Volcanic Vestmannaeyjar

Vestmannaeyjar 1973, Photographer: Kristinn H. Benediktsson

Marking 50 Years since the Eruption

Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands) is a hidden gem in south Iceland, an area with rich birdlife, culture and natural beauty. With fewer than 5,000 residents, it’s an isolated community surrounded by beauty.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of a devastating eruption in Vestmannaeyjar, and the town will remember the event with art exhibitions and music.

Vestmannaeyjar 1973, Photographer: Kristinn H. Benediktsson

Volcanic eruption of 1973

On the morning of 23 January 1973, a volcanic eruption changed the lives of the people that called the Westman Islands home. The eruption, which came without warning, and lasted for five months, displaced more than 3,000 Icelanders. Ash from the eruption fell for weeks, destroying homes, livestock, and personal possessions. Most of Heimaey’s residents left by boat, and thankfully there were no deaths. Following the eruption, Eldfell, a volcanic cone that means “fire mountain” in Icelandic, formed. It stands 200 metres high and has become some of Iceland’s newest land. Today, Icelanders and tourists alike hike in the region and soak up the scenery.

Eldheimar museum

Eldheimar is a fascinating interactive museum about the 1973 volcanic eruption. It includes photos, surviving structures, and an overview of the volcanic geology of the region. Videos illustrate the force of the volcanic eruption and destruction left in its wake, and maps light up on the walls, pointing out volcanoes around the island. The collection continues to grow. Earlier this year, Eldheimar received for preservation a remarkable film that geologist Ingvar Birgir Friðleifsson shot during the first days of the eruption. He was then studying for a PhD in geology at Oxford. The day after the eruption began, the director of the school’s geology department invited him to go to Heimaey to film to preserve the event for science.
This summer, Vestmannaeyjar will be holding a celebration at the beginning of July to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the eruption. At Eldheimar, events will be organised, including an art exhibition from two of Iceland’s best artists, sculptor and painter Hulda Hákon and painter Jòn Óskar. There will be music and stories told by Vestmannaeyjar-born Gísli Helgason and his band and a concert held by Magnus R. Einarsson, playing music from the year of the eruption.


Close to the mainland

Visitors can get to the island through the ferry Herjólfur which runs daily from May to September. Travellers can bring their cars on the ferry for an extra fee, but it isn’t necessary, given the island’s small size. The Herjólfur ferry departs from Landeyjahöfn in South Iceland, and the ferry ride is about 40 minutes, making it a quick and easy trip.

Photographer: Björn Rúriksson

Great place to visit

For a small island, there are a lot of activities and attractions to take advantage of. There are boat tours, rib safaris, ATV tours, hiking trails, bicycle rentals and chances to see wildlife. In fact, Westman Island’s puffin population is the main attraction for tens of thousands of visitors as their bright orange feet, round bodies, and striped bills are irresistible, making them Iceland’s unofficial mascot. It’s lovely to walk along the sea cliffs and spend some time with the adorable birds, photographing them and taking in the landscape. The prime puffin-watching season is from June to August, so if you are visiting Iceland during the summer, make sure to stop over in the Westman Islands.
The Westman Islands’ newest wildlife attraction is for whale lovers. The arrival of Little Grey and Little White, two beluga whales that were moved from China to Iceland in 2019, now call Vestmannaeyjar home. Sea Life Trust, a nonprofit, is behind the sanctuary, and guests can join a boat tour of the bay the whales now call home.
The Westman Islands are an ideal spot to spend some time when visiting the south of Iceland. There are numerous hotels, guesthouses and restaurants that make overnight stays irresistible. Consider travelling to the Westman Islands this summer and help mark the 50th anniversary of the 1973 volcanic eruption that has shaped the islands in multiple ways.

Below are photographs captured by Kristinn H. Benediktsson during the 1973 volcanic eruption: