Category Archives: wildlife

Iceland – Land of Ice and Fire, now on iPlayer!

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Well, we’ve had our UK transmission over the Bank Holiday weekend, and Im very pleased that it went down so well!

the responses on social media were fantastic and there was a stream of mails coming in from people who enjoyed the show, the wildlife and especially the people were loved by all! so a big thank you to everyone involved!

the good news is that the film is available on BBC iPlayer so if you haven’t seen it and fancy an escape (from politics, this week in the UK especially!) for an hour then have a look here

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnnh

For Fox Sake!

Filming wildlife is rarely easy.

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Once again it would be nice to leave it at that but it would make a very boring blog post. So with that in mind, here we go, let us delve into the utter frustrations, grumblings, mumblings, reflections, magical moments, wins and losses of a fairly typical wildlife shoot.

Where to start….

I may or may not be alone in saying I have a love – hate relationship with filming wildlife. It is one of the best jobs in the world if you like travel, photography and the natural world. However in my humble opinion it is often offset by frustration and the feeling that somehow everything from the wildlife, the elements and even the viewfinder is secretly conspiring against you. There is a lot to live up to if you are a wildlife cameraman/woman there are some legends in the game! Between them they have filmed the worlds most iconic and beautiful films, sequences and stand alone shots. Big shoes to fill and a lot to live up to. Although this does not directly impact on a shoot, there is a certain expectation to maintain the level of craftsmanship and skill these guys have spent years perfecting. I only started filming a few years back, so I still have a lot to learn and I have a lot of respect for what wildlife camera folks and film makers have done before I showed up and snuck in the back door. I suppose it is an added pressure or perhaps just one that only I feel. Who knows.

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I’ve recently spent a month filming Arctic foxes at Hornstrandir nature reserve in the Westfjords of Iceland. Arctic foxes have a fascinating history in Iceland and are an incredible animal one which I have really come to admire far more than I expected. We have been lucky enough to be working under the guidance of Ester Rut Unesteinsdottir from the arctic fox center in Sudavik arcticfoxcenter.com (their website is full of interesting facts and historical information on the Icelandic fox). Ester is more like an arctic fox than she would like to admit, fit as a fiddle, feisty, determined and highly intelligent. Esters knowledge of the valleys, foxes, secret spots and the trolls of this beautiful nature reserve is second to none.983A8073
A month may seem a long time to film a sequence but if you have been to Iceland and know what the weather can be like, and if you have filmed Icelandic foxes before then you will know (unless you have been very lucky) that both can be rather difficult!

I should mention at this point that Neil and Andy had gone to film Salmon and I need to introduce a new character to the equasion for this blog post! Ben (The Viking) York. Ben is from Films@59, a very well respected post production and camera kit hire company from Bristol (www.filmsat59.com) The boys and girls who run the hire department are a fantastic bunch of people and really know their stuff when it come to banter, cameras and glass and making cups of tea. I digress, poor old Ben is constantly sending out kit 24-7 to wildlife and drama film crews, all happily filming in some far flung corner of this wonderful earth while he and his colleagues work their nuts off in the office in Bristol, so we thought it only fair to get the old boy out of the technical warehouse and into the Icelandic wilds for a baptism of fire and also so he could see what it is like on the other side of the televisual fence.

So he hopped on a plane, met me in Isafjordur, and we made our way to Hornstrandir nature reserve.
After a smooth boat journey of about three hours we arrived safe and sound with no signs of sea sickness.

All Ben and I had to do now was start filming! Ohhh no wait… I need the toilet. See you in half an hour? The “Toblerone” as it is affectionately known is the only toilet in Hornstrandir and is a stiff 30 minute walk from the scientists camp site, if you leave the door open you get a wonderful view, so it is worth the walk. Now all we had to do was set the camp up, put up 5 tents carry the fuel, generator, tripods, lenses, cameras, food and stuff, stuff and more stuff. Why is there always so much stuff, how is it possible to have so much stuff? I blame Ben. Luckily we had some help from the team researching the foxes under the guidance of Ester and also another film crew from Iceland attempting to film the foxes.

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After an extensive recce of the Hornstrandir valleys which takes a good day to hike Ester found a few dens in the research area around Hornvik but only one sighting of a cub and a few glimpses of a very skittish adult male in the far off distance. Not the start I’d hoped for.

Over the coming days, with support from Ester, we made the decision to film at a den which, thanks to Esters confidence it could work, we had a good feeling about….sometimes you have to go with your instincts and trust those in the know. A surprising but rapidly encroaching problem was the vegetation that was growing at an alarming rate. Because the foxes had denned slightly later it meant that if new fox cubs popped out to see the world the chances are you would not even see them let alone get juicy shots for the telly box. Just that one thing is enough to make your shoot really difficult. You can’t go in and chop down the vegetation or disturb the den. In reality there is not much you can do, foxes do not like any type of interference around the den and it is very easy to disturb them, forcing the adults to move the cubs, which is not how we like to roll.

Luckily we had foreseen the vegetation problem in the highly technical (that’s going to F *** us up radar) and had chosen an area which was slightly behind in growth terms giving us a fighting chance. The foxes at Hornstrandir appeared to be denning slightly later than previous years possibly due to the very heavy snow fall during the winter so in the typical fashion of most things conspiring against you, the first obstacle to overcome was the fact that no cubs are showing at the dens.

Getting to the den site is a good hike, Ben loved it! for the first day. The hike is fairly easy without kit, but with everything you need for a day and evening filming is a different matter, luckily Ben turned Viking pretty quickly and was a great help lugging the kit and working as an assistant, he also made a mean hot chocolate and chicken tikka packet meal….

I may or may not be alone in saying you enter into a strange time vortex on a shoot like this, days and weeks roll into one, and a single hour takes six to pass, the five days you have left to finish the shoot seems to take a year or two. You give up shaving or caring what you look like, you eat like a caveman, drink from the glacial rivers and all in all become a slightly odd creature (maybe thats just me). The drive or determination to nail the sequence is something all wildlife cameramen/women understand very well and it is a highly important characteristic needed for this type of filming. Wildlife camera folks have been doggedly chasing these sequences for years and only by this determination do you get to see all the beautiful footage on wildlife television series and films. Hats off to all those men and women working so hard to showcase the natural world.

Ben and I got to know our foxes pretty well over the coming weeks and started to gain some trust mainly with the female but not so much with the wily old male who always kept distance and a beedy eye on our movements. Observing how the foxes behave to see if any patterns emerge always helps with planning a days filming but just like the weather in Iceland, soon as you think it is sunny it clouds up and starts raining, snowing and blowing a gale, then the northern lights pop out and a volcano erupts! It is a crazy place. The foxes are the same as the weather, they change behaviour like the wind, I suppose that is what makes them so unique but also so difficult to film, they are very unpredictable just as you think you have a pattern it changes. That is wildlife for you.

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We had good days and bad days in terms of filming. It was not unusual to sit in the rain for 13 hours with only one sighting of a fox. That is just the way it goes, some days we saw very little, but stuck it out till then evening when you would be rewarded with a fleeting glimpse. Wildlife cameramen/woman have a ridiculous amount of patience, or like our mate Charlie Hamilton-James said “we are just very good at being bored”

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We filmed some lovely stuff at the den over the coming weeks but its was really hard work to get footage. We filmed some very tender moments of life at the den, and watched as the male and female struggled at times to keep it all going. I must say at this point that I do admire the Icelandic arctic fox so very much, it is hard to put into words just how tough, adaptable and durable these fascinating little animals really are. A remarkable animal which is able to survive and prosper in the wildest of places in Iceland. Hornstrandir is one of those wild places, wild in spirit, but what I really mean is wild in the sense of it’s unpredictability, unable to be tamed, the elements are in control and not people.

After a “groundhog day” lifestyle two and a half weeks went past and it was time for another change. Andy and Neil had finished filming with the Atlantic salmon, Andy returned to the U.K to edit a film on Asiatic lions and Neil arrived with much needed refreshments and support for the tired and weary fox crew. A few days later Ben looking more like a Viking than a Viking did left on the boat to head back to the U.K after a real adventure in the wilds of Iceland. The sea had started to pick up and white horses had arrived pounding the huge stone beaches, we waved Ben off as he sailed into the distance and Neil and I carried on filming the fox family.

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The weather had been continuing to build and became steadily worse towards the last week of the shoot, huge sea fogs began rolling in and high winds started to pick up making filming the fox more difficult and more dangerous. The sea cliffs around Hornstrandir are huge well over 300m and the landscape is not to be taken lightly, it is a beautiful place, but also volatile and the weather can snap in an instant. The Fog can be so thick it is not possible to see the ground or the small pathways to navigate back to the campsite. Many travellers head to Hornstrandir to enjoy the landscape and hike the mountains and most of the time they are rewarded with clear skies and spectacular views of this remote nature reserve. Most of the adventurous tourists are prepared and experienced hikers and usually led by highly knowledgable Icelandic guides, some tourists arrive woefully underprepared wearing jeans and t-shirts which is not advisable.

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We had carried on filming the foxes until the wind, rain and fog prevented us from hiking to the den site, we heard news from a small house on the reserve and from the park ranger that some very bad weather was heading towards Hornstrandir. There is no phone signal or internet at the nature reserve and most information comes from radio or from the park ranger so we sat out the first few day of the worsening wether huddled in tents mopping up the drips and battening down the hatches.

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I am not sure any of us expected the weather to be quite so bad, but with warnings from the Icelanders not to venture into the mountains we stayed put and trusted their judgement, they know best, it is their home and they know it better than anyone. Gradually the wind and rain increased and started to batter the coast and our campsite, one by one, the tents started to blow away! The now one-man Icelandic film crew which had also been filming foxes were having a bad run of luck and struggled to film any material at another den site on the nature reserve. Then things got worse, Buppy the Icelandic cameraman’s tent blew down, when I say blew down, it literally snapped the carbon fibre poles all the way down the tent. It was lashing with rain and the wind was gusting at gale force speeds. It was chaos, Neil and I rushed out of our own battered tents to help him secure his film kit and possessions. The tent was a right off.

Buppy trekked to one of two houses at the nature reserve to ask for help whilst Neil and I made do sheltering in our leaking and damaged tents and securing our tents with what ever we could find. Every time the wind picked up from the sea and forced a gust into the valley the tents shook with a thundering crack and bent sideways under the strain, water was now pouring in and everything was getting soaked including our dry clothes. Sleeping was impossible. Buppy returned late, to inform us he could stay with a family at the house for the night. Neil and I sat it out in some mildly faint hope it would die down and and we would wake up to a beautiful summers day….

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That did not happen, one by one, our tents blew away and broke down until we had nothing left. The generator was soaked and stopped working and we could not charge any equipment.

The weather was getting worse and we had no choice but to ask for help from the family staying the their holiday home on the reserve. We arrived completely wet, cold and very tired. We met up with Buppy who introduced us to Stigur one of the owners from the house. Stigur is a top man, very kind, welcoming and genuinle decent guy and more than happy to help out. His house was full, eleven adults and children all of which had come to holiday as they do every year, however they had arrived the day before the storm hit and had been stuck inside ever since. Stigur only had one place we could sleep – an old but sturdy boat shed down on the beach. He made us a fire and allowed us to get our clothes dry and let us use the shower, first shower in almost four weeks for Ian.

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Over the course of the day and night we took down what was remaining of the camp and moved all our kit to the boat shed under gale force conditions.

Film crews never travel light! and moving a whole camp with filming kit, kitchen, expedition kit was no easy feet. Finally we were holed up in a boat shed in the most remote part of Iceland in a storm Neil, Buppy and Ian. Just enough room for three sleeping bags and a mountain of kit. Looking back now it was quite funny, apart from Buppy snoring! I am not sure we had more than a few hours sleep that week, the wind was shaking and battering the boat shed to the point where we all though it was going to take the roof off. But Icelanders know how to build a boat shed! Super shed took all the wind and rain and shrugged it off. We spent four days and nights all going slightly mad and sheltering in the boat shed waiting for the storm to drop. Search and rescue helicopters had been flying looking for stranded tourists in terrible conditions, again we tip our hats to the men and women out doing this work it is truly incredible and very brave.

Neil and I took a bottle of whisky to the house to say thank you to Stigur and his family for helping us out. At first he said “no you don’t need to give me anything, this is what we do, Icelanders always help people, it is just what we do” Then he gave a wry smile and said ok come in. We met all the family and sat in a warm house surrounded by lovely people and drank whisky and ate some very tasty dried fisk with butter. The guitar came out, songs were sung, voices were raised and whilst the weather raged outside Neil and I felt very happy and safe. Until the morning when we woke up with a massive headaches.

We heard news the next day from the captain of the boat they were going to attempt to sail out to pick up the family depending on how bad the sea was looking. We waited all day and into the evening without word. Around midnight we heard from Stigur the boat was coming. We lugged all our kit to beach in the pouring rain and wind and waited with the family to be picked up. The guys who sail the boat are amazing, trying to get people and kit into a zodiac in crashing waves is very difficult, Neil did a great job helping the boat guys standing in crashing waves pushing the zodiac out from the shore full of kit and people. We did maybe ten runs in the zodiac before all were safely on board.

The journey back was rough to say the least. Nearly everyone on board was sea sick apart from the old hardened Icelanders and Neil and Ian! we must have the old celtic sea fairing genes!

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Well, thats all I have to say about that right now, apart from a big thank you again to all the Icelanders for looking after us, Stigur, Ester, Thor, all the guys and girls in the office back at H.Q

Left to right: Ian, Ester, Ben and Neil.

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next time, we catch up with the horse at their annual roundup…quite a spectacle I can assure you!

Gunnhuver’s new Geysir – the waking witch?

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Well we’ve just about recovered from the awesome experience that was filming the eruption! We’ve got some fantastic footage from the ground, the night footage is unbelievable…but…you’ll have to wait until it airs (BBC2 and Animal Planet, next spring) to see it, sorry to those of you who have asked! So again a hearty thankyou to Thor and True North for getting us there and the SAR teams who are doing such a great job in keeping everyone safe out there.

We’ve had a great time over the past 10 days or so, all a bit varied and involving lots of dashing around the island, north, south, east and west we’ve done a whistlestop tour.

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We started off doing some work in Reykjavik, and as usual we stayed at our favourite spot in town, the 1912 Guesthouse (http://www.1912guesthouse.is) It’s a lovely place, right next to the Parliament building. Clean, comfortable and reasonably priced The owner is quite a character too, full of good stories and extremely helpful, it’s a definite top recommendation from us!

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We were after filming some nightlife, clubs and urban material, largely to cut into a sequence on how Icelanders use the power that they generate (in a very green fashion) from the rich Geothermal sources under the ground.

(ED note – It also gave a us a great excuse to sample some of the nightlife for which Reykjavik is gathering a worldwide reputation).

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Many timelapses later, we got some great shots around the town so should make a dynamic little sequence! And of course it gave Ian a chance to express his monochrome skills as only he can, it never ceases to amaze me the talents of this man.

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We returned to the Big Laxa river as a guest again of Orri Vigfusson. As Ian was in Hornstrandir with the foxes when we came here last time (he hasn’t forgotten the fox blog btw, it is coming soon!) and he had the high speed camera with him, we needed to do some pick up shots of casting.

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Orri had arranged for David L. Goodman to be our casting star, and what a star he was! Not only was he a superb fisherman he was also a supremely elegant double handed caster. He is a devotee of the underhand cast (ed note this is a revolutionary method of fly casting, pioneered by the great Swedish angler Goran Andersson http://www.salmonfishing-norway.com/goran%20andersson%20biographie.htm)

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To see David put this cast into practice was a wonderful experience, its such an elegant and precise way to fish and he was quite simply brilliant at it. As an added bonus, we caught and returned a lovely 20lb cock salmon and laughed….a lot. I have to say that David is one of the funniest and most entertaining contributors I have had the pleasure of working with. I wont repeat the stories told for lots of different reasons but I think its safe to say that we all learnt a few things! Of course you’ll have to wait and see the film to see him and Goran Andersson’ technique in action, but here is a shot of Ian giving it his best. A good job he did of it too, his usual dogged persistence paid dividend

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After a few more days back in town, some more interviews beckoned. Ester, Our fox scientist was kind enough to invite her to our lab and show us some of the new research she has been doing into the Arctic fox. Ester has been brilliant for the whole of this project, we couldn’t have done the filming in Hornstarndir without her.

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We also met a nice lady called Inga-Lisa and her daughter Asta, who were kind enough to talk to us about trolls and elves, and what they represent to everyday Icelanders.

We filmed them down to the sea stacks (or trolls petrified in the light of dawn) at Reykjanes, which we had recced back in May, a lovely spot down by the sea on this dramatic coastline.

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Very close by are the hot srings of Gunnhuver that we wrote about back in May (https://footstepsofgiantsblog.wordpress.com/2014/05/10/an-icelandic-ghost-story/) where according to local legend, the witch Gunn met her end by being tricked into a boiling mud pool, leaving her ghost to haunt this area to this day.

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In geological terms, these boiling, spitting mud pools are down to water coming into contact with hot rocks deep below, boiling and liquefying mud, then forcing its way to the surface as mud springs. (ed note, there is actually one such example, a cool one, at Wooton Bassett in Wiltshire). Here at Gunnhuver they have been active for many years and the whole area is dotted with vents, drifting steam covers the area and creates quite an atmosphere. In the past few weeks there has been a marked increase in activity here, (perhaps related to the 20,000 earthquakes that have happened in Iceland in the last month!) with old mud springs becoming more vigourous and others dying down.

Im not sure anyone expected a new Geyser to form though!

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Now a geyser is a peculiar phenomenon that need very specific conditions to occur. Its basically a funnel going down through the ground to an area where water (and/or mud) meets the magma. When this water reaches boiling point (its held there under pressure from the water above, becoming superheated) a bubble of steam surges up through the funnel forcing the water and mud ahead of it to be shot up into the air (in the case of Icelands famous Geysir, about 30m up in the air, and 80m for Old Faithful in Yellowstone US) the cooler liquid then falls back into the chamber to be boiled and the process repeats on a regular, timeable basis. It’s a bit like boiling a kettle really.

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Though Iceland has a handful of active geysers, (including the most famous one at Geysir, its where the name came from funnily enough) most are very small, and they are pretty rare worldwide (roughgly 1000)

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The biggest ever recorded was in New Zealand, the Waimangu Geyser, which got to heights of an incredible 460m , but that died out in 1904 http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/6497/waimangu-geyser-the-worlds-largest

Old faithful gets to 70m, and Strokkur (the active one next to Geysir) gets up to about 20 m. So any new geyser forming is a welcome addition to the list, particularly if it gets to any height.

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News broke on Tuesday 16th Sept that a geyser had been spotted out amongst the vents at Gunnhuver. We got staright in the trusty bus and got back out there on the Wednesday morning. Despite the rain it was pretty spectacular, a freshly formed mud hole some 6m across and 2m deep, surrounded by copious quantities of mud spatter, was bubbling away merrily. After a few minutes, the bubbling increased and with a roaring and hissing, great gouts of mud, steam and water shot up 8-10m into the air. The eruption only lasted about 20-30 seconds before dying away again, leaving the water pouring back down the hole to start the kettle boiling again. Now obviously a kettle needs time to boil, and as the saying goes “a watched pot never boils” but sure enough 10 mins later, off she went again! It seems that the witch Gunn has woken up, whether shes been dallying with her friends at Bardabunga we’ll have to leave to the spirits to decide, but its certainly a spectacle worth watching. One point to bear in mind here of course is that you must take great care when walking in this area. There are countless vents and mud holes all with scalding hot mud and water to trap the unwary, so if you don’t know where you should go, get a guide!

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With that, we set off east and north.

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We are heading up there to film a horse roundup in the next week, but its always worth picking off a few shots on the way. As chance would have it, we bumped into our good chum and all round great mate wildlife cameraman Warwick Sloss who is over here pursuing his great love of stills photography (ed note – his stuff is well worth a look, sublime portraiture all done on analogue film, developed and hand printed by his good self, check out his website here http://www.slossphoto.co.uk)

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Weather was pretty grim but we  caught up with the spectacular waterfall Dettifoss….

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and an off chance wildlife highlight was a lagoon on the southeast where many hundreds, perhaps thousands of whooper swans were gathering before their migration south.

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A sure sign that autumn, and the harsh winter, are on their way.

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Til next time…

A Man May Fish – Orri Vigfússon and the Atlantic Salmon

 

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We’ve all been a bit tied up over the past few weeks, so its been a bit quiet on the blog front I’m afraid!  Ian and Neil got stuck in a massive storm out in Hornstrandir, leaving them with wrecked tents, nowhere dry to sleep, and weather so bad that the storm sequence we’ve been trying to film (and failing to! Honestly the weather has been amazing most of this year) was impossible to get safely.

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More on their exploits in another post, in the meantime, a catchup on the salmon we (Neil and myself actually, Ian was up with the foxes in a tent in the rain) went to film on the Laxa and Sela rivers in North and North East Iceland.

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I’m a self confessed fly fishing nut, Ive always loved the peace and tranquility of flyfishing in wild places. The idea of making a film about Iceland and not including salmon was unthinkable (Iceland has some of the best salmon fishing in the world), we really wanted to find out how Iceland has managed to maintain and improve its salmon stocks whilst the rest of the Atlantic Salmon world is seeing a disturbing decline.

Many years ago I read a book called “A Man May fish” by the late and colourful Irish Judge TC Kingsmill Moore. A wonderful book crammed with stories and techniques of salmon, trout and sea trout fishing in Ireland during the years when fish farming, pollution and high seas netting had not yet annihilated that countries rich river stocks. Amongst his tales of fishing are little cameos about Irish folk whisked away by fairies, houses half built and then abandoned because they were built across fairy passes (parallels with the Icelandic Hidden People or Huldufólk here!) and the opening line that…

“It may have been fortunate that fishing was not made too easy”

Having spent many years tying flies to match hatching insects, selecting the right fly to lure that occasional salmon, I can certainly vouch that there are many, many ways of attempting to catch a fish, probably the least efficient of which is fly fishing! But you don’t go fishing to catch fish, its far, far more than that!

Technique (or lack of) aside, an absolute pre requisite for a days fishing is the knowledge that there are indeed fish in the river to be caught in the first place, and for the past 50 years or so, this is where the trouble has been.

Global stocks of Atlantic Salmon (and sea trout) have crashed over a very short space of time – Since the early 1970’s there has been a steady decline in the numbers of Salmon and Sea trout returning to the rivers of the UK, northern Europe, Russia and indeed Iceland. Today some rivers in North America are down to literally a handful of returning fish, and even our famous Scottish rivers are declining steadily (no thanks to the current government there http://www.salmon-trout.org/news_item.asp?news_id=315 )

(Biology bit – Atlantic Salmon and Sea trout are born in wild oxygen rich rivers, go to the high seas of the North Atlantic to feed for a couple of years, and then return to their precise river of birth to spawn, )

Now, exactly where to point the finger of blame for this disaster is a complex issue, but there is no doubt that fishing on the high seas (not with rod and line in the rivers), interceptory coastal netting (where the river mouths are netted to catch the returning fish), pollution from salmon farms (infestations of sea lice included) and a total lack of cohesive strategy from governments to address these issues, all play their part in the downfall of the King of Fish.

Something needed to be done.

At this point you may be wondering why a blog on Iceland is spending some considerable time talking about the demise of a species of fish which inhabits a large section of the entire North Atlantic, not just Iceland. Well I’ll tell you…

Organisations like the Salmon and Trout Association and NASCO amongst others have played important roles in stopping the decline of salmon and continue this much needed work to this day. One man however stands out a mile in his tireless work to save the Atlantic Salmon over the past 50 years ,Orri Vigfússon and his organisation the NASF.

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A businessman, environmentalist and one of a new breed of so called “green capitalists”, he started up the North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF) during the 1970’s to halt the decline of salmon.

His method was simple, pay the netsman NOT to catch wild salmon and seek other more sustainable fishing. To this end, he has since raised over $35million and tirelessly campaigns and lobbies the relevant Atlantic Governments and industries.

Theres a more complete bio at the end of this blog detailing Orri’s impressive acheievements, but in short his efforts have earned him a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2007 for “preventing the seemingly inevitable decimation of the wild North Atlantic salmon populations.” A Prince of Wales Conservation Award, and conservation awards from several organizations including the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Atlantic Salmon Federation USA, VISA, and the U.K. Salmon and Trout Association. He is Fellow with Ashoka Innovators for the Public, which recognizes progressive entrepreneurs who have solutions to social problems and in 2004, Time magazine named Vigfusson a “European hero.”

So when Orri kindly volunteered to help us film a salmon fishing sequence, we knew we were in the very best hands!

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We wanted to film fly fishing for salmon in particular because of the unique relationship between anglers (the vast majority of which are commited conservationists) and their prey, and of course it’s a very beautiful thing to see some skillfully cast a fly. (anyone remember watching Brad Pitt casting a fly in the film “A River Runs Through It” ?)

Our journey first took us to one of Orri’s favourite rivers, the Laxa in Adaldal or Big Laxa, near Husavik in Northern Icealnd. It’s a beautiful, strong storming river draining Lake Myvatn out to sea in stunning surroundings, the wildlife is superb, and there are great numbers of Harlequin and Eider Duck here.

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Our stay at the Laxamyri lodge near Husavik was wonderful. Food and accommodation were extremely comfortable and the staff were brilliant.

We were there when the Lupins were in full bloom, and despite their controversial nature, no one can doubt the fact that seeing fields of pretty blue flower heads gently swaying in the breeze is a lovely sight.

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Its one of those places where you just instantly relax and feel at home, looking out at the river above the falls in the morning with a coffee you knew you were in the right place to fish!

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We were there for opening day – the season is quite short (June to September) and tradition holds that the landowners cast the first flies over the water.

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Within half an hour of the 7am start a fish was on! Fishing at the bottom of the waterfall that plunge into the sea pool, one of the landowners, Jón Helgi Björnsson, was into a lively fish fresh in from the sea.

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A spirited fight was soon brought under control and a beautiful silver springer of about 15lbs was carefully netted, measured (and scale sample taken) then gently released back to resume its journey upstream to spawn.

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Catch and release is most certainly the order of play on this and the majority of Icelandic rivers. Its vital that Anglers start playing their part in the long term survival of salmon and start looking seriously at releasing the majority if not all of their fish. This is even more important with the uncertain future that salmon face. It makes sense from an economic point of view too, It took Orri a while to convince the landowners and fellow anglers of the benefits of catch and release, but when you realize that “If a salmon is worth say $1000 when you catch it and kill it, released alive and caught again its worth another $1000, catch the same fish a third time and you’ve got $3000”

Makes sense to put it back really!

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(And yes a salmon really can be worth $1000 when you consider how much anglers are willing to spend on a days fishing, rods, accommodation etc, its big business)

So our time at Laxa sped by. We got some great footage of salmon under water, and some lovely casting sequences.

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Needless to say, the GoPro came in for some hard work, getting attached to rods, heads, poles and nets, Whilst Neil had a lot of fun and got some great stuff topside. (Of course in the great tradition of Producers/Directors everywhere, I managed to get away with doing some fishing!)

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One thing that really stood out was the skill of our guide Ármann Kristjánsson

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On a 25km long river, finding the salmon, even though they are prolific here, is not straightforward. It requires a supreme amount of knowledge and skill to find their holding spots. Especially when you understand that they do not feed in freshwater, so you cant rely on them appearing at feeding time or taking flies off the surface. …..was brilliant, he grew up on the river and knows it like the back of his hand. In the few days we were there, we covered all the likely lies and the best pools, raised a few fish, and caught, filmed and released a few too.

We also had to check out the Sela River over in North East Iceland for a few days. This place is truly spectacular, wild water plunging down over dramatic waterfalls and a brand new luxury lodge to rest weary bones at the end of a long days fishing.

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Our guides Gísli Ásgeirsson and Sveinn Björnsson (Dennni) were again superb, catching fish to order for us and enabling us to get some wonderful shots. We were certainly impressed by Gisli’s ability to cast a double handed fly rod with a GoPro attached!

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 Seeing them work together (1 spotting, 1 casting to the fish) on a pool where the only place to reach the salmon lie was from a 30ft cliff top was certainly very, very different from the more sedate runs and riffles of the River Wye and the like in the UK.

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Thats the key with Icelandic fishing really, its a definite adventure from start to finish, stunning scenery, the excitement of scrambling down canyons to film little known pools and always the the guarantee there are plenty of fish in the river, great stuff…

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if you get the chance to fish here in Iceland, do so! I cant think of two better rivers to try than The Big Laxa or Sela, so if a space appears on their long waiting list, grab it!

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Even if you have limited salmon fishing experience, you’ll be in safe hands and your guide will do all he can to get you into a fish. I’m mainly a trout fisherman with little salmon experience (I don’t have a double handed rod and cant Spey cast – though Ive now been firmly bitten by the bug and will learn how to!) but ….was patient enough to coach me into what lies to cover, speed of retrieve, choice of fly (small ones are popular here, Sunray Shadow the most successful by far).

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the food was amazing (they have a  superb team of chefs here!),

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and the accommodation and atmosphere of the lodges was fantastic, its a very warm, big thank you from us for making our stay so wonderful!

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Of course the main subject of filming interest here was the salmon and its struggle to overcome the stupidity and shortsightedness of men, insistent on plundering them in vast numbers from the high seas and river mouth netting stations, more on that in the film when it comes out of course (ETA next spring btw).

Even though angling has never had a major impact on salmon numbers (as I said its not an especially efficient way of catching fish!). Most rod anglers are beginning to see the light about the benefits of catch and release. A lot of the UK rivers have brought this in as a rule, certainly until stocks show signs of more solid recovery. As much as I enjoy eating salmon, and have no problem with taking fish for the table from sustainable stocks, the Atlantic Salmon needs all the help it can get right now, so catch and release must continue to be adopted by all.

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I can only say that thankfully there are a few good men like Orri Vigfusson to educate and convince the big companies and governments of a better way. Pretty much anywhere in the world where salmon run rivers, you can be sure that Orri is somewhere nearby, offering advice, incentives and waving the conservation flag in a creative, positive way that has been attractive to business and landowner alike.

That he tirelessly does it in such a constructive way is extraordinary, and as a man approaching his later years, albeit with amazing fitness and vigour, he can’t carry on doing this forever, he needs practical support. Ordinary anglers and individuals can play their part, supporting the salmon’ cause through donations, lobbying governments (Scotland and Norway are arguably the biggest threats at present) being careful about what farmed salmon they eat, practicing catch and release and raising awareness overall.

A man may fish indeed, but only whilst there are fish left in the rivers….

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If you are at all interested in saving this iconic species, Id urge you to join forces with Orri and the NASF, or indeed find out more from the following organisations

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The Salmon and Trout Association – http://www.salmon-trout.org

http://www.environmentmaine.org/programs/mee/save-atlantic-salmon

http://www.asf.ca/main.html

here’s the details of the rivers Orri took us to, theres over 90 in Iceland to choose from!

Big Laxa

http://www.anglingiceland.is/rivers/salmon-rivers-full-service/laxa-in-adaldal/

Sela

http://www.sela.is/sela/about-sela–general-information-about-sela

More about Orri Vigfússon

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orri_Vigfússon

This from the Goldman prize nominantion

Orri Vigfússon brokered huge international fishing rights buyouts with governments and corporations in the North Atlantic, effectively stopping destructive commercial salmon fishing in the region.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, the once-plentiful wild salmon populations in the chilly waters of the North Atlantic dwindled to dangerously low levels, affecting not only the sensitive ocean and river ecosystems of the region, but also the rural communities for whom salmon fishing is a long-held local tradition and source of income. In the early 1990s, Orri Vigfússon started an innovative, multinational initiative to buy out the fishing rights of commercial salmon fishers whose over-fishing was causing the decline. He represents a new breed of environmental leader who utilizes business skills and negotiating to effectively protect precious natural resources. Through his work, Vigfússon succeeded in preventing the seemingly inevitable decimation of wild North Atlantic salmon populations.

An entrepreneur and life-long outdoorsman, Vigfússon first became aware of declining salmon stocks in the 1970s while fishing along the rivers of his native northern Iceland. Speaking with others who lived or fished along local rivers, he learned the extent of Iceland’s shrinking river salmon populations. In response, Vigfússon founded the Iceland-based North Atlantic Salmon Fund (NASF).

Since 1989, the organization has raised more than US$35 million to buy the netting rights from commercial fishers across the North Atlantic, essentially paying commercial fishermen not to fish salmon in the North Atlantic. NASF has also brokered moratorium agreements with several national governments. These efforts have dramatically improved salmon fish stocks in numerous countries. According to NASF estimates, commercial open-sea fishing in the Atlantic has dropped by more than 75 percent in the last 15 years, and river anglers in several countries in areas where nets have been closed have reported substantial increases in salmon catches. In 2007, NASF estimated that more than five million North Atlantic salmon had been saved to date.

In order for the buyout system to be successful, Vigfússon had to succeed on a number of fronts. He had to raise millions of dollars to compensate the commercial fishermen for the loss of income they suffer in giving up salmon fishing. The agreements are designed to cover a fixed period of years but the hope is that by the time the agreements expire many of the fishermen will not wish to return to salmon fishing. A large percentage of NASF’s funds, therefore, is spent on assisting the fishers to find alternative employment. He also had to negotiate with individual governments in order to persuade them to provide matched funding and to change the policies and economic decisions that have previously influenced their fishing industry practices. To ensure the sustainability of these efforts, Vigfússon began promoting viable economic alternatives for salmon fishers including snow crab and lumpfish caviar harvesting.

In the beginning, Vigfússon reached out to a variety of stakeholders across Iceland, Europe and North America to convince them of the need to address the over-fishing problem. He met with residents of river communities and local anglers, who were all experiencing declining numbers of river salmon. He began discussions with commercial salmon fishers, talking openly with them about the extent of the problem from both an environmental and economic point of view, including how their own livelihoods were being affected. After raising significant grassroots support, Vigfússon approached governments, introducing his idea of the buyout agreements.

With a mind for business and a passion for his cause, Vigfússon brokered multi-million dollar buyouts or moratorium agreements with commercial salmon fishers in the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Wales, England, Greenland, France and Norway. Vigfússon and NASF´s branches in the UK and Northern Ireland brokered agreements to buy out the remaining drift nets in partnership with the authorities. In November 2006, after years of campaigning and negotiating by NASF, Ireland finally announced that it would buy out all of the country’s salmon drift-netting licenses. As part of the buyout, the Irish government will establish a hardship fund of more than US$39 million to address the financial losses that Irish salmon fishers will face, as well as providing an additional US$7 million fund to help rural communities deal with the loss of income.

This development represents one of the final steps in Vigfússon’s vision of securing a complete halt to salmon fishing at sea in the North Atlantic. Vigfússon is focused on the remaining interceptory coastal nets in Scotland and Norway, the last countries to operate major mixed-stock fisheries that prevent many returning salmon from reaching their native rivers. The governments in both countries have been slow to act and are reluctant to work with civil society groups such as NASF. As a result, both countries face significant negative impacts to the salmon stocks on their local rivers.

And have a look at this from the “Green Interview”

http://www.thegreeninterview.com/blog/orri-vigfusson-how-icelandic-green-capitalist-saved-north-atlantic-salmon

 

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Eider, the duck that made a golden nest.

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Well, we’ve just spent the most enthralling couple of weeks filming Eider duck, their chicks and the age old tradition of collecting their down for your duvets, pillows and the very best of down jackets. These minute feathers are worth a small fortune, but their story and the people involved are where the riches are for us.

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 This down is without doubt the finest natural insulator you can find. Its the soft under layer of feathers from the breast of the female which she removes herself to line the nest. Microscopic barbs lock the feathers together, trapping millions of pockets of air, making it incredibly good for us humans. It was even used as insulation on early space missions, so you can see how it benefits the Eider during their long stays out on the Arctic ocean.

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Thor and his brother Bubbi, have been our hosts for the trip,  They are co owners of a small island near Flatey, just south of the Westfjords.

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It’s the most beautiful place, a sparkling archipelago of dozens of little  rocky outcrops and islets set in the cold clear Icelandic waters.

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Legend has it that it is impossible to count the islands here, the tides reveal more  and more rocks that could pass as islands at differing states, but one way used to define an island is whether birds nest on it, and here there are birds nesting galore.

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A quick list includes Red Phalarope, Black Guillemot, Redshank (sound recordists note – the noise from these guys is not popular when trying to record an interview!!), Arctic Tern, Ring necked Plover, Shelduck and of course the Eider, it was these guys we came to film as they built their nests and hatched their young.

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Eider and the traditional method of down collecting were one of the reasons we proposed making this film (it took nearly four years to get it off the ground!) it’s a very animal friendly way of using a natural resource and typical of Icelanders to find a way of working with nature not destroying it.

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The method is very simple really, you walk around your island, find a nesting eider (there are about 3000 on this island), gently lift out the eggs, remove the eider down lining the nest, replace with fresh hay and replace eggs, job done…

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(ed note, it also gave Andy the chance to try out a new hairdo, its been a long time since he had a full head of hair)

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But that’s where the hard work begins, theres a lot of ground to cover for a start, hopping on and off an inflatable dinghy to get to the smaller islets, carrying a sacks of hay and down around with you as you scramble over the rocks, is tiring work. Fortunately theres plentiful supplies of cocoa milk (a favourite with the families here) and a fantastic meal to look forward to at the end of the day (pepared by a very talented cook, how she manages to look after so many people is a mystery but she’s a star!)

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Once you’ve done your days collecting, the nests need to be cleaned, dried, cleaned again, dried more, cleaned and cleaned, mostly by hand. Then when they’ve removed as much of the dried grass, seaweed and bits as possible (you can only get 50% out at this stage) it goes off to the mainland to be cleaned of the rest, then sent to the specialist duvet manufacturer around the world (lots in Japan apparently)

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Worldwide production of Eider is only about 5 tonnes, 4 of those come from Iceland. When you think that it takes roughly 65 nests to get 1kg of finished material, you begin to see the numbers of birds involved.

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Its worth pointing out that this is totally harmless to the birds, they are not plucked of their down, they’ve done that themselves whilst building the nest., and research has shown no ill effects on the down being replaced with fresh hay. Its one of the few products where the animal it comes from will still be leading a life in the wild whilst you are using its product.

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The islands are incredibly well managed for all nesting birds, not just Eider, there are snipe, redshank, plover, puffin and black guillemot all over the place. Much is done to improve the numbers of Eider and all the other nesting birds for obvious reasons. Some of the nesting sites here have been used for hundreds of years, with birds returning to the same spot year after year.

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Escaped Mink (a non native predator introduced for the fur) play havoc on bird colonies if they can reach them, killing hundreds on their killing sprees.

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Not anymore though, they’ve now been eradicated here and all the bird species have recovered thanks to the round the clock vigil that Thor and the farmers take in protecting against foxes, black backed gulls and other predators.

Each year whilst collecting the down, its clear that some of the chicks wont make it on their own, either they are late in hatching and mum leaves the nest with the more fully grown ones, or mum has just laid too many eggs (they normally incubate 4, but can lay 6). So Thor and the family step in to give a helping hand. They hand raise dozens of chicks, incubating eggs to hatching, or rearing already hatched chicks, of course that’s where the fun comes in!

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Its been really good fun watching the chicks grow and learn how to survive on their own.

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they’ve proved to be willing helpers with the filming too…

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The children here (the Eider harvest is very much a family affair) adore them and are always a bit sad when one doesn’t make it, the inevitable circle of life.

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Its become a tradition over the years that all the ducklings are given a proper burial by the children, who pay their respects in time honoured fashion.

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But after a proper send off they are back busy with giving the chicks swimming lessons, helping to feed them and generally enjoy the experience of working with wild animals.

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In just a few short weeks, these ducklings will all leave the islands to their lives in the wild, the females hopefully returning to nest on the island.

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Not before they’ve had some tuition in how to find their food of course, The ducklings need to be shown how to grub around under stones to find shrimps and worms, Thor and the children are perfect surrogate mothers, spending precious time in these lessons. It’s a lovely sight seeing kids and a big hulk of a man on his hands and knees in the mud cooing to the chicks and hand feeding them shrimps.

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Once again on our trip through this brilliant country, we’ve been bowled over by the hospitality of the Icelandic people, and by the love and knowledge they have of their wildlife and wild places.

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Seeing how involved the kids have been in the whole process, collecting and cleaning the down, helping with the chicks, and not a moment of telly watching or playstation to distract them, has been a stark reminder of how we should be raising children too. Their respect and knowledge of the wildlife is amazing, its lovely to see the next generation being raised with that love of the wild, and they’ve made brilliant camera assistants too..

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So its with a huge thank you to Thor, Bubbi and everyone on the island, we take many fond memories with us, if not one of the ducklings!

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Theres more details of the whole process of Eider collecting here http://icelandeider.is.w7.x.is/?page_id=2347

Ian has now gone off to film the Arctic fox family we’ve been following up in the far northwest of Iceland, and we are heading east to catch up with those wonderful bars of silver that return to the rivers of Iceland each year to spawn….the king of fish in many peoples eyes, the Salmon.

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Sayonara

The Egg Collectors of Grimsey

 

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The warmth and hospitality of Icelanders has constantly impressed us on our journey through this extraordinary land. Grimsey is no exception to this, we were met off the ferry (Andy was having a hard time negotiating the narrow exit ramp, but we got off without becoming an addition to the boats in the harbour) by Gagga, our lovely landlady from Basar guesthouse, and welcomed with hot coffee to our home for the week.

Our main targets to film for the week are the huge numbers of seabirds nesting on the cliffs here (over a million on the 300ft cliffs that ring this tiny island). But its not just the birds, we wanted to film the age old method of egg collecting that has been practised here for centuries. For a community that existed on a diet of fish and the few sheep that were kept here, seabird eggs played an important part in days of old and today.

In the same way that chicken eggs bought from the supermarket are not viable (i.e. they haven’t developed a foetus inside until growth has been triggered by the warmth of incubation). The Seabird eggs are collected just after they have been laid and before incubation, so timing of this event is critical. The collectors keep a watchful eye on their stretch of cliff (they are divided up in the same way as any land, each collector has his own patch) waiting for the first signs of laying. Once started, a sector is only harvested 3 times over 9 days or so, then left alone, so the guillemots and razorbills simply lay a new egg after the collecting and raise that to the hatching stage undisturbed. Its typical of Icelanders to work out a way to exist in harmony with the landscape and wildlife, and this totally sustainable way of working with sea birds is no exception.

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So it was with great interest and anticipation that we met up with Maggi and Siggi on the high cliffs. These brothers have lived their lives to the full here on the island, spending happy childhood days learning the ways of sea and land, it shows too. Their knowledge of bird behaviour and the ways of the sea is extraordinary, there is a depth behind their words that cannot be learnt by reading books or taking a degree in biology, it can only come by living side by side with nature.

Our cameras set safely at the top of the cliff , we were wondering exactly how the eggs were collected?, how many ropes, harnesses and all the normal paraphernalia of rock climbing on 300ft sheer cliffs were to be employed? Soon all became clear, as an old tractor came trundling towards us across the moorland…

The tractor reversed to the edge of the cliff, Siggi put on a sturdy harness (made by himself, the same patterns used by his father before him) long rope slung over the back of the roller winch on the back of the tractor and Siggi backed over the cliff edge carrying the all important tools of the trade – pole net, canvas bag for the eggs and the all important helmet (some protection against any rocks dislodged by birds).

Seeing Siggi nimbly make his way down the cliff face from the safety of our viewpoint was an impressive sight, constantly in touch with his brother Maggi, holding the other end of the rope at the top, literally with Siggi’s life in his hands, telling him when to give more rope, when to stop etc. It was very clear the huge level of trust they place in each other. To them its a normal day at the office, they’ve been doing it for years, but it took our breath away. The sequence will hopefully do some justice to this when its been through the cutting room later this year, and with the combination of our main camera (Sony F55) 2nd unit (Canon C300) and the ever useful GoPro, we’ve certainly got it covered. here’s some stills that will hopefully give some idea.

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With the collecting done, we chatted away with the brothers for ages, happily munching away on fermented shark and eggs, listening to stories of their youth and life on the island. You couldn’t wish to meet nicer people, funny, charismatic and tough in the way that only a life in a harsh environment can make a man.

We all felt privileged to spend time with them and gladly accepted the kind invitation of dinner at Maggi’s house (a wonderful meal of lamb cooked by his wife Anna) More chatting and stories of the island kept us thoroughly entertained for the evening but more excitement was still to come, Maggi had a surprise in store for us.

He and Siggi had to take their boat round to the cliff bottom to pick up some eggs left from a previous days collecting and invited us to go with them. It was too late (9pm) for decent filming light, but never being ones to turn down the opportunity for a spin on the ocean, and to see the island from a different perspective, we piled in and set off through calm seas in Siggi’s powerful RIB.

What welcomed us on the shore at the bottom of the cliffs was the most extraordinary spectacle, thousands upon thousands of Guillemots and Razorbills flew off from and returned to the cliffs as they headed to their feeding grounds out on the Arctic Ocean. Ive never seen anything quite like it, the sheer numbers were amazing and there is no way a camera can do it justice (even our prized Leica!) its one of those things that just has to go on your top ten things to see before you die, you have to see it with your own eyes and experience the smells and sounds alongside.

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end of a perfect few days, I think its fair to say that we’ve fallen in love with Grimsey!L1002564

Grimsey

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40km off the north coast of Iceland lies the island of Grimsey, our home for the next week whilst we film the extraordinary seabird colonies here.

A small fishing community has scraped a living from the rich fishing grounds here for centuries, so filming the people is as always high on our priority list.

The journey over here was spectacular, we had left the comfort of our beds (and seaweed baths) in Reykholar at the unearthly hour of 2.30am to get to the ferry by 8.00am, boarded and set sail into flat calm waters and bright sunshine

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leaving behind the snow covered mountains around Dalvik, our three hour crossing was a pleasure, whales abound around these waters, surprisingly close to shore, and we had 2 full breaches, 6 full tail dives from Humpbacks, numerous Minke surfacing, and lots of white beaked
dolphin. As per usual with whales, Continue reading