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Westman Islands

In November 1963, some fisherman working off of Iceland’s south central coast noticed a black column of smoke rising high above the ocean surface. They radioed the shore, and a plane was sent in to investigate the cause of the spectacle. After a few passes, the pilot confirmed that Iceland had just expanded its territory. A fresh volcano had broken through the waves, creating the world’s youngest island, later named Surtsey.

Surtsey is part of the Westman Islands, Iceland’s newest and most important group of islands. About 5,000 years ago, most of the Westman Islands were born the same way Surtsey was, by bubbling and blasting their way to the surface. Because of their youth, they are among the most ruggedly beautiful islands in the world, known for their sheer cliffs and huge bird populations (there are 5 million puffins alone). The largest island, Heimaey, hosts the only populated town of the same name, which was thrust onto the world’s stage in 1973 when a volcano called Eldfell erupted and nearly swallowed the town in lava flow. In an extraordinary episode of man versus nature, most of the town was saved when firefighters and other rescue teams used huge jets of water to cool the lava, creating a damn against the red-hot stream.

A great way to tour the Westman Isles is by boat (tours can be arranged from Heimey, where you’ll also find accommodation). The surrounding waters are filled with orcas and whales, and there are huge, echo-filled caves that boats can actually enter. Because of its scientific value as a living laboratory illustrating how life develops on new land, Surtsey is unfortunately off-limits.

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