sat down to an unlikely dessert of ice cream, coffee, and halffiskur (sp?) - air-dried fish.  A favorite of Geir's, the long dried strip of "sea catfish" ("it's a real ugly one") was surprisingly tasty and edible.

Talking through the evening, it seems Icelanders, as in the U.S., have consciously decided it is well time to slow things down.  In personal lives, in consumption, and in economic pace.  

Another thing I learned in our conversation: Icelanders are mystified at the obsession of the foreign press with their prime minister's sexual orientation (she is the first openly gay world leader).

Then, after a few struggled pseudo-Icelandic words of thanks on my part, we departed.

And Mysterious Marta and Ivar put on a good show at one of the coffee shops downtown.