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A Complete Guide to Whales in Iceland

Everything You Need to Know Before Going on a Whale Watching Tour in Iceland

April 5, 2019
author Viktória Komjáti

By Viktória Komjáti

Viktoria is a restless adventurer with personal experience in all of the outdoor activities that Iceland has to offer. She loves to inspire others to get to know Iceland and to make a deep connection with the country during their travels.


Whales are among the most enigmatic and fascinating creatures on our planet. The waters of Iceland are apparently some of their favorite areas to live in. You have a unique 95–99% chance of spotting them on a whale watching tour in Iceland during the summer. This article will tell you everything that you need to know about the whales of Iceland.


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An Unforgettable Encounter with the Gentle Giants

As we head towards the open ocean, thoughts of the city slowly dwindle away as we leave Reykjavík behind. Curious seagulls and other birds start to follow us, harvesting nourishment from the waves stirred up by our boat. A group of dolphins – or rather, harbor porpoises – pops up in front of us, swimming at the same speed as the wind.

Suddenly, the engine stops. It’s peaceful and calm. For a moment, everyone on the boat listens intently and waits for the guide’s instructions thinking, “In which direction should we be looking?” But, before the guide can say anything, we hear a deep, slow sigh from somewhere very nearby. The whale is just three yards (three meters) away from the boat!

Everyone listens in silence. All eyes are glued on this majestic animal: a giant humpback whale that is now drifting slowly towards the boat, close to the surface of the water, gently tilted to one side. Suddenly, its huge, white belly comes looming out of the water.

Encounter with a whale on a whale watching tour

Encounter with a whale on a whale watching tour

We hang onto the railings, enjoying this special encounter and basking in the pure joy of the moment. Nothing else exists in the world. It’s only the whale and us, floating outside of space and time. Cameras click wildly as the group chatters excitedly.

To top off this excitement, in literally the next minute, another whale approaches the boat gently, as if it were curious about what was going on. I feel as if they would speak to us if they could!

Suddenly, water bursts from the whale’s giant blowhole. As it rises in the air, the wind blows the spray right into our faces. The breathing sounds deep and so alive, as though it were coming from an enormous human instead of a whale.

Now the fluke rises gracefully into the air. Humpback whales have wavy, trailing tails that are unique to each individual. The whale descends gently to go back down again. The second animal follows soon after and the gentle giants disappear together as they begin their long dive.

Whale watching in Iceland is great. It’s a really special experience to head out and see the whales in their natural habitat and with their natural behavior. We are so lucky to have the chance to observe them as they are in the wild.

About Whales in General

All whales, dolphins, and porpoises belong to a group which scientists call cetacea. Despite sharing many common traits, whales are not fish. They are mammals.

There are more than 80 species in the category cetacea, which is itself divided into two suborders. The first of these suborders are the baleen whales, which have baleen in their mouths and two blowholes. This group includes blue whales and humpback whales, among others. The second group is made up of the toothed whales, which includes dolphins, porpoises, orcas, and sperm whales, who have teeth and only one blowhole.

Whales often rise their fluke - the tail - in the air before descending back down

Whales often rise their fluke - the tail - in the air before descending back down

Toothed whales use their teeth to capture food, feeding on fish and squid. Baleen whales don’t have teeth but, instead, have rows of plates inside their mouths to which the baleen hair is attached. These hairs filter plankton, krill, and small fish out of the water for the whale to eat.

Whales are warm-blooded animals, they breathe air through their lungs, and they give birth to live young which they then nurse. Most female whales mature at between 5–7 years of age and will generally produce a new calf every 2–3 years. In many species, the calves are then nursed for over a year. During this period, the whales usually remain in warmer waters.

Why Is Iceland One of the Best Places in the World to See Whales?

Most whale species are migratory. Each year, they travel halfway across the globe to move between their breeding and feeding areas. Their diet consists mostly of zooplankton, krill, and small fish which need cold water to survive, so they prosper in polar regions such as Iceland.

These cold waters, however, are not a suitable environment for newborn calves. Their protective blubber layer is not fully developed when they are born, so they would probably freeze to death. This is the reason that most whale species migrate to the equator to breed and to give birth in the much warmer waters.

Whale watching tour from Reykjavík

Whale watching tour from Reykjavík

During their breeding months, however, these giant mammals actually fast and live off of their fat reserves. They are literally starving when they finally return to their feeding grounds, accompanied by the calves which are now mature enough to survive in the cold water.

Whales tend to love the water around Iceland. Their unique characteristics make these feeding grounds especially rich and easy to survive in. The mixing of warm and cold currents; the fissures which allow heat to filter up from deep in the ocean floor; the long summer daylight period in which zooplankton and krill flourish; and the relatively shallow oceans and fjords attract whales of many kinds.

Why Do Some Whales Remain Near Iceland in Winter?

As female whales will not mature until they are 5–7 years of age, only give birth every 2–3 years, and nurse for over a year. All of this means that there’s no need for the whales to migrate thousands of miles every year.

This applies specifically to humpback whales, for instance. Aside from them, the main species that can be spotted on a winter whale watching tour in Iceland are the toothed whales such as white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises, and orcas. They feed on herring and capelin, which are more abundant around Iceland in winter.

Some species don’t have a particular breeding season like, for example, the orcas. They seem to travel according to the availability of food, so they are more abundant in cooler waters all year round.

Whale watching tour from Húsavík, north Iceland

Whale watching tour from Húsavík, north Iceland

What Whale Species Can Be Found in Icelandic Waters?

Twenty-three different cetacean species frequent the waters around Iceland, eight of which are regularly seen on whale watching tours. You are most likely to see:

  • Humpback whales
  • Blue whales
  • Fin whales
  • Minke whales
  • Sperm whales
  • Orcas (killer whales)
  • White-beaked dolphins
  • Harbor porpoises

The Most Commonly-Seen Whales in Iceland

The Humpback Whale

Humpback whale breaching

Humpback whale breaching

Length: 13-17 m (42-55.7 ft); Weight: 25-40 tons (27-44 US tons); Worldwide population: 80.000 individuals; Population in the North Atlantic Ocean: 10-15.000 individuals; Status: least concern; Blow: 3 m (10 ft); Diet: krill & small fish; Typical lifespan: 50 yrs; Icelandic name: Hnúfubakur. They can stay underwater for around 5-15 minutes.

Humpback whales are the most frequently seen on whale watching tours in Iceland and, thankfully, they are also the liveliest. Most species of cetacean have developed various surface behaviors which they use to communicate. The humpbacks don’t seem to be shy at all. They love to show themselves and to put on a show, even when they know they’re being observed.

They roll over, leap out of the sea, slap and splash with their fins and flukes on the surface, and they sometimes even stick their heads up out of the water. They often show curiosity towards the boats, approaching them and staying around for a while. It’s not uncommon to see them in small groups of 2–5 individuals. Humpback whales seem to protect other animals from orca attacks.

When and Where to See Humpback Whales in Iceland

This energetic and tourist-friendly behavior brings pure joy to everyone. There’s a pretty good chance that you will see a humpback whale on any whale watching tour in Iceland, especially in North and West Iceland.

The Blue Whale

Blue Whale

Blue Whale

Length: 20-30 m (65.6-98.4 ft); Weight: 110-190 tons (121-209 US tons); Worldwide population: 10,000-25,000. Population in the North Atlantic Ocean: 1000 individuals; Status: endangered, Blow: 6-12 m (20-40 ft); Diet: krill & plankton, Typical lifespan: 70-90 yrs; Icelandic name: Steypireyður. They can stay underwater for about 10-30 minutes.

The blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have lived on Earth. The longest blue whale on record measured over 108 ft. (33 m) while the heaviest was about 200 tons. To serve as a comparison, the largest of the dinosaurs is thought to have weighed around half as much.

These impressive animals were abundant in many oceans before they were hunted almost to extinction. The excessive whaling of the 20th century has caused a drastic reduction of almost 99% of the original whale population. They have finally received some protection from the international community and now the whale populations are slowly growing. These creatures are either solitary or live in small groups. They occasionally travel together with fin whales.

When and Where to See Blue Whales in Iceland

Blue whales are most commonly seen on summer whale watching tours in North Iceland and, occasionally, in West and South Iceland in autumn.

The Fin Whale

Fin whale. Photo: Aqqa Rosing-Asvid - Visit Greenland

Fin whale. Photo: Aqqa Rosing-Asvid - Visit Greenland

Length: 20-25 m (65-82 ft); Weight: 50-80 tons (55-88 US tons); Worldwide population: 100.000-120.000 individuals; Population in the North Atlantic Ocean: 5.000-10.000 individuals; Status: endangered; Blow: 6-9 m (20-30 ft); Diet: krill, plankton & fish; Typical lifespan: 90-100 yrs; Icelandic: Langreyður. They can stay underwater for about 5-20 minutes.

The fin whale is the second-largest animal on Earth, after the blue whale. They are also the fastest swimmers of the larger species of whales, with speeds of up to 28 mph (45 km/h) They often live in groups of 6–10 and sometimes travel with blue whales, with whom they occasionally crossbreed.

 

Fin whales are the species with the longest lifespan. Specimens have been found who were estimated to be 135–140 years of age.

When and Where to See Fin Whales in Iceland

Fin whale sightings are not very common during whale watching tours in Iceland. They can, though, occasionally be seen in North and South Iceland during the summer months and also in South Iceland in autumn.

The Minke Whale

Minke whale

Minke whale. Photo: Len2040 on Flickr

Length: 7-11 m (23-35 ft); Weight: 5-10 tons (5-11 U tons); Worldwide population: 500.000 (Antarctic Minke) Population in the North Atlantic Ocean: 130.000-150.000 individuals; Status: least Concern; Blow: almost none; Diet: krill, plankton & fish; Typical lifespan: 30-50 yrs; Icelandic name: Hrefna. They can stay underwater for about 3-15 minutes.

Minke whales are the most common type of whale spotted around Iceland. They are known for their curiosity and for coming quite close to the vessels.

Sometimes, they dive under the boats and then stick their heads up out of the sea. Scientists call this behavior spy-hopping. Unlike the humpbacks, however, minke whales don’t raise their flukes out of the water when diving and are less likely to leap.

When and Where to See Minke Whales in Iceland

They are most commonly seen in the summer months around North and West Iceland. They prefer shallow waters and coastal areas.

The Sperm Whale

Length: 12-20 m (40-65 ft); Weight: 30-50 tons (33-55 US tons); Worldwide population: not known; Population in the North Atlantic Ocean: not known; Status: vulnerable; Blow: forward projected; Diet: krill, plankton & fish; Typical lifespan: 60-70 yrs; Icelandic name: Búrhvalur. They can stay underwater for more than 2 hours.

The sperm whale is the largest toothed predator on earth. The world’s most famous whale, the whale in the Moby Dick novel was a sperm whale. These whales have the largest brains of any animal on earth, six times larger than a human brain.

The sperm whale is the largest toothed predator on Earth. The world’s most famous whale, from the novel Moby Dick, was a sperm whale. These whales have the largest brains of any animal on Earth, six times larger than the human brain. Due to their distinctive angled blowholes, sperm whales are one of the easiest whale species to identify at sea.

Possessing the loudest voice in the animal kingdom, which can reach up to 230 decibels, sperm whales can hear each other in the ocean from thousands of miles away. The clicking sounds that they produce are probably the most sophisticated form of communication on the planet. It could even be more sophisticated than human language.

One-third of a sperm whale’s length is comprised of its head, which contains a milky white substance. This was mistakenly identified as the whale’s semen, which is where the name sperm whale originated from.

The oil of the sperm whale was used in lamps, in lubricants, in cosmetics, and for medicinal purposes. It was, at one time, worth more than its weight in gold. Thankfully, this is no longer the case today.

When and Where to See Sperm Whales in Iceland

They are most commonly seen on whale watching tours in West Iceland in late spring and early summer. On rare occasions, they have also been seen around North Iceland as well.

The Orca (Killer Whale)

Length: 6-9 m (20-29 ft); Weight: 3-9 tons (3.3-9.9 US tons); Worldwide population: not known; Population in the North Atlantic Ocean: not known; Status: Data Deficient; Blow: 1-3 m (3-10ft); Diet: fish, cetaceans, pinnipeds and squid; Typical lifespan: 35-60 yrs; Icelandic name: Háhyrningur. They usually don’t stay underwater for long or dive very deep.

Orcas are one of the most sociable of the whale species. They travel in family groups which stay together for a lifetime. They often develop their own unique dialects and very sophisticated hunting techniques.

Orcas are the ultimate ocean predators. They have been known to attack baleen whales occasionally, even adult individuals. It’s this behavior that has led to them to be commonly referred to as “killer whales”.

The world’s most famous killer whale, Willy, was actually an Icelander. His real name was Keiko and he was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979. After performing well at several marine parks, Keiko became a film star when he played Willy in the film Free Willy.

He was finally reintroduced into the wild in 1998, which, sadly, wasn’t completely successful. Keiko died a few years after being set free. He did, however, get to spend his final years swimming in the Icelandic seas.

When and Where to See Killer Whales in Iceland

Killer whales are commonly seen on whale watching tours in West Iceland in late spring and early summer, although they have also been seen on rare occasions around North Iceland as well.

Porpoises and Dolphins

The harbor porpoise is one of the smallest of the cetaceans. They are shy and tend to stay away from boats. However, they are abundant all around Iceland and sightings are quite common on summer whale watching tours.

White-beaked dolphins are much more playful and sociable than harbor porpoises. They travel in groups of 5–50 individuals and are often quite curious about motor boats.
They sometimes follow the whale watching boats, jumping and doing all sorts of tricks. They do tend to lose interest rather quickly, though.

When and Where to See Dolphins and Harbor Porpoises in Iceland

Dolphins are commonly seen on whale watching tours all year round. In late winter (February–March), they travel in large pods with their calves, so this is a really good time to see them.

Responsible Whale Watching in Iceland

The IceWhale Code of Conduct

The IceWhale Code of Conduct

With the rising popularity of whale watching tours, certain regulations have been put in place to minimize the impact of the whale watching vessels on the whales and their environment. Whale watching operations in Iceland are monitored from an animal welfare point of view.

A group of local whale watching tour operators, with the help of some international experts, created the IceWhale Code of Conduct in 2015, which was signed by all IceWhale members. The code ensures that the best possible practices are followed, providing a great experience for tourists who can rest assured that whale welfare has been properly taken care of.

Whale watching companies follow a protocol to minimize any disturbance to the whales. They turn off their engines when they get close to a whale and never approach them from the front.

Icelandic Whales: The Best Time to See Them and Success Rates

The best time for whale watching in Iceland is the summer – June, July, and August – when the wildlife is at its peak and when whale watching tours are often combined with sea angling and puffin watching.

The high season for whale watching tours is from April to mid-October. Keep in mind that whales are lurking in the deep throughout the year! The success rate for summer tours is over 95%. In the north, this is even higher at 98%. In the summer of 2018, we had 99.5% sighting success in Dalvík!

Herring and capelin are abundant in the waters around Iceland in the winter. Many species, such as dolphins and orcas, stay around Iceland throughout the year. Sightings of humpbacks and minke whales are certainly not uncommon, either. The success rates in winter are still quite high at around 90%.

What Are the Best Places to Go Whale Watching in Iceland?

  • Dalvík
  • Húsavík
  • Reykjavík
A happy whale leaping out of the water on our Whale watching tour in Dalvík

A happy whale leaping out of the water on our Whale watching tour in Dalvík

Whale Watching from Dalvík

Dalvík sits on the shores of a beautiful fjord called Eyjafjörður, where, apart from the whales, magnificent fjord scenery awaits you.

Dalvík is close to Akureyri in North Iceland. It is a small fishing village with a population of approximately 1400 inhabitants. The ferry to Iceland’s northernmost island, Grímsey, departs from here. Tiny Grímsey is still an inhabited island and is quite famous because the Arctic Circle crosses it.

There are two options for going whale watching in Dalvík: in an old, traditional fishing boat from which you can also fish on the same tour, or in a fast, safe, rigid inflatable (RIB) whale watching boat.

Humpbacks, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales, and harbor porpoises are the most commonly spotted species in Dalvík, but sightings of the majestic blue whales are not rare, either. As in Húsavík, the success rate at Eyjafjörður is around 98%, while the RIB boat raises that to 99%.

Whale Watching from Húsavík

Húsavík is an adorable, tiny town in North Iceland with a population of slightly more than 2000 people. It is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland due to the large number and great variety of whales that can be found in Skjálfandi, its bay.

Humpback whales, blue whales, minke whales, harbor porpoises, and white-beaked dolphins are often seen here. Thanks to the deep waters in the bay, even sperm whales are often spotted.

Skjálfandi means “trembling” in Icelandic and refers to the high frequency of earthquakes in the area. A fissure stretches through the middle of the fjord and the bay, creating amazing feeding grounds that attract all kinds of whales. Whale watching tours from Húsavík operate with an extraordinary success rate, in some seasons exceeding 98%.

Whale Watching from Reykjavík

Whale watching tours are available in Reykjavík all year round. They depart on a daily basis from the Old Harbor, which is located within walking distance of the downtown area.

The whale watching boats sail from Reykjavík out towards the Faxaflói Bay where white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises, and minke whales are frequently seen year round, with a great number of humpback whales showing up in the summer.

In clear weather, you will be able to see some of the most beautiful mountains surrounding you in every direction. Snaefellsjökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers, along with some cone-shaped volcanoes on the Reykjanes Peninsula, can be spotted in the distance. Whale watching is even more fun from a small, fast RIB boat!

Whale Watching from Snæfellsnes peninsula and the Westfjords

Breiðafjörður, the bay north of Snæfellsnes, is especially rich in herring, which attracts the toothed whales that remain around Iceland in the winter. Orcas and sperm whales can be seen all around Iceland, but the chances of seeing them are the highest here.

Minke whales, humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and harbor porpoises are also often spotted here, especially in summer. Whale watching tours depart from the villages of Ólafsvík and Grundarfjordur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula as well as from the village of Holmavik in the Westfjords.

Killer whale

Killer whale

What are The best Whale Watching Tour Options?

There are plenty of options when it comes to whale watching in Iceland. Most tours depart from either Reykjavik or from places in the north: Húsavík, Dalvík, and Akureyri. In most cases, you will be able to choose between a larger boat with a refreshment bar; a smaller boat with no inside cabin; or an even smaller, but very fast RIB boat. The prices will vary depending on the type of boat.

The bigger boats are more comfortable and usually have heated indoor areas that offer shelter from bad weather. However, these boats are also slower and it takes longer for them to approach the whale watching areas. The smaller boats are faster and have the advantage of allowing you to get much closer to the surface of the water.

Whale watching and sea angling in Dalvík

Whale watching and sea angling in Dalvík

The best value for your money is probably a combined tour. In summer, it’s often possible to combine a whale watching tour with a puffin-watching or a sea angling and seafood barbecue tour. Puffin sightings are 100% guaranteed in summer as are the fish catches. There are tour packages which organize other activities after whale watching such as horseback riding, lava tube caving, rafting, snorkeling, beer, spa, or Golden Circle tours.

The Whales of Iceland Exhibit in Reykjavík

Whales of Iceland is an exhibition in the Grandi area of Reykjavík, close to the Old Harbor. It showcases 23 lifesize models of the whale species that can be found in Icelandic waters. This offers visitors the amazing opportunity to see the actual size of these gentle giants, up close and personal.

The Whales of Iceland Museum in Reykjavík

The Whales of Iceland Museum in Reykjavík

The models are soft, rubbery, and squishy – just like the real ones! To the delight of children, they can be touched. Visiting the museum is an amazing educational adventure for people of all ages and the virtual reality glasses are especially popular. It is recommended that you visit the museum prior to your whale watching tour. The more you know about these incredible animals, the more you will enjoy your encounter with them!

Going on a Whale Watching Tour in Iceland: How to Dress and What to Pack

  • Check the tour description; warm overalls are often provided on the tour.
  • Dress in layers: fine wool; long-sleeved underwear; thermal insulation; a wind- and waterproof shell.
  • Pack a hat and gloves, even in summer.
  • Wear comfortable, waterproof boots.
  • Pack sunglasses, even in winter and even if it’s not sunny.
  • Optional: Camera, binoculars (provided on tours that are combined with puffin watching).

Whales in Icelandic Culture and Sagas

Islandia map by Abraham Ortelius ca 1590

Islandia map by Abraham Ortelius ca 1590

Whales have played an important role in Icelandic society as well as in the country’s cultural history. They are even mentioned in some of the oldest literary sources. In olden times, when the fishing boats were quite small and vulnerable, the sudden appearance of a giant sea mammal could have been a life-threatening event for the fishermen. The whales who surprised them were, therefore, naturally demonized in folk stories. However, those whales which were calm and easy to catch were said to have been endowed with a good spirit.

The Icelander's strong relationship with whales is reflected in their language. The word “hvalreki” (beached whale) comes from the words “hvalur” (whale) and “reki” (something washed up on shore). Formerly, the same word also referred to something unexpectedly good, which was also a surprise. A beached whale was supposedly a wonderful gift for the locals.

There are around 17 sagas that portray whales and the interactions between humans and these giant sea mammals. Some of these stories are truly detailed and fascinating, filled with whale wizards, magnificent spirits, and good and evil whales.

Whale Hunting in Iceland

Whaling in Iceland has a long history which goes back 10 centuries. Today, the country remains one of the few nations on Earth which still hunts whales.

For a long time, whaling was key to the survival of the small communities who had to survive in harsh conditions. However, according to Ragnar Edvardsson, an archeologist, there’s a lot of evidence which suggests the Icelanders did not participate in commercial whaling before the Icelandic Whaling Company was established in 1897.

Whaling vessels from the United States and some European nations began hunting for whales in Icelandic waters in the 19th century, a practice which continued until 1935.

Arctic whaling in the eighteenth century

Arctic whaling in the eighteenth century. Source: Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Robert Hale Ltd.

The Whaling Quotas

In the 1980s, when the International Whaling Commission agreed to stop all commercial whaling, the whale quotas were effectively set to zero. Even though Iceland, unlike some other countries, did not raise a formal objection to the decision, they continued to hunt whales. As things stand, Iceland is still permitted to hunt minke and fin whales, but with strict quotas and under certain rules.

According to studies, 80% of Icelanders never buy whale meat because it’s not been a part of their daily diet for many decades. A poll conducted by Capacent Gallup showed that only 3.2% of the population eats whale meat on a regular basis (six times a year or more) while only 1.7% eats whale meat at least once a month.

Whaling ships in Reykjavík

Whaling ships in Reykjavík. Photo: Dirk Heldmaier on Wikimedia

For some time, most of the whale meat harvested from Icelandic waters was sold to Japan. That market has since collapsed and no whale meat was exported from Iceland in 2017. According to the CEOs of Iceland’s two whaling companies, exporting whale meat does not really pay off.

Iceland’s minke whale quota in recent years has been set at 224 minke whales per year, though nowhere near that number has been caught in recent years. In 2017, 17 minke whales were caught, 46 in 2016, and only 29 in 2015. Iceland’s new minke whale quota has been greatly reduced – just 217 minke whales may be caught during the eight-year period from 2018 to 2025.

Lately, the Icelandic whale watching industry has grown rapidly and many former whaling vessels have been converted into whale watching boats. In recent years, whaling has also become increasingly unpopular among the Icelandic people.

The lack of any real market for whale meat has prompted Iceland’s whalers to skip the hunt in the season of 2019. For the first time since 2003, Iceland did not hunt any whales during the summer of 2019.

Everything You Need to Know About the Whales of Iceland

 

 

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