With schools of herring and abundant plankton, the freezing waters of the Northern Atlantic have always been prime whale territory. In years past, that meant excellent hunting. And though there’s still a little killing going on, today the most common way to shoot whales in Iceland is with a camera.
A day spent exploring the beautiful Eyjafjörður Valley, south of Akureyri, can be surprisingly exhausting. And the locals seem to know it. Two farms on either side of the valley have expanded their normal operations to offer unique places to recuperate, and we took advantage of both.
The first time I saw an Icelandic horse, it was laying on the ground, on its side. “Horses don’t lay down,” I thought. “It must be dead!” And then it rolled onto its back, all the way over onto its other side, and stood up in one semi-fluid movement. “It must be insane!”
Most of Iceland’s horses spend their time free in the highlands, instead of on farms. Like sheep, they roam at their whim, with neither supervision nor control, able to graze wherever they choose. But once a year, toward the end of summer, they’re brought down from the mountains.
Our time together was short, but Mósa didn’t need long to work her way into my heart. I loved her soft coat, her short stature, her rich color, and how she farted with every other step. I loved her mane, and her mild countenance when I accidentally pulled some of it out. I loved how determined she was to speed past others when it came time to gallop. I loved her stubbornness. And most of all, I loved that she didn’t buck me off, although it would have been so very easy.
Head aloft, it casts a wizened gaze across the smokey valley. Noble creature! With its shaggy coat, crooked horns, tortured cry and filthy rear-end, has creation ever seen an animal as majestic as the goat? Imagine our euphoria on discovering that Iceland has its very own indigenous breed!
Not all that many animals are native to Iceland, and those that do exist can be notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. So if you want to see creatures like reindeer, seals and foxes, and don’t have time to scour the coasts and countrysides, head to the tiny Reykjavík City Zoo.
The arctic fox is the only terrestrial mammal native to Iceland. Without any natural predators, the little furballs thrive in the harsh climate of the country’s interior, but are skittish and difficult to spot. Luckily for those of us without the inclination or patience to find one in the wild, there’s the Arctic Fox Center in Suðavík, near Ísafjörður.