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The Shortest Voyage

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|June 4, 2016
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Here on the South Coast, I look out to the ocean, calm and dark beyond the lagoon by which I sit.

We are still in the depths winter here but the light grows each day by four minutes or so. It is not so much but it becomes tangible over the days and weeks of Spring’s approach. I am quite close to one of Iceland’s most famous spots, Jökulsárlón and it is one of the most haunting and impressive sights I see here. One of a number of “glacier lagoons” on the south coast, this is the only one to be connected to the ocean and is by far the most visited.

cars driving on a snowy road in iceland

The parent of these lagoons is Vatnajökull, the largest Ice Cap in Europe and the third largest on our planet. Its mighty expanse covers 10% of the surface of Iceland with many "small" outlet glaciers running down from the highlands as fingers do from a glove. One such glacier is Breiðamerkurjökull, under whose icy heights I now sit. As do its kin, this glacier sits and carves in its own glacial valley – just like those we see and talk about sometimes in Ireland but much more alive in their formation here today. Eventually, reaching sea level, the glaciers calve and melt, closing the system and giving fresh to the sea the water it once took to freeze.

chunks of glacier floating in a lagoon in iceland

Breiðamerkurjökull is one of the larger glaciers running down from the highlands. It is where we also go Ice Caving. As you drive alongside this monstrously large chunk of ice you see many glacial features flying by whilst their creator, the ice behind, remains still in the far distance. One part of this large glacier melts into Jökulsárlón, the “Glacier Lagoon”. The glacier is said to actually float on the melt water for some 20km or so, with active calving towards the edge of the ice.

midnight sun in jokusarlon glacier lagoon in summer

The icebergs created here make their way from the depths of the lagoon, whispered as some 280m or so, to the sea. Toyed with by the wind it can take a considerable amount of time for an iceberg to make this journey, even up to five years. This journey through the lagoon is the Iceberg’s time in the human limelight. The ice is often blue, fern ice compressed over aeons, broken by nature for us to see and appreciate. In this time the ice plays host to many a seal and stone before shrinking enough to be liberated through a small estuary to the wild Atlantic beyond.

cloudy weather day at jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Here, in salty waters and fierce waves, the ice meets its demise. The salt encourages melting and the waves massage and tease each weakness and fold in the ice. Slowly, the iceberg shrinks, becomes polished and scalloped, then disappears from view forever. A mere drop in the ocean one could say.

people walking around icebergs on diamond beach in iceland

Some bergs are luckier. They might be washed ashore on the “Crystal Beach” after being polished and played with for a while in the surf. These bergs get slightly longer in the limelight as tourists caress and photograph them. Some even lie on them, feeling their cold and kissing their hardened watery shells. The black sand sometimes sticks to their glassy surfaces but only acts to heighten their beauty as they lie upon the shore. Then, as with all things, their end does eventually come. High tides and temperatures ensure the ice’s demise and, each time one visits, a new family of icebergs sit and await their fame and fortune upon this sacred beach.

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