Tourist Dies at Reynisfjara, Group Caught by Waves in the Same Spot the Next Day

Reynisfjara black sand beach

A tourist died on Friday after being swept out to sea by a wave at Reynisfjara beach, just outside Vík í Mýrdal in South Iceland. RÚV reports that the man, who was in his eighties, was in the ocean for about an hour before he could be rescued and was dead by the time the Coast Guard helicopter was able to reach him.

The victim was from Canada and part of a larger tour group with his wife, who was also caught by the same wave. The tour guide was able to grab the woman and drag her to safety, but her husband was not so lucky. Rescue teams from South Iceland and the Westman Islands were called to the scene, as well as the Coast Guard. Conditions at sea were quite dangerous, however, with very high winds that prevented the Coast Guard helicopter from reaching the man for an hour.

The Red Cross’ trauma team was called in to provide services for the woman and her travel companions.

Believed they could swim ashore

Only a day later, a group of foreign tourists, including a family from Germany, were swept up in a wave in the same spot where the Canadian couple was caught on Friday. No one was seriously injured, but apparently, the group believed they could swim back to land if they were caught by the waves.

The upsetting incident was witnessed by tour guide Hrafnhildur Faulk.

Hrafnhildur saw six people get swept off their feet. Five managed to pull themselves to safety quickly; the last man lingered. “I was waiting for him to get up and run,” recounted Hrafnhildur, but the man stayed in the surf, looking for his glasses in the sand.

“He seemed pretty unphased, considering,” she continued. “I think I would have been more alarmed.”

Hrafnhildur said that she frequently sees people putting themselves in harm’s way on the shore at Reynisfjara, even running into the waves with small children. “Naturally, you run over and intervene,” she said. “But unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do to stop it.”

An all-too common occurrence

There have been many drownings at Reynisfjara over the years when visitors, generally foreign tourists, are swept into the ocean by powerful “sneaker waves.” In May, a Spanish tourist nearly drowned after intentionally wading into the surf to have photos taken, but thankfully, he was able to pull himself to shore. Last November, a young Chinese woman was not so lucky. Between 2007 and 2019, three people drowned at the popular beach.

That year, the government began to conduct a risk assessment and closed part of the beach, although many visitors ignored the closure. Much of the beach remains open, although with prominent warnings and explanations of the very real danger posed by the sneaker waves are posted in several languages.

No Laws in Place for Pardoning Drowned Woman 300 Years Later

There is no law in place to pardon or reprieve Halldóra Jónsdóttir, who was drowned in Fljótsdalur valley close to 300 years ago. Halldóra was sentenced to death for incest after her father raped her and murdered their child. Kristín Amalía Atladóttir, who has fought for Halldóra’s pardon, believes that there is a need for a change in laws or that Iceland take up a new form of pardon.

The grim case of Halldóra
Halldóra Jónsdóttir is one of over 50 women who were drowned for incest or ‘dulsmál’. Dulsmál is the old Icelandic word for when childbirth was hidden and the child murdered. Halldóra, who was born in 1700 in Þórarinsstaðir in Seyðisfjörður, lost her mother at a young age and lived in isolation with her father and younger siblings. At the age of 24, a rumour started that a baby might have been born in Þórarinsstaðir farm. Local authorities headed to the farm and dub up the body of a child from the dirt floor. Halldóra’s father, Jón Eyjólfsson, admitted to raping his daughter and burying the child without Halldóra’s knowledge. Jón was beheaded at Þingvellir and had his head placed on a spike, as was the punishment according to the Stóridómur law book in place at the time. Halldóra was also sentenced to death. A more lenient punishment was considered, but ultimately she was sentenced to execution as she had not publicly denounced her father. Halldóra was drowned in Bessastaðaá river in Fljótsdal valley on August 17 1729, five years after authorities heard about the child she bore in 1724. Her case is believed to be one of the most damning cases of the injustice women faced at the time.

Kristín Amalía Atladóttir has raised attention to this case and has formally applied for her pardon with Icelandic authorities. According to Kristín, the President and Prime Minister were positive towards her request, but the matter pertains to the Ministry of Justice. The President has permission from the constitution to pardon or reprieve individuals but does so according to requests from the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice stated in a letter that it is impossible to pardon Halldóra according to the law as the punishment has already been performed. A reprieve might be more fitting in this case, but it has not yet been placed into law and is not consistent with the main rule of an independent prosecution in Iceland. Furthermore, it would be abnormal for a minister to be able to interfere with criminal cases.

Restored honour
The President of Iceland had permission to provide restored honour until 2017 when the Parliament voted to revoke the permission after a case of restored honour ultimately brought down the Icelandic Government. The government disbanded as the father of the Prime Minister at the time, Bjarni Benediktsson, was among the individuals who provided a letter of recommendation for convicted paedophile Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson to have his honour restored. This fact was hidden from other members of the Government and was later brought to light, ultimately bringing down the Government as members of the party Björt Framtíð voted to disband the majority. Restoring honour was an old Icelandic legal procedure which in effect allowed people who served their sentences to apply for jobs in certain professions and be a member of a company board. It did not affect individuals’ criminal record and is not a pardon.

Time for a change?
Kristín says the Ministry of Justice’s response does not come as a surprise. “I had received hints from the Prime Minister’s Office that this would be the result, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. It is simply so that the matter doesn’t fit into the laws currently in place,” she said.

She hasn’t yet decided whether she will push for law reform, or whether there’s a need for the creation of a so-called posthumous pardon. That law exists in other countries, such as the United Kingdom which granted Allan Turing a posthumous pardon in 2014. Turing had been sentenced for homosexuality in 1952. “I believe there’s a need for it. It’s a completely symbolic act but the symbolic dimension is really the basis of civilization. We need to have tools which can correct wrongdoings and other such actions for ourselves. So that we can say to ourselves: We are a civilized people. We learn from experience. We make up for our wrongdoings,” Kristín stated.

Read more about the history of executions in Iceland. The People’s History, an excerpt from an Iceland Review magazine article.