At 66 Degrees North

IcelandThe whale rose into the glittering polar light, the brilliance tinkling with the sound of bells and the crystal water singing under a dome of cobalt sky. The creature was sandy brown, leathery, thrumming and exhaled great sighs above the troughs and valleys of the Arctic’s Ocean. A rainbow formed in the geyser of condensed breath. It seemed impervious to the ambitions of the sludgy sea in which we wallowed and yawed. It swam, blew, waited, then arched its back and levered towards the deeps, fifty tonnes ready to slip away. The tail fluke appeared high, sliced the water and it was diving down, down to sing to itself, the deepest animal in that dark world.

Up here, still the sun blazed, and the captain said laconically, “at 11 o’clock, another sperm whale.”

The previous night, the wind had thrashed the shore of the fishing town and its harbour of stone. It was only a breeze late evening, but I rose at 1.30 am and the horizon was orange as dusk blushed into dawn. The wind was tearing through the window and a door banged methodically, the room hollowed and eroded by dashing air. I was tempted to go out, but did not.

We walked the fjord across the hours of the next morning, carefully watching the white horses out to sea, sketches dashed on the distant water. We asked of local opinion.

“Iceland summer,” shrugged on the hotel girls, smiling.

We waited. Then came news: the captain had said go, and we drove fast west for Olafsvik.

The harbour was flat calm, no hint of ocean reality awaiting. We plunged east along the coast, and this wanting so much to go fast became a troubling idea. The ketch was cast up tall and raced down iron waves, then simply ploughed through others. We were high in the sky, then so low we might never come back from the depths. A sleet of cold froth poured over the front of the boat, the bow itself white too in the radiance. There were still dark clouds over mountains to the north. The sea was black, metallic blue, green, slatey, slushy brown. The wind tore up the water, and still we searched. Then the last clouds cleared, and white horses began racing harder. Our eyes were pinned, legs bent, absorbing each shuddering thump. The captain and crew were unperturbed, eyes at the horizon too.

Then came the whales, and now the boat wallowed quietly too, people going green. To the west the intense sun had become a forge on the sea, a magnesium surface burning bright. In the far distance, the water was wrinkled like the whales. Then the shore distant and green was calling, sheer cliffs and long waterfalls merely a thin strip between sea and sky, and now bubbles from the boat crushed outwards, and dazzling droplets rose in the air, and fell back, reabsorbed into the bottle green sea again.

We came gently to the pellucid harbour, and the song of the sea ceased. We were wind beaten, tired and uplifted, salty, warmer by this polar shore.

The whales had revealed themselves.

The sun hung in the sky and stayed. It seemed it might never depart.

~~~

It was a small island dividing two oceans where such magic might happen. Scalding Arctic terns would dive and bully, our hands up and waving for safety. The Skaftafell glacier front was not white but streaked charcoal and as we approached the air congealed and dropped ten degrees. It had its own weather system, wind rushing from the cold to the warmer fans of stone and purple lupins. We found the Sudubardi labyrinth out on a peninsular of lava below the cone of Snæfellsjökull perfectly topped with snow. The “remains of” said the book, but it looked good. It was six metres across one way, six the other, and we stepped in and walked to the centre. I took a basalt pebble from my pocket and placed it down, and looked up at the volcano and its fingers of glacier.

Down here and up there. At the same time.

Later, I looked up after writing about the whales, and saw salmon skies along the western hills, and grabbed padded jacket and flip flops, and hopped down the twilit road to the dock on the bay.

IcelandThe Kirkjufell was a volcanic wedge alight in the sunset, a half kilometre high church of rock dark and intense in the flaming cloud. The wind rapped the waves on the shore, glaucous gulls shrieking, the cliff above looming. I breathed in, and out. It was the middle of the light-night, and everything seemed atomised. Waves, wind, cold, birds. Lava cliff and sediment layers, sunset that would not quite set, yet golden on the sky and sea. Fish factories silent, boats bobbing. The town asleep. Later the lacy curtains still danced. I was cold right through, and had to wear the jacket in bed.

No surprise that magic happens, where the light is when the dark night might be, where months later it will be dark and all hope gone. Birds will have flown away far, and fishermen will lean on gunnels and harbour walls, and gaze in the half light with hope. In the long night of winter, odd things could happen.

How would you define a sea to someone who’d only ever seen a glass of water? Someone born in a desert, say, like me. It is a hundred colours, black to silver and metal sheen, fiery and foaming. It is mountains of solid water, cliffs, crags and no safe pathways either, then evaporates into the light like smoke. It lets birds drift and float, fulmars with locked wings skirting the air-water layer with calm confidence; puffins dashing madly in their wrong medium. It is terrifying up close, from afar only chop. It is the remains of a Grimsby trawler dashed on rocks a half century ago, rusted pieces scattered on basalt, the local fishermen at the time unhesitatingly to the rescue even though those southern men had come for their fish.

It is the polar light that makes this sea. It is all space and no substance. The light flickers and fades, it is a flare, a caress, a wailing song.

The sea and the whale. In a glass of water. A drum beats.

I thought I might dream.