Iceland: The bare bones of a beautiful island
Saturday 31 July 2010
I'm standing on top of a windswept cliff, 20 metres above sea level on the north coast of Iceland. It's two o'clock in the morning in the middle of June and it's cold, but the sun is still up, bathing everything in gorgeous golden light. I've travelled here at the request of Icelandic colleagues to examine the bones of a huge whale found buried on the clifftop. The bones are covered in a lush carpet of vivid green turf, and sit on a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea. I'm drinking Icelandic beer with the fishermen who brought me here on their little boat from Grenivík, along the deep blue Eyjafjörður fjord. Minke whales were our travelling companions for part of the journey.
What becomes clear very quickly is that this is not simply the skeleton of a large whale; these are the remains of a whale-bone dwelling, with ribs supporting the walls and jawbones forming a doorway. The Icelandic and American scientists I'm working with frantically record data and take samples for carbon-dating. Then we pack up the bones – which are about to fall into the sea – so that we can take them back to Reykjavík for closer examination.
The whole cliff is being eroded away here. We hike partway up the nearest mountain to get a better view of the area and, after half an hour, we look down. The low sun casts into relief dozens of strange turf-covered bumps and mounds, stretching off towards the east.
Two days earlier, I'd flown in to Keflavík airport then driven into Reykjavík. From there, I'd jumped on board a light aircraft to fly north-east to Akureyri to meet my colleagues. The flight took me over the central region, across the Hofsjökull glacier, over a volcanic landscape of lava fields and mountains which nature had painted in stunning greens, yellows and blues. Broad silver rivers snaked across the black desert to the sea. This is a country for hiking, painting or simply losing yourself in.
Find out more about life in the ocean at the Natural History Museum's new exhibition, The Deep. Visitors to the exhibition, open until 5 September, will discover the extraordinary yet fragile biodiversity that exists in the deep oceans and learn how Museum scientists are helping to preserve this important ecosystem. Find out more at www.nhm.ac.uk/thedeep
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