The Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar) are a group of 15 islands situated south of Iceland. You can reach them either by ferry or by airplane. The main island of Heimaey is the only settled island. It has a population of 4.135.
Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Islands are a great detour for anyone traveling along the South Coast.
The 1973 eruption
Shortly after midnight on 23 January 1973, the eruption in Heimaey island started with a 1.600 meter long fissure. The alarm horns sounded, and in less than an hour almost all the people on the island were at the docks.
The weather conditions had been very bad the day before, thus almost all the fishing fleet of the island was at the docks. The first boat headed out half-an-hour after the eruption began. Elderly residents and patients of the hospital were airlifted to Reykjavik. By dawn all the residents – over 5.000 – had been evacuated.
The eruption lasted until July 3rd and claimed over 100 houses. However, all the residents survived but thanks to the hard work and organization of rescuers and the local community.
What to see in Westman Islands?
We highly recommend a visit to the Eldheimar museum and excavation site that revealed the homes buried in lava and ash from the infamous 1973 eruption. The eruption destroyed many buildings and forced a 5 month-long evacuation of the entire population to “mainland” Iceland. The Eldheimar museum is a time capsule that shows how people lived in Heimaey during the 1970s.
The Sea Life Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary is a home for rescued beluga whales and puffins. You can visit during summer months. The sanctuary also offers summer boat tours that sail near the whale sanctuary cove and a puffin colony.
You can also hike to Herjolfsdalur valley and see restored Viking houses. Excavations in the Westman Islands have shown that the islands were settled very early. You can also view the beautiful replica of a 12th-century Norwegian stave church in the Skansinn area. The church is a gift from Norway to commemorate Iceland’s 1.000 year anniversary the conversion to Christianity.
The Virkid Fortress is an interesting 16th-century earthworks that the Kingdom of Denmark built as protection against pirate invasions and illegal fishing.
Heimaey is also home to Eldborg volcano, which is still warm from the 1973 eruption. On a boat ride around the Westmans you can get a view of the newest island, Surtsey. The island burst from the North Atlantic in a dramatic ocean floor eruption in 1963. Surtsey became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. The island is only open to scientists doing research on how plants and animals colonize new land formations, however you will get great views on boat tours.
There are also a few absolutely great restaurants in the town, most of which focus on superb seafood.
Westman Islands are perfect for birding
The beautiful islands have magnificent ocean cliffs, which are home to thousands of playful puffins, along with guillemot, gannet, kittiwake and Iceland gull. Above all, the puffin is the most plentiful species and the symbol of the islands.