Surtsey is a volcanic island that was formed in a volcanic eruption in the sea which reached the surface on 14 November 1963. The eruption may have started a few days earlier and lasted until 5 June 1967.
Since then it has been a protected natural area and a pristine natural laboratory. Slowly, plants, animals and marine organisms have managed to find it. It is located 20 miles off the south coast of Iceland and is part of the Westman Islands.
Map of SurtseyLoad map
Visit August 2020
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.
Visit in July 2019.
Surtsey is a place that I have been fascinated with for essentially my entire life. In fact, the island and I are almost exactly the same age. Technically, Surtsey was “born” about eight weeks before I was, but I also existed at the time Surtsey rose from the sea, I just hadn't “erupted” quite yet. I also remember watching movies about the creation of the island, and also of the eruption ten years later on the nearby island of Heimaey, in the Vestmannaeyjar, when I was in the fifth grade in primary school. Consequently, I was very motivated to make an actual visit to this difficult-to-reach WHS.
Nothing has really changed in recent years regarding the status of Surtsey. It is still prohibited to land on the island, and it is unlikely that this will ever change. That leaves a trip to its offshore areas by sea, or a flyover in a small aircraft, as the only realistic options for a visit. In my opinion, this is not really a bad thing, since I don't believe that actually walking on the island would provide any real value compared to what you could see by the other methods. Additionally, there is not a safe landing site for small boats anywhere on the island at this time.
As I neared the area, there was still one tour operator in the Vestemannaeyjar that advertises a Private Tour to Surtsey on their Web site. However, when I went to their office and asked about it, I was told that they would use a rib boat that seats 12 passengers. If there was a group of that size willing to go, they would run the tour, and the cost would be reasonable at about $250 per person. But for only 1 person, as I was, the total cost for that tour would have been quite unrealistic. They also told me that nobody had asked about a tour to Surtsey in a long time, so it seems that there is not much demand from the general public, or even from WH travelers. I also asked around the town about a sightseeing flight, since there is a small airport on the mainland of Iceland that shuttles people over to the Vestmannaeyjar in small aircraft. No one that I spoke with had any idea whether that would be possible, or not, and when I stopped by the small airport on the way to the islands, no one was in the office.
However, Heimaey has an active port, and wherever there is a port, there is usually someone with a boat willing to take you somewhere, for the right price. I continued to ask, and found someone, who knew someone, who knew someone with a boat that could possibly do what I wanted. This led me to a small tour company (www.saca.is), which doesn't list Surtsey on its Web site, but when I made contact, the owner, a native of Heimaey named Halli, told me that he would be willing to give it a try the next day, as long as the weather looked reasonable. His boat is smaller, taking a maximum of 4-6 people, so while I had to pay for an entire tour myself, the total was just over one third of the price I was given by the other boat tour operator. It was still a little more than I probably should have spent, but I had come a long way, and was distinctly determined to get to Surtsey, so I reserved the trip for the next day. For a group of 4 people, which would be much easier to organize, a Tour from Halli would be a very good value.
The following day we were very lucky, and the wind and waves were a little less than they had been for a few days, or would become in the following days, so we set out early in the morning. It took about an hour to get to Surtsey and along the way I enjoyed observing the many pelagic bird species that were present in great numbers as we moved south from Heimaey. As we approached the island, I was impressed that it was somewhat larger than I was expecting, and with the variety of geological forms that it presented. On the north and east sides of the island there is a low-lying area of large, but loosely-arranged lava rocks which gradually rise up towards the two main peaks on the island. On this side one can see the two tiny huts that researchers use when they visit Surtsey, as well as the slowly expanding zone where plants have begun to colonize the island (shown in the image). Moving around, in a clockwise direction, the remaining cinder cone comes into view. On the south and west side of the island, the formerly loose lava rocks have consolidated into palagonite, and the shoreline consists of sheer cliffs that, in places, are 100 meters high. On this side, it is clear that Surtsey will still be around for a long, long time to come.
I really enjoyed my visit to this site, and Halli was an excellent guide, who had a lot of personal knowledge about Surtsey and the Vestmannaeyjar to pass along. On the way back to the port, we also visited the cliffs and caves of Heimaey, which was a nice bonus. For someone who has an interest in geology, doesn't mind being out on the open ocean in a small boat, or simply likes to see places that few other people have seen, a visit to Surtsey is a good choice, assuming the weather is as good as it was for me. I fit all three of those criteria, so for me it was a great visit.
There is a relatively new Surtsey exhibit at the Volcano Museum on Heimaey, which provides a good deal of information on the island and its creation. Some may wonder if a visit to the museum could count as a visit to Surtsey, but I would be a little uneasy about claiming that. However, I was told that, on a clear day, it is possible to get a distant view of Surtsey during the standard boat tours around Heimaey, and that, in combination with the museum, might be more reasonable to count as a visit to Surtsey. Personally, I wouldn't have been very satisfied with that myself, so I am glad the weather cooperated and I was able to make it out to the island proper.
Read more from Michael Ayers here.
I was actually there when the eruption started. It was about 5am when a very large underwater noise was heard. I was on HMS Duncan at the time and we immediately went to 'Emergency Stations' as no one knew what was happening. We were all on the upper deck and as dawn broke we saw smoke coming from the surface of the sea. We closed the scene and realised that this was a volcanic eruption under the sea taking place. We and the ship were covered in ash. Amazing experience!!!
As indicated in the previous review, a “tourist” visit to Surtsey involving a landing is not possible - and even such visits by scientists are strictly limited. We did however achieve a very close viewing from the sea (around half a mile) during a recent voyage from UK to Greenland. Indeed I even feel entirely “vindicated” in claiming a visit to the inscribed area since this includes a significant marine element as well as the island itself. A comparison of my photo of the display screen of our vessel’s navigation system with the map of the inscribed area from the UNESCO site shows clearly our passage within the inscribed boundaries and indeed later included a passage “over” the corner of the now submerged island of Jolnir to the SW of Surtsey. This island, named after another Norse God, emerged with Surtsey in 1963 but rapidly eroded after volcanic activity ceased in 1966.
So what did we see/learn from our “sail by”? Well such a rapid visit to Surtsey made solely for that purpose would certainly be hard to justify in cost terms! But we had been visiting the Westmann Islands and Surtsey was on a natural course from them across the Denmark Strait to Greenland. This visit mainly involved the island/town of Heimaey and encompassed such interests as bird life, Norse history, the Westmann “way of life” and of course the famous eruption of 1973 which led to the evacuation of the entire island, the partial destruction of the town and the near closure of the harbour by lava. A boat trip out to Surtsey as part of such a wider visit would certainly be justifiable – if you are “doing” Iceland you can get to Heimaey by ferry and there are occasional boat trips out to Surtsey from there. If this trip is important to you it might be worth checking with http://www.vikingtours.is/ since, apparently such tours are not common.
The island was a lot smaller and lower than I had expected. There were a few visible human artifacts – a hut for the scientists and a radio mast! The flatter side of the island is, apparently, eroding quite rapidly and the island can be expected to continue to shrink. Grass was clearly visible – it had colonized particularly the well-fertilised sea gull nesting area. Ravens had also moved in quite quickly to take advantage of the available food (Gulls!). We were told that, generally, the colonization by both animal and plant life had progressed more quickly and with greater variety than had originally been expected. But this is no Galapagos or Aldabra 100s of miles from other land. The new land areas of Heimaey created in 1973 may not have been as rigidly free of human influence as Surtsey (parts of the lava near the town received "assisted" plant consolidation) but they too were “sprouting” with life from what were clearly natural causes – and Surtsey is visible from them only a few windy miles across the sea!
The island of Surtsey was created by a huge volcanic eruption that lasted from 1963-67. Ever since it broke through the sea its entire life has been rigorously documented and studied, probably the only place on earth that this can be said of. The study has not only revealed how the geology of the island has formed but also how different forms of life have started to inhabit it. It certainly deserves it’s place on the World Heritage List.
It is one to add to the list of almost impossible places to visit. Due to the nature of the sight only a very select number of Scientists are allowed onto the island in order to study how life colonises this latest addition to Iceland.
It is possible in summer to have a ‘cruise’ around the island, or there are planes that fly from Reykjavik to give an overview but these are pretty expensive (Iceland isn’t a cheap destination) and perhaps only really rewarding for the specialist/ completionist.
The best bet is to head for Reykjavik’s excellent Culture House, the top floor of this small museum is dedicated to Surtsey (the ground floor has an astounding display of early Icelandic manuscripts, including many of the oldest known versions of the Saga’s) specifically to tie in with the nomination as a world heritage site. It is a great exhibition there is an interactive display that illustrates how the island has changed throughout its life, from size and shape to how it has been colonised by flora and fauna. There are also specimens from the island, photo’s, 3-D maps and perhaps most enjoyably a large projection of the footage screened of the islands violent birth. This is a great museum not to be missed, and about as close as most will come to ‘visiting’ Surtsey.
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