On November 14, 1963, a new island emerged from the waters.
The crew of the Icelandic fishing trawler Ísleifur II saw the huge column of smoke and ash from miles away. Believing it to be another vessel, perhaps on fire and sinking, they set out to render aid and rescue the survivors if they could. When they arrived, they found the ocean churning in a series of vast explosions as lava poured from a new vent at the bottom of the sea and flashed the frigid North Atlantic waters into steam. Aware of the danger of being so close to an erupting volcano, the crew nonetheless elected to stay and to watch the new island’s birth.
Icelanders dubbed the new island Surtsey in honor of Surtr, one of the fire giants in Norse mythology. According to legend, Surtr will do battle at Ragnarök with the gods of Asgard at the end of time, and bring forth the flames that will consume the Earth. Quite an imposing name for a baby island!
Over the next several years, Surtsey fought against the waves and the tides, the forces of erosion that sought to drive it back into the sea. Several smaller islands formed in the same eruption eventually gave way to the power of the ocean. But Surtsey held on and grew, and survived.
In May 1965, National Geographic magazine published a story about the new island, with lots of photos of its explosive birth. On a rainy day a few years later, my father took me to a used bookshop run by the Salvation Army not far from our home. I paid a dime for the magazine with the story about Surtsey. It’s undoubtedly not the first thing I ever read, but it’s the first thing I can recall reading. It made quite an impression. I curled up in the back seat of the family car as the water poured down outside, and imagined being on the deck of a little boat as the ocean opened up and the fire giant rose from the sea.
I decided then that I wanted to go to Iceland, to meet the giants and the people who make their home among them. It took a while to get there.
Luckily, I had some help from an old friend.