Blog WHS Visits

WHS #738: Surtsey

When you look at my ‘Missing’ map, you can see that I have visited nearly all European WHS except for those tiny islands scattered here and there at the fringes. Last year was a true debacle in that regard, missing out on both St. Kilda and Skellig Michael in the same summer due to unfavourable weather conditions. The same risk applies to Surtsey, though it lies not so far out as St. Kilda. Also, unlike the other two, Surtsey is not served by scheduled boat tours and the once available flightseeing tours have been discontinued. So I did not dare to hope to reach it during my trip around Iceland.

Fortunately, those intrepid Norwegians Randi and Svein visited 2 weeks before me and proved that it would be possible. Just cross your fingers for calm weather and bring a stash of money (in Iceland this means: have a creditcard with a high enough limit). The go-to guys for a private charter are SACA. When I saw that the weather forecast for the weekend was sunny and calm, I contacted them by email on Wednesday. On Friday evening, when the detailed weather maps for the next day were available, the final decision was made to leave the next morning at 9 a.m.

So we went, captain Simmi, his adult son and myself on a so-called RIB, something that looks like a inflatable dinghy - but with a sturdy hull and the qualification "unsinkable". It is completely uncovered and has room for 6 passengers (which is really, really small). I was given a warm coverall to wear against wind and weather. They directed me to sit on the front bench and then we sailed out of the bay of Heimaey.

We first navigated between the other Westman Islands. These are grouped together in a cluster. Like Surtsey they are of volcanic origin, often not much more than rocky points. The largest puffin colony in the world lives on one of those islands with a million pairs breeding. There were still plenty around this late in the year. The grass on the slope was covered with white dots, all of them puffins. Later we also saw young bobbing on the water. Another island's cliff face is popular with nesting gannets. To see these large birds together in such large groups is really special. They had pooped all over cliff.

After we left the other islands behind, the trip to Surtsey was continued on the open ocean. The waves were a lot higher here and the boat was constantly hitting the water. If you sit in the front, you always get hit - this expedition is not recommended for people with back problems! But of course you have the best view. At one point we sailed through a large group of birds that congregated at sea. They flew all around us.

Surtsey soon came into view. The island is easily recognizable because it is bare, brownish and has the shape of a table mountain. Due to erosion by wind and water, the island is getting smaller every year; since its birth almost 50% of the surface has vanished. It has two volcanic cones and a lava field. On top of one of the cones are the remains of a lighthouse - it was supposed to be removed in 2007 (a promise upon inscription!) but still stands. There is also a cabin on the island for researchers.

We sailed all around it; it is less than 2 square kilometers in size, so it didn't take that long. The coast consists mainly of a cliff and there is one cave. We saw the head of a gray seal emerge from the coastal waters. Seals were the first mammals that started breeding here, in 1983. The first birds were already there in 1963, 2 weeks after the volcanic eruption started and the island was formed. Now 89 bird species have been counted that occasionally reside on Surtsey. You can also see small patches of green appear on the slope of the volcano.

On the way back the wind strengthened and halfway through I exchanged my spot in the front for the much more comfortable seats behind the skippers' backs. We sailed into some more caves in search of rare birds and then ended in the beautiful bay of Heimaey again. The excitement beforehand and the journey towards it made this visit to Surtsey special, also because you know that this is a rare ‘tick’. The number of sea birds you see along the way is incredible. The island of Surtsey itself is not beautiful, but it is fascinating and combined with the much greener other Westman Islands makes for an unforgettable experience in Iceland.

Els - 6 September 2020

Leave a comment


Clyde 6 September 2020

That's great. I'm glad you found my review useful Michael :)

Els Slots 6 September 2020

It takes about 45 minutes to go directly from Heimaey to Surtsey, but we stopped a lot on the way. The full tour was just under 3 hours.

Jay T 6 September 2020

That looks like an amazing adventure — I’m so glad a boat trip to a remote island finally worked out for you! How long was the trip out to Surtsey and back?

Michael Ayers 6 September 2020


As Els said, yes they take cards, but last year they were just getting that set up, so it took some effort, now it should be smooth.

Also, I have been meaning to mention to you that this summer I went to Falun Copper Mountain, and I was fortunate that I read your review first, beacuse otherwise I might have not known about the chance for the Eagle-Owls. Because of your comment, I went back in the evening and had a great look at one. I owe you a life bird!

Els Slots 6 September 2020

Everything is credit (or debit) card based in Iceland, Clyde. Even the tiniest turf house can by paid by card. SACA has got a small hut in the Heimaey harbour, which they opened up right before the tour to get my coveralls, pay with the card machine and drop my luggage.

Michael Ayers 6 September 2020

This is outstanding! Since I noticed Surtsey on you "recent visits" list, I have been looking forward to this post. Glad you made it and it sounds like you had good weather, but maybe a little more rough seas than I did. It's also nice to hear that saca has gotten some more Surtsey customers. The island was one of my favorite site visits, and your post brings back some great memories. Though, personally, I felt the island was very beautiful, just in its own special way.

Clyde 6 September 2020

Quite an adventure! Thanks for sharing. Just one question: does the skipper accept credit cards or cash only?