Hvalfjordur Fjord (Whale Fjord) is surprisingly not named for the number of whales spotted in the area, but rather for an ancient folktale involving an angry, red-headed whale that terrorized Iceland’s west coast until it was lured into a trap.
During World War II, a naval base of the British and American navies could be found in this fjord. One of the piers built by the United States Navy is today used by the Hvalur whaling company for the processing of fin whales, partially for the domestic market, and mostly for export to Japan.
Until the late 1990s, those travelling by car had to make a long detour of 62 km around the fjord on the hringvegur (road no.1), in order to get from the city of Reykjavík to the town of Borgarnes. In 1998, the tunnel Hvalfjarðargöngin, which shortens the trip considerably, was opened to public traffic. The tunnel is approximately 5,762 m in length, and cuts travel by car around the fjord by about an hour. The tunnel runs to a depth of 165 m below sea level.
The innermost part of the fjord shows an interesting mixture of volcanic mountains and green vegetation in summertime. At Botnsá, Nootka lupine is common, along with other flowers and moss, as well as small forests of birch and conifers. The area displays a good example of the planting of forests. This is a project that has been going on in Iceland for some years.
A hiking trail to the formerly-highest waterfall in Iceland, Glymur, has its origin at the innermost end of the fjord. The somewhat steep trail up the rim of the deep river gorge is called Leggjabrjótur, meaning “Broken Leg”. Before the ascent it passes through a short cave and across a thin improvised bridge. While it is possible to reach the bottom of the falls, it is not recommended. One has to wade through the cold river into the canyon, which is dim and at constant risk of falling rocks.
The tale of the Red headed whale
A common folk story of unknown age also is sometimes presented as the origin of the name. The story involves an elf woman who transformed her human lover into an angry red-headed whale. The whale was called Rauðhöfði which means Redhead, who subsequently lived in the Faxaflói bay wrecking ships. She transformed him as revenge for him refusing to acknowledge their child.
In Hvalfjordur fjord lived a priest in a small stead called Saurbaer. After Redhead had attacked his two sons while they were fishing he decided to end the whale’s life. Through sorcery and trickery he lured the whale deep in to the fjord and up the river Botnsá, where the whale managed to swim upp Glymur waterfall, until it reached lake Hvalvatn (Whale lake), where it finally died of exhaustion.