May Expedition 2023 – from Rena’s Eyes
I’ve fallen in love with Iceland two times in my life. The first one, when I stepped on this land of ice and fire in 2015. The second, in 2023 when I sailed its waters onboard the schooner Opal with Ocean Missions.
I never thought this expedition would change my life forever… and how it did it!
My thirst for adventure, to do something different in life, to create, to change and explore, made my entire being full of emotion.
We were going to sail around Iceland, crossing the Westfjords through a rough ocean in a reduced space where we would live together, get to know each other, rest and improve ourselves, with 13 other unknown people who were going to become my family and my friends… but surprisingly, fear didn’t exist in me. For once in my life, I was going to flow, let myself be guided, and let go of the control.
We left Reykjavík harbour at midnight and I think in that moment we had no idea that the ocean was going to be quite a challenge, and although we had met only a few hours ago, we already knew that our life was going to change and that Opal was going to be our home for 6 days until we reached Húsavík.
We were also not aware that we were going to get dizzy, that we would be soaked all the time by the rain and waves, that it was going to be a tough adventure… but this had only just begun and surprisingly, millions of rainbows were going to be waiting for us, many smiles and laughs, brushstrokes and colors, landscapes that would leave us speechless and (too) magical encounters with whales.
Crossing from Reykjavík to Snæfellsnes was a personal trial for all of us. At that point, there was no turning back and no regrets were worth it. Just as Belén told us, we had to be strong and Opal needed all of us. You are not aware of what you are capable of until you face it. The waves didn’t stop hitting us, the non-stop rain made us soaked and frozen… Even in those moments of weakness, the sea and life are capable of surprising you.
And suddenly, the orcas appeared. The first ones for many of us. I believe that these incredible beings were able to give us all the strength and energy that we needed at that moment. Perhaps we should also move as agile as they do and become hunters instead of prey.
In the end, you realize that there is always a harbour to go, that reward comes and the sun always shines and, with some luck, even a rainbow. And that was what happened when we arrived at the first stop of our adventure: Ólafsvík. Without doubt, it was a sign that this journey was going to be very special.
Our first beach cleaning came up. It was our way to help and say thanks to nature for having helped us in this beginning of our adventure. The sea does not swallow everything, nor will it ever do so. Our first little adventure as a team begun, focusing our sights on what should not be there. But as they say in Iceland, the weather can change in 5 minutes and you’ve to be ready for that! A strong and cold wind began to hit our bodies and the best plan was, without doubt, a bath in thermal water.
Curiously, in Iceland you can find a swimming pool and its corresponding thermal baths in every town! So our first group swim was one to remember. The atmosphere was cold, quite cold, perfect for that moment when, covered in hot water, our bodies and hearts began to warm up.
That night we all slept and rested as if we hadn’t done so in a long time. The small cabins with small beds hug us in an indescribable way. Sometimes you don’t need much to be happy… and to rediscover yourself.
Living in such a small space, cooking in shifts, helping, resting, collaborating; all this in the middle of the sea can be quite a challenge. But today we still wonder about that magic and connection that was between us, and that still exists.
On the Opal was peace, tranquility, respect and a strange harmony that made us all be present, without criticizing, without judging, without giving explanations, without being more or less… Each one had their place, their way to be… Each of us allowed others to BE.
The sun accompanied us in a magical way on our departure from Ólafsvík. As we moved away from the harbour, the great magical mountain of Iceland appeared, Kirkjufell, the one that inspired Jules Verne and travelers like us who are looking for a different place on Earth.
The sea did not give us much time to relax and our bodies had to get used to so much movement, but that wonderful sun gave us an opportunity to connect with the sea, with ourselves and with each of the members of the expedition. We were getting to know each other as the Opal was crossing the sea and, although the feeling of dizziness was more than evident, the feeling of fulfillment and happiness was above all. What else could we need? And it is in those moments when you let yourself go, that life can surprise you… or in that case, the ocean: Sperm whales. Also the first ones for many of us. The mythical whale, the largest toothed being on earth. A fascinating animal that fights against giant squids at more than 1000 meters deep, with the largest teeth and a head that occupies more than 1/3 of its body; it sleeps in vertical position and makes a characteristic clicking noise which we were able to listen to thanks to the Ocean Missions hydrophone.
We were close to one of the most incredible and complicated places of the journey, Látrabjarg, the cliffs where many years ago I faced the wind opening my arms towards the sea, feeling completely free. The adrenaline was flowing through our veins in an incredible way and the Opal was also moving in an incredible way… we were feeling more alive than ever!
As soon as we started sailing the calm waters of Arnarfjörður, my watercolor workshop also began. For me, painting whales goes beyond art. Is almost a way of meditating, it is my way of connecting with the beauty of these beings. The act of creating always becomes something magical and my mission onboard the expedition was to share it with all of them; show my passion for whales, watercolors, nature, creation and especially, for beauty. The more you know something, the more you love it and therefore, the more you respect it.
And since magical things always happen in relation to whales, as soon as we started the workshop, the bell rang… something was happening. In that endless sunset full of magic, in that quiet fjord, my muses had come just at the right time: Humpback whales. Nature’s gifts are too amazing! They were moving calmly around us and listening to their breath in complete silence, filled our souls in a unique way.
The workshop continued until late night between crazy laughs, colors, painting and a good vibe that made no one want to go to sleep!
We woke up in the small town of Bíldudalur under a gray sky and continued our expedition sailing the calm waters of the fjords. It was the perfect time to analyze the waters with the manta troll. Lots of aquaculture farms can be found in the zone and the effects on its waters are more than surprising and harmful.
Studying the waters that we were sailing was a unique opportunity to be more aware of everything that happens in that very unknown environment, of everything that we ignore and we can’t see but that is catastrophic for all the beings that inhabit the sea and, of course, for us too.
After collecting some samples, we analyzed them and were able to verify the great impact of microplastics in the sea. Even with the naked eye, without using the microscope, we could see those small plastic pieces with strange colors and shapes that do not belong to the sea.
The beauty of the landscape embraced us as if we were pirates sailing through a place full of legends and stories. We arrived at one of those epic novel beaches where your eyes and mind get lost, where you felt watched by trolls and the icelandic “huldufolk” but… who would have imaged that this beach would be, surprisingly, full of garbage? Fishing nets of all sizes, large and small colored plastics, buoys, pieces of foam boxes… We never imagined that this place, in addition to magic, would house such an array of plastics and non-natural elements.
With the Opal full of emotions and garbage, we headed to Suðureyri where we rested with a smile in our hearts.
A completely gray day dawned in Suðureyri harbour. The landscape and the fjords seemed to have disappeared but laughs and smiles still invaded us. We had the opportunity to do an improvised sailor’s know workshop with Heimir and… what a small challenge for us and our hands!
The cold, the rain, the fog and the heat in our hearts continued… and also the rainbows all the way to Hornvík.
We collected more samples with the manta troll and observed the incredible, and natural, gifts that the sea offered us on that special day: krill, lots of krill, jellyfish, fish eggs, copepods… What an amazing treasure! But at that moment, magic invaded us again when we arrived at the most epic place of all, a place straight out of a fantasy novel where it seems that an ancient construction made by giant trolls had been forgotten and in ruins… A place out of another world in which we could do nothing but dream and marvel, without knowing very well where to look: to that spectacular place or to the perfect rainbow that appeared at the end of the fjord. What was happening? So much beauty was going out of control although the most incredible thing, the true adventure of our lives and what took us all on our limit between fear and courage, was yet to come.
Wanting to avoid the big storm that was coming, captains Heimir and Husky decided to continue sailing until they could find another quiet fjord to spend the night. The wind was becoming more and more powerful and was something in the air… something big was going to come. That tranquility that invaded us was about to become a challenge; an endless fight of 13 straight hours of sailing, a fight between man and the sea, between the bravest and strongest crew we could have and our trust in them, in nature and in the Opal.
It was a wild night, the wildest of my life. Between dizziness, an infinite swing of giant waves, without knowing what was happening on deck and the madness turned into a rough ocean that was surprising us every second. Only footsteps, screams, the creaking of the Opal’s wood, the kitchenware, and the infinite noise of the waves were heard from our cabins. The entire schooner was rocking vertically, horizontally, all directions… in an extreme way.
The curious thing about all of this is that I wasn’t afraid. I thought that if something serious happened, I was going to leave this world completely happy, completely fulfilled with happiness but not with fear. It’s funny how, sometimes, you have to let yourself go, how sometimes the easiest thing is to close your eyes, let yourself be carried away by the movement of the waves, accompany the movement with your body and… trust.
And finally, the calm arrived and with it, the greatest learning in my life came true. There is no storm that lasts forever and it’s true that the sun always ends up rising and the calm arrives. That feeling of complete satisfaction mixed with fatigue and adrenaline at the same time… arrived.
Exhausted and still with body and mind in that wild sea, we arrived at Sauðárkrókur. Some of us had so much energy that resting was not on our plans, so stepping on solid ground and exploring that curious town was the best idea. Vikings, cakes, virtual reality and a beach cleaning. A simply perfect afternoon. And an even more perfect night with a well-deserved rest. We slept as if we hadn’t done it in days!
Waking up in Sauðárkrókur was something very special for everyone. Actually, the whole day was. Not only because of the sun that finally seemed to warm our skin but because of the calm that was in the air. The silence, the inner reflection of the adventure we had just experienced… That day, my mind and my heart had too many things to say, too many feelings… I couldn’t stop writing! In a way, I had finally re-discovered myself, I had broken that limit of “I can’t” and I was reaffirming that the adventure was that: to live in the present, living every moment, good or bad, with an open mind and heart.
That calm mixed with that perfect day was something truly magical but it was even more magical to visit Drangey Island. Only us and the birds. That wild place, as if coming out from nowhere, made us all feel like pirates arriving to a distant and hidden place, a newly discovered island full of inhabitants who dominated our presence and made us feel like the smallest ones in that place.
But like everything in life, the best was yet to come. How life and nature can surprise you! Not only had we been rewarded with a completely perfect day but on the horizon, we began to see blows of whales. Opal headed towards that direction and suddenly, endless blows began to invade us from everywhere. We were surrounded by whales, Humpback whales. It’s almost impossible to describe what we experienced. If that wasn’t magic, then I don’t know what it is!
I’ll never forget that place, those amazing beings, my muses, my beloved whales. We felt embraced and grateful for the sea presents and for life. Our faces spoke for themselves because we could barely open our mouths. Our hearts, expanded, were full of brightness, of calm and happiness from another world. It was in that moment that I realized that I would not change anything about that expedition. Every drop of water that touched my face, every dizziness, every gust of wind, every moment, every wave, every smile, silence, word… every second of the expedition changed my life. I had never felt so alive and it wasn’t just about the expedition, the adventure, Iceland, the sea… it was about each and every one person I had shared this experience with. Each of them gave me something essential in my life, taught me something and opened my eyes and my mind. Each one of them made me smile again with heart, made me trust again in myself and in life. Without being aware of it, I was having a new family with whom, from that moment on, I was going to share something as big as life.
After so much emotion and the most amazing encounter of our lives in nature, it was the perfect time to finish my watercolor workshop. The inspiration, the water, the paints, the brushstrokes flowed in a sublime way. You could feel it in the air… the muses, the whales, were there with us. It was the best whale illustration workshop I’ve ever done in my life.
But that day was not going to end there. Flatey Island and the hot pot with warm water on deck was waiting for us. We called it Silent Party. There was no need to even talk; that endless sunset with the snow-capped mountains in the background, the sound of the water moving under the Opal in front of Flatey little harbour, the birds, the moon, the slight cold that invaded us… nothing else was needed.
I could barely sleep because I was feeling so full and complete. I lay in bed and couldn’t stop smiling all night.
Flatey Island has something very special. Not only because it’s an island where birds like puffins or the arctic tern rule… it has something that you can breathe in the air, a special calm… We visited the island very early in the morning and it was something we will never forget. Either for the tranquility of the place or our own silence to not disturb the birds, it seemed like we were the ones flying. We barely stepped on the grass, we barely made any noise, we barely spoke… We all knew that our adventure was about to end. The sadness of arriving was fighting against the happiness for everything we had experienced.
I was beginning to feel like home, sailing through the waters near Húsavík, looking at the mountains that one day stole my heart, going back to Skjálfandi Bay… where it all began for me one day. That harbour where my heart always needs to come back, where I so often stand in silence, just looking at the mountains and the sea. But that place was different that day, and so were we. We were feeling invincible, expanded, special… lucky.
This time I came home, to Húsavík, my heart town, knowing that I had truly lived, knowing that I felt more alive, happier and more complete than ever. Knowing that from that moment on, everything was going to change for me and that, finally, I was going to start living as I had always wanted: free and wild, flowing, trusting in myself and the path, with a rainbow on the horizon and going forward as whales do.
Thanks Belen, Heimir, Charla, Husky, Nico, Rozely, Jeff, Ari, Claire, Thomas, Rob, Marco and Diederik for having changed my life forever. You all have been the best of this adventure.