From a fair distance on the narrow gravel road, I could see three white flashes every 15 seconds. When I finally reached the nondescript Bjargtangar Lighthouse overlooking the daunting, sheer cliffs of Latrabjarg in Northwestern Iceland, I instantly saw why this was such a volatile region for hardy lighthouse keepers of yesteryear, salty mariners, and squadrons of seabirds alike.
The ancient cliffs ranged anywhere from 400 to 1200-feet tall, and the Bjartangar Lighthouse overlooks the dark, cobalt-blue North Atlantic Ocean and a bevy of battered shipwrecks that had lost their way attempting to navigate the notoriously treacherous waters surrounding the craggy cliffs of the peninsula. In stark contrast, some of the most beautiful beaches in all of Iceland in various colors are found here too. The waters swirling beneath the Latrabjarg Cliffs also teem with breaching whales, animated dolphins, basking seals, and the cliffs themselves are one of the most important seabird colonies in all of Europe; thousands of colorful auks and gulls swarm the cliffs, breathing life into such a remote and rugged environment.
Not only do the Latrabjarg Cliffs mark the westernmost point in Iceland and Europe, but the 20-foot tall Bjargtangar Lighthouse itself is the westernmost building in Europe. The light station was initially established in 1913, and the present tower was constructed in 1948. The two-story tall lighthouse almost appeared like a small condominium when I first laid eyes on it during my first visit. It is built out of concrete and painted entirely white, and the surrounding site is open to the public, but not the tower. The lantern house is located on the second floor on the seaward side and faces west toward the turbulent North Atlantic.
Interpretive signs outside of the lighthouse describe extreme rescues and a challenging way of life, with hardy lighthouse workers and nearby locals repeatedly rappelling over the crumbling cliffs down to the wave-battered shoreline to retrieve crewmembers from various wreckages. One of the most famous extractions occurred in 1947, when lighthouse workers and local Icelandic farmers came together and rescued 12 surviving members from the beleaguered British fishing trawler Dhoon. The stranded boat had become wedged in the jagged rocks below the cliffs and the lighthouse. Even though the locals and lighthouse workers had become adept at rappelling for seabird eggs, as precarious as this practice was, it was even more so hauling the beaten and exhausted fishermen nearly 600 feet up to their eventual safety.
For decades lighthouse workers and locals rappelled over the cliffs for something else too. Atlantic puffins, the adorable, colorful little auks, were sought after for their meat as well as their eggs. The puffins burrow into the cliffs, causing much erosion along the cliff edges,and making rappelling a very risky endeavor.
During Iceland’s very short summer season from June through August, it doesn’t get dark in Iceland; sunset is right around midnight. Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle, and the sun barely dips below the horizon and then rises again by 3:30 am. From 10 pm to midnight is a magical time on the dizzyingly beautiful cliffs surrounding the lighthouse. The golden light was amazing. All the tourist buses had left hours ago, leaving the lonely lighthouse to keep watch on the turbulent North Atlantic. As sunset approached, thousands of feeding seabirds came off the water, soaking in the last remaining rays of warmth before bedding down in their cliff-side burrows and cliff-top nests; puffins, razorbills, guillemots, gannets, northern fulmars, kittiwakes and other species roosted just below me. As the sun sank, the seabirds inched upward toward the edge of the daunting cliffs surrounding the lighthouse.
The Latrabjarg Cliffs and Bjargtangar Lighthouse are arguably the most frequently visited tourist attractions in the West Fjords of Iceland, but by staying out past midnight, I gratefully found myself alone and wandering the windswept cliff-tops that stretch for 14 kilometers with seabirds buzzing by like bumblebees past the sturdy lighthouse. It gave me a sense of what the lighthouse keeper experienced way out on the west end of Iceland where the lighthouse (and seabirds) endure everything the North Atlantic throws at it.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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