Created by a large underwater volcanic eruption between 1963 and 1967, Surtsey is a part of the popular Westman Islands archipelago and is now Iceland’s most southerly point. The island has been a protected natural environment since 1965, meaning that only a small handful of scientists are allowed to visit each year.
Banning people from walking on Surtsey has allowed scientists the unique opportunity to study colonisation of new land without human interference. Visitors are, however, able to take boat tours around the island and get a good look at it.
Colonisation of the island has been quick and extensive: from being a lifeless, toxic rock, Surtsey has become home to over 60 species of plant. Birds, insects, spiders and seals also live on the island, as well as a population of earthworms, probably dropped there by birds from the mainland.
In 1973, another volcano erupted in the Westman Islands – this time more or less destroying the islands’ only town on Heimaey. Five thousand residents were evacuated overnight on fishing boats, leaving the town to its fate.
Eruptions lasted six months and covered the town in thick ash and many houses in lava. A new project called ‘Pompeii of the North is underway’ to excavate these houses, and visitors to the island can visit the exposed remains of several remarkably well-preserved houses.
The Westman Islands can be reached either by a 20 minute domestic flight from Reykjavik or by car ferry. Viking Tours operate boat trips to Surtsey which leave from Heimaey harbour and take four hours.
Icelandair offers flights to Iceland and 18 other European destinations from New York, Boston, Orlando, Minneapolis, Halifax and Toronto. For more information visit www.icelandair.com.