So (almost) all of the exchange students at UNAK are enrolled in a class called Icelandic Nature. And last Thursday we took a field trip! A wee bit up the coast from Akureyri is a town called Hauganes. It’s about a 25 minute bus ride from the university. Remember the village near Dalvik? Hauganes is somewhere in there. Anyway, it was a gloomy day to say the least. It was overcast, windy, and whitecaps were visible on the fjord from the uni parking lot. And we were going to sea.
If I’m being honest, I was not keen to go out on a boat in heavy weather. I love the ocean and I love being on boats, but I did not feel prepared for the conditions. I have some pretty solid winter wear with me, but as the rain has taught me, it’s not 100% waterproof. So I admit to being less than enthusiastic about this trip.
Once in Hauganes our class was split into two groups in order to accommodate the small fishing boat. I was in the first group. However, before we set off, we were all asked to don arctic rated parka-jumpsuit things. It was a relief; those things are really warm, and waterproof, and also very brightly colored.
All suited up, we climbed aboard and headed out of the harbor and onto the fjord. It was incredibly rough out at sea. But it was still enjoyable. Though the weather was bad the scenery was amazing and the boat ride was fun, hectic and turbulent, but fun. We didn’t see any whales, unfortunately.
Back at the port (not sure it’s technically a port, but oh well) we had lunch at the local restaurant. There we got to try two different dishes made with the cod that Hauganes, and the whole of Iceland, is famous for. One was more creamy and made with potatoes and the other was spicy and is apparently Spanish/Portuguese. After lunch, we, the first group, were to go on the tour that the second group had taken while we were off searching for whales. Meanwhile, they were going to go out on the boat “just to get a little wet” and experience the conditions that generations of Icelandic fishermen have endured.
So off we went to tour the various stages of cod processing in Hauganes. First we went to a small, cramped room whose walls were covered in pictures of the fishermen and fish processors in all seasons and stages of fishing. It was documentation of four generations of family fishermen, leading all the way up to the present. One of the most interesting pictures, to me, was one of a fishing sail boat with icicles on the mast. Our guide told us that his grandfather started working when he was about twelve; his job was to take a bat of some kind and beat the icicles from the mast. If the ice wasn’t removed, out guide said, the ship would capsize because of the weight.
Before heading into the next part of the tour, we got to try some of the local moonshine (moonshine is not the word they use, but as far as I can tell that’s the closest translation). It was BRIGHT red and tasted like cough syrup and the after taste was alcoholic. Overall: 6/10. The next stop on the tour was much like a warehouse: concrete floors, thin walls, cold. There we saw how the fish meat is packed in salt, desalted, and packed (in both stages). It was also this stage in the tour that we sampled hákarl—fermented shark. Shark smells as bad as they say. And if you eat it really fast, and try not to chew, it doesn’t taste completely terrible. It’s best if chased by more moonshine.
Hákarl smells strongly of ammonia because of the animal it’s created from. Greenland sharks can live to be hundreds of years old, but they do not possess kidneys. Therefore, all the toxins that are normally expelled in urine—ammonia, urea, etc.—remain in the bloodstream. This is the same reason that Greenland shark meat is toxic when it’s fresh. Shark must be fully decayed to be edible. Edible being a relative term, of course.
After the culinary experience of a lifetime, we moved on to the next step of the tour. In a different warehouse, one of the career fishermen demonstrated how they clean the cod properly. He also explained which cuts are the most valuable and why, as well as what happens to the remains. All part of the cod are used—score one for environmentalism. Next, they asked if we were interested in playing a game. Pro tip: if someone offers you a game but doesn’t explain how it works, do not play the game.
So here’s how it works: There are two teams, each is given a basin of (fresh) water. Then, five cod eyeballs are dropped into each basin. The teams must then remove the eyeballs from the basin and drop them on the floor. The catch? The players must use their mouths. It was loud, there was a lot of splashing, and there were eyeballs all over.
After the second traumatizing experience with fish in 45 minutes, the second group returned to port. And they returned with the news that they had spotted whales! So the first group suited up again and got back on the boat.
Like a smart person, I didn’t fully charge my phone before we left for the day, so I have very few pictures of the whales. I think that it worked out for the best, though, because not having any sort of camera made it so that all I could do was take it in. And there was so much to take in.
We got incredibly lucky. After about half an hour of seeing whales in the distance, we managed to catch up with them. In the end, we were surrounded by at least four humpback whales with suspicious disregard for the boat. One came within about ten feet of the vessel. Humpback whales get more playful as the seas get more chaotic. So even though it had calmed down since the first excursion, these leviathans were very active. They were diving and showing their tails, they jumped about, making enormous splashes. It was incredible. Whales are impressive creatures, especially when you’re looking at them in person and not through a phone screen.*
It was a fantastic experience. And we’re now considered Icelandic fishermen!
For better pictures of whales in Eyjafjörður: Click here!
By the way, it’s cold. Especially on the ocean.
*no hate on people taking pictures, obviously.