Expedition to the Arctic Circle

Summer Solstice at the Edge of the Arctic

Being able to travel to the Arctic Circle is a rarity for many, but travelling to the Arctic Circle via schooner along the Icelandic coast is once in a lifetime. There are very few people who can say they have experienced such an exciting expedition and I’m very lucky to be able to say that I am one of them.

I had the absolute pleasure to be onboard the magnificent schooner Opal alongside North Sailing for their ‘Sailing the Edge of the Arctic’ tour, where over 2 nights and 3 days under the midnight sun we travelled through Iceland’s pristine waters, experiencing a wide variety of wildlife along the way. I hadn’t had any expectations as this was such a unique experience, but I can fully confirm that it exceeded everything I could have possibly imagined.

Embarking from Húsavík

We set off from Húsavík, a little bustling village (made popular by the rather wholesome Eurovision movie) right in the very North of Iceland. We spent the first few minutes getting to know everyone on board, learning who the crew were and getting acquainted with the layout of the boat.

Wildlife in Skjálfandi Bay

But, it wasn’t long before the magic started, as we made our way towards Puffin Island, where thousands and thousands of puffins began flying all around us. It started to rain but none of that mattered as we were all overwhelmed with how impressive these tiny birds were. Being a photographer meant that my camera was out almost instantly, with me rapidly pressing the shutter button, as I learned just how difficult a puffin was to photograph as they flew at speeds I didn’t even know were possible.

However, the magic didn’t stop there. I had never seen a humpback whale before, so my eyes were wide open, and my heart was racing at the excitement of the potential alone. As we moved on from Puffin Island, slightly overwhelmed, we had no idea that our bodies were about to experience a whole other level of adrenaline boost. Our eyes were searching the horizon for the 9-metre shoots of air that would blow out of the water from a distance. Everyone was dotted equally around the boat looking all around until someone yelled “whale!”. Immediately, Captain Heimir steered Opal towards the spotted whale quietly and respectfully. Being an electric sailboat means she runs smoothly, causing less disturbance for the wildlife and overall making us feel more immersed with nature. Suddenly we’re getting closer and we can actually hear the sound of the blowhole being sprayed into the air. Just like with the puffins our cameras are going wild as we watch them dive deep into the ocean below, tails being presented to us at the end almost like they want us to admire them! We enjoyed their beauty from a distance, and once they were gone took a moment to reflect and look over images with each other. We were all distracted until suddenly a huge burst of air comes flying out of the water directly behind us and we turn around without hesitation completely in awe at the sight before us. A humpback whale had come right up to the boat without us knowing, creating a beautiful and intimate interaction between all on board and Iceland’s wildlife.

Experiencing midnight sun from the wooden hot tub

The night didn’t stop there as we continued North West, towards Flatey. We spent time below deck enjoying everyone’s company as we ate an incredible all-vegetarian meal prepared by Opal’s very own chef, Arnþór. After a hearty dinner and very full tummies, we made our way back on deck to be greeted by one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. The midnight sun painted the landscape in warm golden light that we were blessed with for what felt like many hours. After fully immersing ourselves in the sun, we finished the evening under the midnight light in the onboard hot tub with some wine and beers. A unique way to finish and an incredibly unique day.

Quaint island Flatey – birds’ paradise

After sleeping in the cosiest little cabin, we woke up next to the quaint little island named Flatey, which quite literally translates to flat island. Once you’ll see it, you’ll know exactly why, it is very flat! While some people may associate flat with boring, Flatey has to be one of the most quirky places I’ve ever been lucky enough to visit. It has no residences, only people who go during the holidays and as you enter the island there is a little pot of sticks just ready to greet you. Now you’re probably thinking, why on earth is there a pot of sticks?

Well, it turns out Arctic Terns can be nasty little buggers that peck away at your head once they feel threatened or are entering their territory (which is essentially everywhere) so the locals had figured out that by holding a stick above your head, you actually protect yourself as the birds will only attack the highest point. A simple yet genius fix to a very sore and prevalent issue on the island.

So we made our way, sticks in hand, across the island taking in all the sights. We first passed a beautiful red-roofed church, and as we walked on I kept looking back to admire the mountains from mainland Iceland providing the most impressive backdrop. It was a screensaver moment and my camera was out yet again. A very dangerous game to play as the Arctic terns swarmed above me. I found myself interchanging between the camera and stick uncomfortably fast to protect my head! But this trick proved itself and I was safe throughout. As we moved towards the coast, the terns slowly become less and all of a sudden it was puffin land – it was their territory now. A much friendlier bird, we were able to put the sticks away and sit by the coast watching them fly past, hilariously crashing into the cliff as they goofily struggled to land in the wind.

Immersed in the beauty of nature

We spent a lot of time here, enjoying the moment and just being a part of nature, watching these birds be at peace in their natural habitat, being respected and left alone.

Our final stop on the island was a beautiful, bright orange lighthouse. If you’ve done any travelling around Iceland, you’ll know that a lot of their lighthouses are this colour, so seeing this theme being kept alive even on the small islands was rather sweet. We explored around inside, climbed to the top and, we felt like children exploring around. Soon, it was time to move on. We collected our memories in the form of photos, picked up our sticks and made our way back to the zodiac. We made sure to put our sticks back for the next guests and once the zodiac arrived we said a sad farewell, knowing that it was extremely unlikely we’d get to visit again. With both puffins and terns flying all around us, it was a happy/sad feeling having had such lovely moments on the island.

Crossing the Arctic circle!

However, day 2 doesn’t stop there. It was now time for the highlight of the trip, the main event: we were making our way to Grímsey, the only part of Iceland that cuts through the Arctic Circle. The crew decided to show off, and the sails were taken down and all of a sudden it was like being on a movie set. The crew were working as a team, pulling ropes and climbing the rigging, making sure everything and everyone was safely in place as they moved fluidly up and down the boat to ensure the sails were taken down correctly. After being in complete awe at how effortlessly they made such a difficult task look, we were on our way North.

Grímsey, here we are!

The journey to Grímsey was long but involved many beautiful moments and scenes. Surrounding us in all directions were plenty of birds and all kinds of cetaceans. From dolphins and minke whales to puffins and jellyfish galore – it was a flourishing world that we were so lucky to have witnessed. When we finally arrived, it was late at night but we were still ready for adventure. This was our only time here so we decided to walk to the tip of the island and cross the Arctic Circle on foot. A local Icelander spotted us and drove us some of the way, protecting us from yet more terns and saving our legs on this overall 8.5km walk. Such a lovely encounter and incredibly nice to speak and engage with a local, hearing their stories, despite it being rather late in the evening! After being dropped off we made our way across the cliffs, being sure to stay away from any potential puffin burrows and respecting our distance as they watched us unsure as to what we were doing. Eventually, the big concrete ball was in sight and we knew we were crossing the Arctic Circle. After reaching the end of the land, we took our photos, embracing yet another unique and different moment that is a story I regularly love sharing with family and friends.

Sailing around the majestic bird cliffs of Grímsey

Probably one of the most exhilarating days of my life. After spending the night docked at Grímsey, we had an early start so we could experience the calm of the morning as we sailed around the island. When the opportunity to travel on a this schooner to the very top of Iceland became a possibility, I knew that I had to get in the water. As a photographer wanting to push her limits, I knew that I wanted to capture Opal in her prime and that the best way to achieve this would be from the icy waters from the arctic sea.

Icy cold ocean – taking shots like never before

It was 5 in the morning and I had just woken up. I was told it was now or never as the seas were mostly calm and probably the safest time for me to get in. Within 5 minutes, my wetsuit was on and my underwater housing was ready to go, and just like that, I and the crew were in the zodiac and looking for compositions. Three crew members came out with me; Belen, Alejo and Ales, to keep me safe, and suddenly I was in the water. The blackness below me was intimidation I never knew existed, I was unsettled but determined to get the shot. I battled the ice-cold waves crashing over my head, all while trying to keep my breathing in control. I must reiterate that this was never something I had done before, so every single sense was heightened and my adrenaline was racing as my brain took in every single new feeling and emotion this experience triggered. Eventually, there was a moment where it was just me and my camera and I was in the zone, capturing the beautiful Opal at her finest. I only managed about 10 minutes before the cold and discomfort from the darkness below took over, so I waved to the crew and they came and pulled me out.

After getting back onto the schooner, I was immediately in the hot tub to keep warm and everyone was so excited to see the photos. The encouragement from everyone was humbling and reassuring. It was a beautiful encounter with all of the people on board, the crew especially, and I was so grateful to be surrounded by such a wonderful group of people that thoroughly enjoyed and supported everything creative that I wanted to do. Sadly it was time to go back to the mainland, and I was left wanting more. There aren’t many words to describe the feelings that this expedition evoked. From the unique wildlife and intimate moments to the incredibly icy cold waters within the Arctic Circle. All these incredible moments combined to make a unique and otherworldly experience and it is something that I will hopefully be able to proudly share with my grandchildren one day.

North Sailing created a spectacular journey that is filled with some of the world’s most pristine landscapes and prolific wildlife. It is a journey like no other, and with a crew that is especially kind, considerate and encouraging there is really no better team to be doing it with.

I wish the tour could have lasted longer so I could get to know everyone better, but I hope to one day to return and see them again. Thank you to the team for one of the best experiences of my life, you helped create a memory that I will cherish forever.