The steep west coasts of Streymoy, in the Faroes, protect the island from the predominantly western winds and teem with breeding seabirds. Our boat rounds a promontory and the tiny village of Vestmanna disappears from sight. The hills on either side rise up above us and tiny houses dot the landscape, providing a magnificent perspective of the sheer size of the mountains on either side. Waterfalls flow down the side of the rocky cliffs, gaining strength as the snow above melts.
We pass twenty large, netted hoops, used for breeding salmon. As we sail by, seagulls swoop down and salmon leap out of the water.
In front of us is the snow-covered, second highest mountain in the Faroe Islands, once believed to be the highest. The highest is, in fact, ten times smaller than Mount Everest however the steep incline from sea level gives the impression that it is much higher than it really is.
We enter into a narrow gorge and the 2,000 feet tall (609 metres) sea cliffs tower above us. The sheer rock walls rise up on either side of our tiny boat and the weather beaten basalt rocks display beautiful formations against a backdrop of fresh snow.
Above us, kittiwakes perch on the cliff face. These birds take their name from the incessant ‘kitti-wa-ak, titti-wa-ak’ call they make while at the nest. During the non-breeding period these birds are the most oceanic of all gulls, haunting the northern region of the Altantic Ocean and moving thousands of miles from where they were raised. At about three years old they begin to drift back to their natal home and once they establish an attachment with a particular colony they usually return to nest there throughout their lives. The nests are usually constructed on the side of sheer rock faces from compacted seaweed, grass and moss and become further strengthened by the birds’ excrement.
We are given hard hats as our boat sails into one of the many grottos. We glide across the sapphire blue water and daylight disappears. Two birds swoop in front of us and vanish into the darkness as the sound of dripping water surrounds us.
Emerging from the grotto our guide points out a rope hanging on the side of the cliff. In the warmer months local farmers will bring their sheep by boat to cliffs such as these that are otherwise inaccessible and hoist them up by rope to allow them to graze on the lush, untouched grass.
A flock of shags sit on a wave drenched rock. The shag is slightly smaller than the cormorant and is sometimes referred to as the ‘green cormorant’, as it looks very much like the larger bird and behaves in a similar way. It is a more expert diver than the cormorant and usually remains under the water for about a minute, although dives of trice that duration have frequently been recorded. It is not easy to determine the difference between a shag and cormorant from distance, as they often share the same nesting sites with the shags occupying the narrower ledges, however if closer inspection was possible 12 tail feathers would be counted on the shag, while the cormorant has 14.
The 330 metre tall Witch’s Finger comes into view. It is easy to see where the rock formation’s nickname comes from as the tapering cone projects towards the sky, resembling a crooked finger. In 1844 a man climbed this free-standing rock, so that he could wave at King Frederick VII of Denmark when he sailed past the island. It is said that when he reached the bottom he realised he had forgotten a glove on the top of the rock and so climbed back up but, weakened by the strenuous climb, fell to his death. Until 2012 this was the only story of the rock being climbed, however two teams have now summited the Witch’s Finger. The most recent climb took place in 2015, when four Faroese men took on the challenge.
To the side of our boat, three sea-arches line up, towering over the crystal waters below. Around us the snow-covered hills contrast against the rugged sea cliffs and the crisp blue sky.
- Information provided by Cruise and Maritime Voyages
- Information provided by tour guide on Cruise and Maritime Voyages excursion
- Insight Guides Iceland
- Seabirds of the Northern Hemisphere, Alan Richards