In the past few weeks Iceland has seen a small amount of tourists filter back into the country. This is largely thanks to the success of comprehensive border testing. The few people who have chosen to take the risk of travelling this year have been met with empty landscapes and untouched terrain. A stark change from the normally busy summer months. So, if you decide that Iceland is a good destination to travel to then we are ready and waiting. But please, please do your research and weigh up the risks before booking your flights. Iceland might be safe, but keep in mind the journey to get here. And the ramifications when you return home.
In the meantime, I thought I would share a happy story about one of my favourite experiences in Iceland – watching the midnight sun on the glacier lagoon. This story will hopefully inspire you to travel to Iceland in the future. Perhaps not now, but soon.
What is the midnight sun?
For anyone not in the know, Iceland is situated right on the edge of the Arctic Circle. This means that the seasons change drastically. Not just temperature and weather, but also day light hours. In the winter, the darkest days barely allow for 4 hours of sunshine. Darkness sounds bad but it does give you ideal northern lights conditions.
The summer, in contrast, is the opposite. The sun does still actually set, despite what you may have heard. However, because the sun only dips below the horizon for a few short hours the sky remains bright and blue, even at 3am. So, depending on what part of the summer you come to Iceland, the sun can still be in the sky at midnight. Hence the name of the article. And even better than that, for around 2 weeks before and after the summer solstice (21st of June) the sun sets for such a short amount of time that it’s easy to experience a sunset and a sunrise in a very short space of time. On the 21st of June it can be a matter of minutes. The below story from a few years ago will hopefully encapsulates this magic moment.
Night time on the 21st of June
It’s a bit of a moot point to say that it was night time when we arrived at the glacier lagoon that day. Though it certainly wasn’t dark. We’d been driving all day through the warm summer air from Reykjavik. It was the longest day of the year, June 21st. The weather had not been kind to us the previous summer so I hadn’t experienced the midnight sun for 2 years by this point and I was eager to add this memory to my time in Iceland.
Tiredness takes a back seat to excitement and wonder under the midnight sun.
That was my sole challenge for the day; to watch the sun set (then rise) at the iceberg-filled glacier lagoon. A goal, I would come to learn, that would be shared by thousands of migrating birds and sleepy seals that call the glacier lagoon home.
The journey to the glacier lagoon
We took our time that day to enjoy the sites as we travelled the entire south coast of Iceland, making sure to try out the local delicacies along the way. The ever present Icelandic hotdog (made with lamb) is an affordable and tasty meal if you’re on the go. It was going to be a long night, so fueling up on food was pivotal. I think I had 4 that day. We stocked up on the now famous Icelandic Skyr too – a yoghurt like substance that is high in protein and very filling. Most Icelanders eat them daily. I was no exception. They come in lots of different flavours but my favourite is by far liquorice. Mainly because that flavour inexplicably is always the one leftover on the shelf.
There was a group of us on the trip. Around 10 people. A mix of first timers to Iceland and seasoned guides. I’d personally seen the bright blue building-sized icebergs float around in the glacier lagoon many times before. But to witness them in the middle of the night as the low sun horizontally penetrates the ice lighting it up temporarily was something I’d yet to achieve. Because some of the group were tourists I wanted to show off some of the other famous sights along the way. We snuck behind the 200ft Seljalandsfoss waterfall, meandered along the endless Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, and peered down into the 300ft Fjaðrárgljúfur gorge. But it was the glacier lagoon that everyone really came to see. This area of Iceland is dominated by dozens of fast flowing glaciers and mighty volcanoes. However, since the climate has been changing over the past 100 years, the glaciers have retreated back (melted away) leaving behind massive lagoons where icebergs calve off the now distant glacier edge. The most famous of these is the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
The glacier lagoon is different every time I go. Sometimes the lagoon is filled with massive blue icebergs clinking against each other. Other times, there is barely a few chunks of ice that you can see. It all depends on the tide, the melting rate of the icebergs and how much has broken off the previous few days. Luckily, this was one of the better days I’ve experienced. The numerous icebergs were so close to the lagoon edge you could practically touch them. And the ice was still so clear and blue that it would be easy to see the sun glistening through the ice once it got low enough in the sky.
The first timers were mesmerised. And to be honest, I always am. We spent a lot of time just wandering and staring at the natural beauty in front of us.
As the clock worked its way towards midnight we walked along the shore of the lagoon skipping stones. The lagoon is around 5 miles long, so there was plenty of shore to examine. It was only as midnight approached that we realised the locals seals were curiously following us the entire time. They get scared away by sudden movements and waving so it’s important to share the scenery with them rather than try to interact.
As the sun moved across the sky it affected the ice in such a magical way.
Shortly after, we would be also joined by the swooping Arctic tern. A small white bird which happens to have the longest migratory pattern in the world. They come to Iceland every summer to lay eggs before making the long journey back towards Antarctica. You have to be careful where you step at this time of year or the protective mothers will swoop down in protest if you get too close to their nests. If you stick to the shore then they become companions rather than enemies.
The icebergs in the foreground moved back and forth with the tide. As the sun began to creep down towards the horizon we found a good perch to rest. With my stashed hot chocolate in one hand and my camera in the other I relaxed in a bit of daze. Hypnotic is a good word to describe the effect the scenery had on us at that moment.
The sun sets
Midnight had finally arrived and the light show we were treated to was well worth the wait. As the sun moved across the sky it affected the ice in such a magical way. The colours of the ice quickly jumped from blue to yellow to pink as the sky turned red. The low sun light bounced between the shards of ice and refracted in every direction. We had to shield our eyes at moments when the reflection of the sun angled straight into our eyes. Putting on sunglasses at midnight was a funny moment for all of us. The rhythmic movement of the icebergs meant that no two seconds were the same. I was personally overwhelmed to see the entire visible light spectrum shimmer in front of me in one fantastic motion. I had to take a deep breath just to compose myself. Before we knew it the show was over. The sun had dropped below the mountains in the distance. Normally that would be it. Darkness to follow. But not in Iceland! In fact, we wouldn’t see the stars for another 6 weeks at least.
The sun rises
Instead, the sun didn’t stay below the horizon for long. As the sun reappeared we settled down again and eagerly awaited part 2 of the evenings display. This second show was similar to the first, albeit at a different angle. But it was no less special. The fact that we had watched the sun set shortly before somehow made the sunrise even more special. The group excitedly compared the changes in light to the sun set we’d just experienced. I couldn’t help but remain silent, with a contented smile emblazoned across my face. We sat there together for hours, enjoying the company and the view in equal measures.
Very few of us slept that night. Not just because our tent was easily penetrated by the perpetual sunlight. There was something deeply energising about witnessing the midnight sun. It would seem tiredness takes a back seat to excitement and wonder under the midnight sun. This was one of the best experiences of my life. Heading home the next day felt strange. Most people in the group whiled away the hours by sifting through their uncountable pictures. I on the other hand barely used my camera knowing that no picture could ever do it justice.
In the years since, I can’t say I’ve managed to duplicate that experience. Part of me doesn’t want to. Another part of me wants to share it with the world. Hopefully one day, as my memory of that night fades, the conditions will be perfect and I’ll be in the right place at the right time again. For now I have the rest of Iceland to explore.
See you soon!
Ryan Connolly is Co-Founder of Hidden Iceland. Hidden Iceland specialises in private trips, taking you to some of the hidden gems of Iceland with a passionate and experienced guide.