I drove doggedly towards Bíldudalur. The town appeared to be closed for business, or even evacuated. Not one of its 175 residents was to be seen. Nothing was moving, except for a lone oystercatcher wandering up and down the road. The wind was blowing in from Arnarfjörður, the fjord that surrounds the town on three sides, its grey-brown sides bearing down on the place and threatening to shove it into the cold sea.
Another slice of dark humour: someone had highlighted all the cracks and imperfections in the road with white paint, in preparation for repair works. With the town completely devoid of tarmac on both sides, surely this was a joke? Even the oystercatcher appeared bemused.
The reason for being in Bíldudalur was the Sea Monster Museum. This intriguing little exhibition concentrates on the sea monsters of Arnarfjörður and is based on locally garnered accounts and eyewitness testimonials of the strange, possibly mythical creatures that reside in the fjord. The museum could have been completely crass and the object of ridicule, but it has been created with so much enthusiasm that it more than pulls it off; it does a wonderful job of presenting information in an interesting and intriguing manner, even for a sceptic like me.
The exhibition started with tales of sea monsters found all over the globe. There was an unintentionally funny moment in one video when, over footage of the strange and decomposing form of a supposed sea monster being landed on a trawler, the commentator straightfacedly stated, ‘The captain ordered it to be thrown overboard due to the stench.’
The main room of the museum concentrated on Icelandic sea monsters, of course. As you will already be aware, the top four sea monsters in Iceland are as follows: The hafmaður, or seaman (insert your own joke here). The faxaskrímsli, which is pretty much an ugly, oversized sea horse formerly known as the ‘red comb’; it is covered in mussels (and presumably muscles) and I was told at the museum poses a ‘real threat’ – I doubt that somehow. Then there’s the fjörulalli, or shore laddie, a Scottish-sounding wee beastie which looks like a sheep that’s fallen in the drink; either that or a fat, woolly seal. Although fjörulalli are vegetarian, they allegedly and somewhat bizarrely have a perverted penchant for pregnant ladies. Finally there is skeljaskrímsli – the shell monster; dinosaur-like in form but hippopotamus-sized, this chap is not that different to the stereotypical view of the Loch Ness monster, if you ask me.
These four were the stars of the show and featured in several of the exhibits; there were also descriptions of them by people who had allegedly seen them. There was something about these real, decent people’s accounts of sightings that made me think there might just be something in it. Hearing a no-nonsense farmer from the harsh environment of the West Fjords recount what he had seen – a shore laddie, whatever – had a much greater impact on me than it would have if I’d got the story from an actor or a madman.
One such story was that of Guðlaugur Egilsson, a sheep farmer who lived on the edge of Arnarfjörður at Litlu-Eyri. One day, Guðlaugur saw a shore laddie. It had a thick cloak of seaweed and shells and short stubby legs. It rattled as it lumbered along. Guðlaugur says it had the eyes and mouth of a sheep, but a tail that was a metre long. The shore laddie had the audacity to try and push our hero into the sea, but in the blink of an eye, Guðlaugur jumped over the diminutive beast and ran for home. The shore laddie was thought to have made its way back to the sea. It’s not confirmed, but I bet Guðlaugur went for a stiff drink and a lie down.
A less fruitful story was that of Valdimar Ottósson, who rigged up a system to try and capture a sea monster on film at Krosseyri, a place noted for its sea monster activity; however, the first thing he captured was not a sea monster but a neighbouring farmer who had taken a shine to his equipment.
Other exhibits in the museum included a model of a deformed calf born in Otradalur in the 1930s. It had two heads and four legs, and I quote: ‘a sea monster is believed to have had its way with the calf’s mother’. I had to stifle a chuckle at the language used there. There was also a model of a ‘little seahorse’ found at Arnarfjörður in 1827. This ‘baby sea monster’ had flippers at the front but appeared equine at the rear, complete with hooves. I have to say that I though it rather cute, and saw no reason why it had been placed behind toughened safety glass, unless to stop visitors taking him home.
On the way out, I asked the delightful lady at the counter if she believed in sea monsters. She replied, ‘I wouldn’t say that I didn’t believe in them.’ That might be a double negative, but I knew what she meant – given the number of sightings and accounts, it was hard to dismiss their existence entirely. I wouldn’t mind the baby one being around anyway. It was properly cute.
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