The Illugastaðir Farm and Seal Watching, Vatnsnes Peninsula’s Well-Kept Secret

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Rare are the cases where incredibly remote places are known both for their natural beauty and historic significance anywhere in the world, let alone in a sparsely populated country such as Iceland. The Illugastaðir farm on the western side of Vatnsnes Peninsula is home to an ample seal colony that attracts the region's few visitors, while at the same time it's also renowned for being the former scene of one of Iceland's most famous murder cases.

The Farm and its Gruesome Past

Nestled on the western coast of the faraway Vatnsnes Peninsula, Illugastaðir Farm‘s secluded location is reachable via a somewhat challenging drive along a gravel road (Route no.711) that follows the peninsula’s coastline. It takes about 40 minutes by car from Iceland Ring Road (30 kilometers away) and roughly half an hour from Hvitserkur, about 22 kilometers along the same bumpy and pothole-ridden way.


For foreigners, the farm is practically synonymous with its nearby seal colony, however, this remote rural outpost has far more to tell than what first meets the eye. Following a decades-long career of quackery in Copenhagen, Natan Ketilsson, a Vatnsnes native, returned to his ancestral homeland where he founded the secluded farm of Illugastaðir. In 1828, three additional people lived in the homestead alongside Natan, including his shepherd, Pétur Jónsson, his housekeeper, Sigríður Guðmundsdóttir, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the latter of whom was his co-worker at the farm.


Despite Natan’s Notorious reputation as a philanderer, 32 years old Agnes has long hoped to become his wife and housemaid. Outraged by his rejection of her in favor of 16 years old Sigríður, Agnes and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a young guy from an adjacent farm who was secretly in love with Sigríður, plotted to murder Natan. Their heinous plan took place during one of the nights in March 1828, when the two brutally murdered Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson while both of whom were sleeping.


In spite of their concerted effort to stage a deadly fire as the cause of death by burning down the house, the two were found guilty and soon after sentenced to death.
The infamous couple was beheaded two years later at the nearby Vatnsdalur valley, in what has turned out to be Iceland’s last public execution. Over a century later, a woman with alleged spiritual forces claimed to be contacted by the late Agnes who asked her to salvage her head as well as the rest of the body and bury it in a proper graveyard. While the heads’ whereabout were never really disclosed before, the woman managed to find them, and subsequently, the bodies and the heads were reburied in Tjörn.


The unusual event inspired the famous “Burial Rites” novel, written in 2013 by Hannah Ken, who tells the story from the viewpoint of Agnes. The production of a film which is based on the bestseller’s plot was supposed to take place in the late 2010’s, but as for 2022, it hasn’t come into fruition yet.

The Trail along the Coastline

As the seal colony lies further ahead, visitors who wish to spot the maritime critters must first hike along a 650-meter-long trail that connects the farm with the colony’s main lookout. Wedged between a blooming meadow and a series of scenic coves, the trail unexpectedly serves as a worthy attraction by its own right. To make things even better, the verdant landscape is brimming with thousands of endemic seabirds, particularly during the nesting season.


Take note that insanely strong winds make this breathtaking walk extremely cold and challenging, so make sure you are adequately clothed from head to toe, including a much-needed beanie hat.

Illugastaðir Seal Beach

Since the dawn of Icelandic civilization, seals have been hunted for their precious meat, blubber and as recently as the 1960’s for their fur, which was turned into a luxury garment by the fashion industry. Nowadays, only a couple of hundreds of seals are being killed annually, mostly as a measure to mitigate their effect on the local fisheries, as both are competing for the same resources.


The growing number of tourists across the country has vastly shifted the national state of mind. Traditionally referred to as a nuisance in the best-case scenario, seals are now increasingly seen as an economic opportunity to draw visitors to an otherwise completely non-touristy region.


For the most part, the Illugastaðir beach doesn’t offer close encounter with those maritime animals, as all of which usually perch on skerries, a couple of hundred of meters off the shore. Nonetheless, if you bring your own pair of binoculars and telephoto lens, you’ll most likely catch a spectacular glimpse of dozens of seals basking in mid-ocean.
A small tin-hut at the main lookout offers a shelter from the hostile weather conditions outside, from where you can watch the two species of seal who frequent the area, the harbor seal and the much larger grey seal.

Illugastaðir - Iceland

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