Iceland in April

April is an exciting time for the nature enthusiast to visit Iceland. While the weather can still be quite cold and snowy, winter's grip is loosening and signs of spring abound. Several minutes of daylight are gained each day, but there is still enough nighttime darkness to observe the aurora borealis through at least mid-month. It turns out that early spring is also an excellent time for whale watching, particularly if you are keen to find Orcas. Spring migrants are beginning to arrive, including flocks of European Golden Plovers and the first Atlantic Puffins of the year.

Given all that, it made sense to consider a long weekend visit to Iceland in mid-April, especially since it is a direct 5-6 hour flight from the northeast USA.

Known appropriately as an expensive destination to visit, costs can be considerably reduced by hiring a campervan. Being a super popular mode of transport + lodging in Iceland, there are plenty of companies to choose from. During this shoulder season, I reserved a small van from KuKu Campers for USD $90/day. Equipped with a comfy sleeping cushion, small stove, plenty of cookware/utensils, and a separate cabin heater for the nighttime, I was good to go!

My stay was only four nights, which is not nearly enough time to do the Ring Road and enjoy it (probably want 10+ days for that). Which was no problem. Priorities were 1) auroras 2) orcas 3) birds 4) general scenery. Turned out I could get a taste of all that within a few hours of Reykjavik.

I spent two nights at a campsite in Olafsvik on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where one can observe Orcas and other whale species with some luck. It also provides plenty of scenic foreground for aurora photography, though I bet this is true anywhere in the country.

When you are in the heart of the aurora belt, it doesn't take much solar activity to witness at least a faint display. In these cases the auroras are limited in size, movement, and color intensity. For those who have not witnessed this phenomenon in person, humans' perception of the true colors of the lights is limited by our naturally poor night vision. Colors that pop during the day appear much less saturated at night. This holds true with the aurora borealis. Some folks can see auroral color better than others, but most struggle to observe much color saturation at all. The good news is that camera sensors have no such limitations. A quick shot with even just your cell phone will immediately reveal the colors in the sky. Your eyes will still pick up on the shape and movement of the auroras quite well, so you can enjoy that part of the show if you are lucky to encounter that level of activity.

Located in the aurora belt, the most limiting viewing factor in a place like Iceland is often cloud cover. And like most high latitude islands, this can be a real issue here. Luck plays a significant role, though knowledge of topography and wind direction will increase your chances of encountering clear skies. Iceland's national cloud coverage forecast map is a great tool for aurora hunters.

My first night on the Snaefellsnes called for cloudy skies with a chance for a break further east towards the mainland. This was convenient, as the scenic Kirkjufell Mountain was in the area that was forecast to see some clearing. Sure enough as I drove further east the clouds began to break a bit. In those narrow gaps I could see a slowly moving strand of gray that was in fact active aurora. By the time I had set up at Kirkjufell, skies finished clearing and the auroral activity kicked up a bit, to the point where I was seeing some greens, and ribbons of light were steadily progressing across the sky. I had about 45 minutes of on/off activity before the auroras vanished and it was time for bed at 2am.

Two exposures stacked onto one another: one for the sky and one for the foreground. Exposing for the sky without ambient moonlight/twilight leaves the foreground very very dark, and even with recent improvements in camera sensors and noise reduction software, merely lifting the exposure of the foreground on a single exposure will result in significant noise.

Sky: 15mm, f2, 4 sec, ISO 2000
Foreground: 15mm, f2, 30 sec, ISO 1250

two exposures stacked as above

The next morning I boarded a boat with Laki Tours in hopes of running into some whales in the waters north of the peninsula and repeated the trip the following day. Both trips were hugely successful in finding three species of cetacean: Orca, Sperm Whale, and Humpback Whale.

As someone who spends most of his ocean time off the coast of the northeast USA, Orca was the big draw here. Encountering this species on both days was pretty awesome. I had only once previously seen Orca, many years ago in Alaska. We saw a couple parties of multiple animals plus one or two singles.

Equally spectacular was the Sperm Whale show. The unique species that inspired Moby Dick is a rare sight in my home turf, chiefly encountered in deeper waters near the edge of the continental shelf. You're lucky to see them even if you spend time in their preferred habitat. So I was pretty amazed to find our boat surrounded by 20+ Sperm Whales in all directions. The naturalists on board noted that these waters had become a very reliable spring location for them, and they guessed that we were probably in the presence of somewhere around 40-60 animals scattered throughout this rich feeding ground. Wild stuff!

Humpback Whales were feeding on capelin further inshore, and we made sure to swing by for a quick look on our way back towards Olafsvik. A common species back home, I was fine with giving them the least attention of the three whales, though they are arguably the most fun species to watch given their propensity for active and playful behavior.

mid-breach, about to crash into the water

I enjoyed my time on the peninsula and easily could have stayed here the entire time. The scenery was impressive enough and there were a few birds around as well.


Northern Fulmars

The rugged Snaefellsnes

Nights three and four were spent at different sites along the southwest coast, west of Vik, for a change of scenery. This stretch of coast was less rugged with far more pastureland. I spent one night at the campground at Skogafoss, which mercifully was equipped with hot showers. The skies were clear and I was geared up for an all-night aurora photo sesh. Things started promisingly with a moderately active aurora in the northern sky, conveniently located over the waterfall. The activity died down after just 5-10 minutes and never regained steam. Still I made the most of the brief show.

There were a few birds to see during the day, of course.

Common Snipe

Eurasian Oystercatcher

European Golden-Plovers

Great Skua

And it's difficult to ignore the distinctive Icelandic horses...

These few days just scratched the surface of this country that is understandably growing in popularity as a travel destination. There seems to be plenty to offer for those who are looking for an outdoorsy adventure, plus plenty of cushier accommodations for those who just want to take in the scenery or enjoy Reykjavik's restaurant scene. I'll be back for more, no doubt.

yeah, pretty sure that's Ron Burgundy...stay classy!

 - Nick


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