Marc Riley on whale watching in Iceland
BBC6 Music DJ, musician and whale watching fanatic Marc Riley tells us about the rewards of travelling with Mark Carwardine and why whale watching in Iceland is a very special experience.
When did you first visit Iceland and where exactly did you go?
My first trip to Iceland was in 1981. I was a member of the band The Fall at the time and we were one of the very few bands to go over there. I know Led Zeppelin had been there in 1970. Their ‘Immigrant Song’ documents the visit…
“We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!”
Our visit was less dramatic. We did two gigs at the Hotel Borg in Reykjavik and recorded part of the Hex Enduction Hour LP there. It was a very different place then; next to no tourism and big bad fishermen wanting to fight us.
What was your first impression of the country? Can you remember the moment when you fell in love with Iceland?
That first visit is a bit of a blur… as is my second visit – a hellish 16-hour whale watching day-trip about 10 years ago. We spent most of the day on a coach…and the trip to sea was cold and fruitless. Nevertheless I was determined to go back and the opportunity came a few years later when Mark Carwardine asked me if I fancied a long weekend whale watching. Do I fancy a weekend whale watching with the man who has dome more than any other on the planet to bring an end to whaling and support cetacean conservation? OF COURSE I DO! It was on that trip – with Mark as my guide – that I fell in love with Iceland. We did all the things you’re supposed to do in Iceland. Blue Lagoon, Geyser, Thingvellir – the site of the first known Parliament where the Tectonic plates meet. And of course we went whale watching with great success. My perseverance paid off!
Where is your favourite place in Iceland? Or perhaps your favourite Icelandic experience?
It’s impossible to pick one particular place – the whole country and its terrain are like nowhere else on earth that I’ve been to. Reykjavik is a brilliant city. Husavik is amazing. And so is everything that I’ve seen between! I’ve made some good friends in Iceland; a couple of years ago I made the trip from Reykjavik up to Husavik with Icelandic pals Gaukur and Magi, and my old mate Jimi Goodwin (of the band Doves and currently on a solo jaunt). It was a brilliant 8 hour trek that gave us the opportunity to see so much of the country. Incredible. The waterfalls, lava fields, glaciers… truly incredible.
If it weren’t for the continuing (but thankfully increasingly reviled) whaling industry I think Iceland would be my favourite country on the planet. My favourite Icelandic experience was in all honesty in the company of Discover the World and the Orca last February.
You travelled on our Orcas and Auroras escorted holiday last year with Mark Carwardine – were you most interested in the orcas, the aurora, or travelling with an expert like Mark? Or was it a dream combination?
Well as I say – I’m lucky enough to count Mark as a friend. So for me travelling with Mark wasn’t a new experience. Nevertheless to go anywhere with him – either as part of a group or just as two mates on an adventure – is a real privilege.
I admire Mark so much. He is a remarkable man… I don’t know where he gets his energy from, and his passion for conservation and trying to right wrongs is heroic. The first trip I did with Mark was swimming with orca in a Norwegian fjord, probably 11 years ago now. I doubt I’ll ever do anything so exciting again in my life. I still can’t believe I did it… it was an almost surreal experience. I remember every minute of it like it was yesterday.
Obviously, I have seen orca before, but my wife hadn’t. And neither of us have seen the Northern Lights – so your long weekend package was a great opportunity to perhaps see both. As it turns out the lights didn’t show…but the orca did – in numbers! It was such a memorable weekend.
We saw killer whales on all of our four trips to sea, and I think we were lucky in that respect. As we know, you can’t make an appointment with a wild sea creature. Orcas are probably my favourite of all the cetaceans. They have the intelligence of their dolphin relatives, the stealth of the shark…and the enormity of whales. Awe inspiring creatures. And the terrain in the Icelandic fjord was breathtaking.
Do you often take group trips and, if so, how did this compare?
I have only been on three group trips, all with Mark. I half expect a restraining order to be placed anytime soon. Norway, my most recent trip to Iceland with your good selves (to Grundarfjorour) and a life affirming 2 week trip down the Californian coast to Baja and the Sea Of Cortez. The whale presence was unbelievable. Mark would start the day with “Today we expect to see humpback whales…”… and so it came to pass… “Today we expect to see Blue whales”…and so it came to pass…etc…etc.
You’re known for being a DJ and musician – do you get into the cultural/musical side of the places you travel to?
My Icelandic mate Gaukur is involved with many Icelandic musicians so he introduces me to a lot of Icelandic music. Through him and my 6 Music programme I’ve come to know a fair few Icelandic acts. Benni Hemm Hemm, Olof Arnalds, Skuli Sverrisson… and of course I know Sigur Ros and The Sugarcubes.
Who is your ideal travelling companion?
Well (Mark aside…obviously) I go on the majority of my trips with my wife Trace. She’s not quite as obsessed with whale watching as I am… but she has been to sea with me in often treacherous conditions and is always thrilled to keep going back for more. We’ve been whale watching all over the world together. Lots of brilliant memories. What’s more she supports Manchester City FC too… so all in all she’s just about the perfect wife.