Iceland (Part 5): Eastern Region

 

Detail Map of Area near Jokulsarlon

After four consecutive days in a different hotel every night, we slowed the pace a bit and signed up for two days at the Hali Country Hotel, just up the road from the famous Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon and the black sand “Ice Beach.”  Our guide, Haukur, had also arranged for an early morning visit to a puffin colony at Cape Ingolfshofdi.

View from the “Trail” leading down from Cape Ingolfshofdi  as we return to the SUV

Puffins spend most of their lives living in the open ocean but in the spring many of them flock to coastal colonies in Iceland.    But it takes some effort to get close to them as the image above suggests.  There was no road and no visible trail to the base of the promontory where the puffin colony was located.  The several kilometers of splashing through marshes and undulating fields of soft lava ash makes one imagine they are testing a prototype for a new carnival thrill ride.  Then comes the hard part, trudging with a pack of camera gear up a steep slope of lava ash and sand, something akin to climbing a sand dune.

But at the top, one finds a field of lush green grass which stretches out invitingly….to a sudden drop off a vertical cliff high above the ocean.  The puffins nest in burrows they have found or excavated themselves, bringing in grass and feathers as lining for the chicks.

The puffin’s diet consists almost entirely of fish, which it captures by swimming under water using its semi-extended wings as paddles and its feet as a rudder. We couldn’t stay too long in any one spot because the puffins would wait until we were a safe distance before entering their nests and feeding their young.

As cute as the puffins are, their neighborhood has a bad element…a large thug of a bird known as the great skua.  The skuas build their nests on the ground out in the open, almost as bait for naïve trespassers whom they attack with with fiendish glee .

When a bird this large (4-foot wing span) is heading directly at your face…….

The Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon is not far from Cape Ingolfshofdi and is a favorite stop for most visitors because of its dramatic scenery, easy access, and its full range of services (café, souvenirs, boat rides, etc.)  Icebergs breaking off the Vatnajökull glacier float in the lagoon eventually working their way out a narrow channel into the ocean.  Once in the ocean, many will be pushed up by the tide onto a black sand beach, the famous Ice Beach, providing numerous opportunities for photographers.

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

At the back of the parking lot away from the tourists, a flock of Arctic Terns had taken possession of a field  for a nesting colony.  The tern is famous for its incredibly long migration route, the longest-distance migration of any bird, moving between its Arctic breeding grounds in Iceland and Greenland and its non-breeding territory in the Antarctic, a distance that approaches 25,000 miles. And they share one characteristic with the skua: the ferocity of their attacks on trespassers.  Although they are much smaller, they use a team approach, overwhelming the target with their numbers.

(Nikon D810 & 24-70mm f/2.8 lens @ 70mm; 1/5,000th sec @ f/7.1, ISO 400)

There is a second glacial lagoon, Fjallsarlon,  just a few miles down the road from the far more popular Jokulsarlon.

Rick and Michele setting up their shots at Fjallsarlon

The lagoon is smaller than Jokulsarlon; there are no tourist services and the water is not as blue.  But the solitude was a nice contrast.  When it was time to leave, Haukur suggested a short hike to some nearby ponds where we might find some geese.

Barnacle geese with goslings

One of the most magical experiences on any Iceland tour is a visit to the Ice Beach.  It is here that the last remnants of a dying glacier wash up on a black sand beach and complete their thousand-year life cycle.  These stranded crystal sculptures seemed almost alive as the surf swirls around them, refracting and reflecting the dim light of the late evening.

Last Vestiges of a Glacier

 

 

Next:  Lupines and More…….

Iceland 2017, Part 2:  The Road Trip Begins

 

Day 1, 8:00 AM:   Right on time our guide, Haukur Snorrason, arrived at our hotel and soon we were heading west out of Reykjavik. Also with us was Hadda Gisladottir. She and Haukur are the joint owners/operators of Phototours and the Hrífunes Guest House where we would be spending the penultimate night of the trip.

Day 01 Map Merged

Route on Day 1

In the months prior to our arrival, our email exchanges with Haukur provided a wealth of options for consideration.  His extensive experience as an Icelandic  photographer and guide helped us develop an ambitious plan. It included several well-known and frequently photographed locations, a generous number of lesser known spots that he suggested, and some built-in time to take advantage of a few unexpected opportunities that might arise.  And now we were finally underway, eager to experience whatever lay ahead of us.

D-17-06-05-2603 (Iceland)

Overview of Hraunfossar

Within a few hours we were overlooking Hraunfossar (Lava Falls), a 900-meter wide lava field that originated long ago from a volcanic eruption beneath the Langjökull glacier.  The 40-mile long field is porous, enabling  glacial meltwater and rainwater to move  through it until reaching the terminus at the Hvítá River where it emerges as countless waterfalls cascading into the river.

Next up, an arranged stop at a nearby working farm where we could fraternize with some of the famous Icelandic horses (For more on this delightful animal, check my 2015 post here.   

D-17-06-05-2780 (Michele)

With socialable and curious personalities, Icelandic horses love to engage visitors

D-17-06-04-2846 Crop (Iceland)

So friendly you need a super-wide (e.g., 14-24mm) to capture the entire animal.

 

D-17-06-05-2822 and 24 (Iceland)

The sheep on this farm know where to position themselves for a picture

Iceland’s landscape is a magnet for tourists and has made the tourist industry an important economic sector.  But the landscape also provides an even more significant economic benefit: renewable energy.   One such source is geothermal energy and so we made a brief stop at Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring.  The water emerges at 207°F and is moved via pipelines to provide hot water and central heating for towns as far as 40 miles way.   Overall, Iceland satisfies 87% of its demand for hot water and heat with geothermal energy, a key aspect of its energy strategy.

D-17-06-05-SONY-1435 (Iceland)

The Hot Water Pumping Station at Deildartunguhver

 

A hidden waterfall is always a special treat and our first one was a short hike from a highway in Snaefellsnes, a peninsula in Western Iceland.  Other than a vague sign at the pull-over stop, there was no hint that this 30-foot cascade was less than 200 yards away.  Perhaps six other people came by while we were there.

 

D-17-06-05-SONY 1442A (Iceland)

Roadside Waterfall (1/800th sec. @ f/10)

D-17-06-05-2934 (Iceland)

Detail of Cascade (0.4 sec @ f/16 with ND Filter)

The Kirkjufellfoss waterfall, however, with Kirkjufell Mountain as a dramatic backdrop, is one of the country’s major attractions and a good number of people were here when we arrived.  Still, with careful timing, a bit of patience, and use of the photomerge technique, one can get an image containing no tourists.

D-17-06-05-2975_76-Pano (Iceland)

Kirkjufellfoss waterfall

(Two images photomerged; 24 mm lens, 0.8 sec. @ f/20 with ND Filter)

 

D-17-06-05-3018_20-Pano (Iceland)

Lupines bloom in June, usually peaking around the 2nd and 3rd weeks of the month and are a common sight at this time of year. This field was well off in the distance and probably would have been unnoticed by most travelers.  But Haukur suggested we take a detour off the main highway onto a dirt road to check it out.

 

D-17-06-05-3090 Crop & Clone (Iceland)

Icelandic Horses, Afternoon Light

Another unexpected opportunity appeared about 40 minutes after the field of lupines, so we stopped again, grabbed our telephotos, and fired away.  And again, this was a scene we had to ourselves.

After checking into the Gauksmyri hotel, we departed immediately for another well-known location, the site of Hvitsekur Troll Rock, a sea stack just off the shore of Vatnsnes peninsula.  We arrived at the perfect time; it was low tide and the sun was about to set.  On the downside, it was quite cold (around freezing) and very windy.  But perhaps because of those factors, along with the late hour (about 11:00 PM), only a couple of other people ventured down to the beach.

D-17-06-05-3124_25-Pano (Iceland)

Hvitsekur Troll Rock at Sunset

Next: Across the Northern Tier……..

 

Iceland, Part 1: Reykjavik

 

D-17-06-04-2412_16-Pano (Iceland)

Overview of Reykjavik, from the observation deck of the Hallgrímskirkja Church

Virtually everyone who travels to Iceland begins and ends their visit in Reykjavik, the northernmost capital city in the world. Despite its location just below the Arctic Circle, Iceland’s climate is milder than one would expect due to the influence of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream.  At the same time, summers are quite cool, with lows in the 40s and sometimes below.

D-17-06-04-1418 Sony (Iceland)

A typical side street in Reykjavik, with a decidely non-urban backdrop featuring Iceland’s dramatic landscape.

The name Reykjavik translates roughly as “Smoky Bay,”  a reference to the steam rising from geothermal vents observed by early Viking settlers in the 9th Century.  The island currently has a population of about 330,000 persons, yet more than 2/3 of them reside in the capital region.  By comparison Fairfax County, Virginia where I live, has over 1 million inhabitants.

D-17-06-12-8076 (Iceland)

A view up the the hill toward the Hallgrímskirkja Church around midnight in early June.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Iceland’s history is that it has the oldest parliament in the world. The “Alþingi”  was established as an outdoor assembly around 930 AD and was moved to Reykjavik in 1844.  Its survival during a long and often turbulent history enabled the country to maintain a semblance of control over its political destiny even as it became part of the kingdom of Norway in the 15th century and eventually under Danish control.  World War II severed the link with Denmark and Iceland became an independent Republic on June 17, 1944.

D-17-06-12-8059 Ver 2 (Iceland)

The Hallgrímskirkja Church with a statue of Leif Eriksson in the foreground.  The vertical columns evoke the balsaltic columns which characterize the geology of Iceland’s landscape.

Despite its small size, Reykjavik is a “happening” place anchored by an impressive concert hall, the Harpa, with its colored glass façade evoking the country’s volcanic geology.   Additionally, there are upscale restaurants, art galleries, vibrant street art, and a lively nightlife scene.

D-17-06-04-2329_31-Pano (rdy2size)

The Harpa Concert Hall which held its opening concert on May 4, 2011. It houses the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the offices of the Icelandic Opera. The interior architecture is equally dramatic.

 

D-17-06-04-2317 (Iceland)

Example of Street Art, a 40-foot mural by Li-Hill, a Canadian artist currently based in Brooklyn.  Entitled “Deacon of Dark River,” it was completed in 2015.

 

D-17-06-12-8074 (Iceland)

Prikid, a casual cafe by day, jammin’ hip-hop joint at night (according to folks who have been inside)

 

D-17-06-12-8075 (Iceland)

Reykjavik boasts a good number of stylish boutiques such as this specialty store, Ofeigur, which carries Icelandic jewelry, dresses by Hildur Bolladittir and hats by Liivia Leskin

But for many who visit here, the most dramatic location is found along the shore of the bay where the stainless steel “Sun Voyager” points its prow out to the sea. Often mistaken as a Viking ship, the artist described it in more general terms of the human experience: calling it “a dreamboat, an ode to the sun, symbolizing light and hope.”

D-17-06-12-8135 (Iceland)

The “Sun Voyager” by Jón Gunnar Árnason

This was my second trip to Iceland, an expedition over the island’s  storied landscape which, like most visits here, began and ended with a day in Reykjavik. I was accompanied by two fellow photographers, Rick and Michele and, as we prepared to lave the capital, our intent was to find some places that were off the beaten track.  We even hoped we might find one or two special places that were off any track, beaten or otherwise.

 

Next:  The road trip begins……

Hidden Gems: Cape Charles, Virginia

 

Note:  Special thanks to my photographer friend Kim, who introduced me to, and guided me through, this special place.

The Eastern Shore of Virginia is a 70-mile tract of land on the Delmarva Peninsula enclosed by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Chesapeake Bay on the west.  Its northern border with Maryland and Delaware separates it completely from the rest of Virginia.  On the Atlantic side, a series of barrier islands forms the longest remaining natural coastline along the entire eastern seaboard.

Cape Charles 04 Sunset

Sunset overlooking the Chesapeake Bay, Cape Charles, Virginia

Although this region is one of the earliest colonized areas of North America, Native American tribes flourished here long before European settlers first arrived at the beginning of the 17th Century.  Characterized by fertile, easily tilled land and surrounded by the bay and ocean  waters, the area remained a seafood and agricultural region with scattered small towns for almost 300 years.

Cape Charles 03 Pearl Valley

Pear Valley 18th Century home, National Historic Landmark

(This tiny, frame house outside Eastville, VA has one room downstairs and two partial rooms in a sort of attic. It is an example of a middle class home in 1740)

In 1883, a group of railroad investors hatched the idea of a rail-sea link that would extend the terminus of the existing rail line in Maryland 65 miles down the peninsula to a massive pier where the rail cars would be loaded onto special barges that would carry them across the 36-mile stretch of water to a terminus in Norfolk.

Cape Charles 11 Old FerryPier

Sunset Old Ferry Pier, Cape Charles, Virginia

The creation of the new rail-sea line was the reason for the creation of Cape Charles which, from its very conception, was a planned community and its original layout is still visible today.  Many of the original  homes still stand, a diverse range of styles including Victorian, Colonial Revival, and even some of the Sears and Roebucks houses that were delivered as a “kit” of 30,000 pieces and a 75- page manual.

Cape Charles 02 Kellys Pub

Intersection of Mason and Pine Streets (looking left)

The above image shows a former bank, dating from the early 20th Century, that has been renovated and is now a popular Irish pub.

CapeCharles 03A Libray

Intersection of Mason and Pine Streets (looking right)

The above image shows a former bank, dating from the early 20th Century, that became a branch of the Bank of America and is now the town library.

With daily trains arriving from New York, the town quickly became the economic center of the  lower peninsula.  Benefitting from a planned system of paved streets, electricity, telephones, and central water and sewage systems, it was more cosmopolitan than the other shore towns.  But the glory years began a downturn with the Great Depression in the 1930s, the decline of the railroads after World War II, and the opening of the Bay-Bridge tunnel in 1964.

Cape Charles 05 AT Altitude Galley

The At Altitude Gallery, opened in 2015 by photographer Gordon Campbell in the renovated Wilson’s Department store and exhibiting his dramatic aerial photography of the Cape Charles area. 

But, after several decades of continued economic and population decline, the trend has reversed.  As indicated in the above image, new businesses have opened and its potential for tourism has been recognized.  As indicated in my images below, photographers are particularly smitten with its natural beauty and diversity of subject matter.

Cape Charles 08 Oyster Sunrise

Sunrise at Oyster

(Oyster is small unincorporated community, named for its fishing industry, located about 5 miles from Cape Charles on the opposite side of the peninsula.)

Cape Charles 01 Osprey

Osprey Nest at Sunrise, Cape Charles, Virginia

Cape Charles 09

Sand Dunes off Bay Avenue, Cape Charles, Virginia

Cape Charles 10 (Kite Surfers)

Kite Surfers, Cape Charles, Virginia

Cape Charles 07 Eyre Gardens

Eyre Hall Gardens, Cape Charles, Virginia

(Eyre descendents have owned land in the lower portion of Northampton County continuously since 1622 for 12 generations. The gardens, while privately owned are open to the public and are among the oldest gardens in the United States)

Galapagos Islands (Part 3)

The Galapagos Islands and Charles Darwin have been inextricably linked since the publication of his “Origin of the Species” 25 years after he visited the islands as a 22-year old geologist aboard HMS Beagle.  While Darwin is generally credited with conceiving the idea of evolution, the theory actually had its beginnings with a French naturalist, Jean Baptiste de Lamarck, who died in poverty and obscurity six years before Darwin arrived in the Galapagos Islands. Darwin’s contribution, however, was equally important.  He explained how and why evolution occurs.

So when you travel to the Galapagos Islands, an eerie feeling comes over you as you realize that the individual birds, mammals, and reptiles you are viewing and photographing most likely are direct descendants of the very creatures that inspired one of the most revolutionary scientific conclusions in history.

At the same time, this wildlife sparks a sense of wonder regardless of its ancestry.  And that is what the rest of this post will focus on.

Galapagos 29 3 Boobies

Blue-footed Boobies Conferring

Although I rated the Sally Lightfoot Crab as having the coolest name, my overall favorite should be no surprise;  it is the blue-footed booby.

Galapagos 30 Booby

Their ridiculously colored blue feet, serving as their namesake, ironically are contradicted by the steely gaze of their arresting eyes and the impeccable sleekness of their plumage.  When their stare fixes you, you become grateful that you are not a small fish.

But while humans may smirk at their garishly colored feet, the color blue is a very big deal to both the male and female booby.  The  males take great pride in their fabulous feet. During mating rituals, male birds show off their feet to prospective mates with a high-stepping strut. The bluer the feet, the more attractive the mate.  The short video clip below was filmed by our trip leader.

(Video by James Zimbelman, Smithsonian Institution)

Yet, when you watch the birds in their role as a predator, you realize why that piercing glare gave you pause.  Circling high above the ocean in search of anchovies and other small fish,   they will suddenly fold their long wings back around their streamlined bodies and plunge into the water at speeds up to 60 mph.  It happens so quickly that I failed in every attempt to capture that critical moment of hitting the water.  The best I could do was the shot below, when a successful plunge was followed by the bird as he/she was taking off.

Galapagos 10 Blue Footed Booby

Blue-footed Booby on Take-off Run

There are many ways to see the Galapagos Islands including larger ships (about 90 passengers), small charter vessels that may take as few as 12-16 passengers, or on-island lodging (ranging from regal to rustic).  Choosing the latter may restrict your ability to visit more than 1-2 islands unless you are willing to change lodging a few times.  The variety of wildlife you will see depends on which islands you choose to visit.  Not all itineraries are the same.  But however long you stay, you will be glad you made the journey.

Galapagos 26 (Straight Shot No Tricks)

  Frigatebird at Sunrise, Galapagos Islands

(Technical: Nikon D810 handheld with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 70mm; exposed @ 1/800th sec. @ f/16, ISD 400; No Photoshop trickery used in positioning the bird over the sun)

 

Galapagos Islands (Part 2)

Galapagos 20 Approaching Storm

Approaching Storm at Sunset

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld on moving ship with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 150mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/14, ISO 800; four images photomerged)

The volcanic archipelago making up the Galapagos Islands is relatively young by geological measures and on some of the newer islands you may see only the initial stages of plant life.

Galapagos 12 Cactus

A Cactus Plant Finds a Spot on a Lava Formation

One of the strange aspects of volcanic activity is the formation of lava tubes.  Don’t ask me for an understandable explanation, but it has to do with the lava flow cooling and becoming hard on the surface, while still-hot lava continues to move under the hardened surface.  In some cases, when the eruption ends, the last of the moving lava proceeds through the channel, draining it and leaving a long cave behind.

Galapagos 22A Lava Cave

Lava Tunnel

(Technical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 24-70mm f/2.8 lens extended to 24 mm; exposure 1/25th sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600; two images photomerged)

The tunnel was interesting but very dark and creepy, a great location for a horror movie. And it was the wildlife we wanted to see so not a lot of time was spent there.

Galapagos 28 Sea Lions and iguana

Two Sea Lion Pups Napping as Marine Iguana Strolls By

The Galapagos marine iguana is the only iguana that has evolved from a strictly land-based creature to one that swims and feeds in water.  They are found nowhere else on the planet.  They feed on ocean algae, often fully submersed, and even have a special gland common to marine birds that enables them to extract excess salt from their blood and sneeze it out several times a day.

Galapagos 11 Sea Lion YawningSea Lion Yawning

The sea lions found in the Galapagos Islands are the smallest of the sea lion species.  The female gives birth to a single pup a year after mating and she stays with it for the first week after birth.  She then will depart for one to four days to hunt, while other females of the colony stay behind to watch over the youngsters.  Eventually, the pups join their mother to develop swimming and hunting skills.

Galapagos 28 Mocking BirdGalapagos Mocking Bird

(Techniical Stuff: Nikon D810 handheld with 70-200mm f/2.8 lens extended to 200mm; exposure 1/250th sec. @ f/8, ISO 800; very tight crop of final image)

The smaller birds, such as the Galapagos mocking bird, were more timid than most of the island wildlife but they still provided photo opportunities on occasion.  Interestingly, there are seven subspecies of the Galapagos mockingbird, and each one seems to be largely endemic to different islands of the archipelago.  Apparently, it was the differences (such as beak size and shape) among these birds, as well as his better known study of the Galapagos finches (15 subspecies) that sparked Darwin’s thinking about adaptive evolution.

 

Galapagos 24 Floreana IslandSunrise, Floreana Island

 

 

Coming Next: The World Famous Blue-Footed Booby

Galapagos Islands (Part 1)

Galapagos 21 Another Sunrise           Sunrise on the Equator, Pacific Ocean

The Galapagos Islands are a chain, or archipelago, formed by volcanic action over the past 5 million years.  Located on the equator about 600 miles west of Ecuador. But what makes them special is the unique array of wildlife that is found there.  Many of the species are found nowhere else on earth and, because they lack natural predators, most have no fear of the thousands of tourists (even photographers) who come to see them every year.

Galapagos 02 Land Iguana

Galapagos Land Iguana, Feeding on Succulents

The Galapagos Land Iguana is primarily an herbivore, feeding mostly on cacti and other succulents and thus can go for long periods without drinking water.  This species can weigh up to 13 pounds and they can live for as long as 50 to 60 years. The female lays up to 20 eggs in burrows they have excavated.

Galapagos 07 Frigate Red Chest

 

There are two kinds of frigatebirds on the islands, but the males of both variants possess the distinctive red throat pouch which inflates into enormous heart-shaped balloons. It can take up to 30 minutes for the pouch to completely fill as the male hopes to enthrall a passing  female.

Galapagos 03 Frigate Bird with Nest MaterialFrigatebird Carrying Nesting Material

 

Nesting occurs in colonies that may include members of both variants.  The nests are constructed mostly by the female with materials brought in by the male.  The birds can have wing spans of 7 feet.

CGalapagos 04 Frigate ChickYoung Frigatebird Chick on Nest

The female lays only one egg and it may take 40-50 days to hatch.  Both parents share in the nesting and feeding after hatching.  It will take another 20-24 weeks before the juvenile fledges but they continue to be fed for another 20 weeks or more before they fend for themselves.   Because of the length of this cycle, the female can reproduce only once a year at the most.

Galapagos 27 Comorant

Galapagos Flightless Cormorant Drying “Wings”

The Flightless Cormorant is unique to the Galapagos and is found on only two of the islands.  Only 1,000 breeding pairs exist.  Having no land-based predators, natural selection favored those birds that were better built for swimming and diving.  Their wings are about 1/3rd the size needed to fly.

Galapagos 17 ComorantFlightless Cormorant with a Catch

Their courtship is unusual because it is the female that aggressively seeks out the male, and subsequently will depart her partner and offspring to re-mate serially with different males while males raise the young by themselves.

Galapagos 08 CrabSally Lightfoot Crab (Yes, really!)

Winner of my award for the creature with the best name (barely edging out the blue footed booby), the colorful  Sally Lightfoot Crab is a common sight in the Galapagos Islands.  According to one source, this little beastie is named after a famous Caribbean dancer because of its incredible agility.  I don’t know about the namesake, but these guys are quick.

Galapagos 01 SurfWave Breaking in Late Afternoon Light

 

Next:  Galapagos Islands (Part 2)