A town and archipelago off Iceland’s south coast, Vestmannaeyjar is part of a group of 15 to 18 islands also known as the Westman Islands. With a population of about 4,200 inhabitants, Vestmannaeyjar is accessible by plane and ferry. Heimaey is the largest of the island group and it achieved global fame in 1973 when volcano Eldfell erupted. The eruption forced the town’s entire population of about 5,000 people to evacuate to the mainland. Numerous buildings were destroyed. The lava flow was finally brought under control when almost 7 billion liters of seawater had been applied.
The traditional livelihood of the islands‘ inhabitants was fishing and hunting, which is probably unsurprising given that the waters around the archipelago have rich fish supplies. Heimaey was, for many years, one of Iceland‘s biggest fishing centers. Nowadays, with the changes in production techniques and transportation, the fishing industry is not as bustling as it once was. However, the facilities for visitors are excellent. There are many bird species and fascinating sea life around the islands. Around August time, visitors should be able to see hordes of puffin chicks nesting on the cliffs and taking their first solo flight. There is an interesting natural history museum with a varied collection of preserved wildlife. The acquarium at the museum has a collection of unusual-looking Icelandic fish for visitors to view. Heimaey is also home to Keiko, “aka Free Willy,” since its relocation here in 1998.
Apart from Heimaey, the other islands are sparsely populated and, indeed, many entirely uninhabitated. The islands have been built up by submarine eruptions along a fissure that is 30 km in length. Most of them have steep cliffs and plenty vegetation, and it is estimated there are around 150 plant species amongst the abundant flora.