Whales are among the most enigmatic and fascinating creatures on our planet. Apparently, the Icelandic waters are some of their favorite areas to live. Uniquely in the world, you have a 95-99% chance of spotting them on a whale watching tour in Iceland in 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 dwindle slowly 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 - pop up in front of us, swimming at the speed of 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 - in which direction should we look? But before the guide could say anything, just after a second, we first hear a deep, slow sigh from somewhere very close. The whale is around three meters away from the boat!
Everyone listens silently. All eyes are glued to the majestic animal: a giant humpback whale that is now drifting slowly towards the boat, close to the surface of the water, gently tilting to one side. Suddenly its huge, white belly looms out of the water.
We are hanging onto the railings and enjoying the special encounter and basking in pure joy. Nothing else exists in the world, only the whale and us, floating in a place apart from space and time. Cameras are clicking wildly, and the group is chattering excitedly.
Topping this excitement, in literally the next minute, another whale approaches the boat gently, like it was curious about what is going on. I have the feeling that they would speak to us if they could!
Suddenly, a burst of water rises in the air from the giant blow-hole and the wind blows the spray right into our faces. The breath sounds deep and so alive, as though it was come from an enormous human and not a whale.
Now the fluke - the tail - rises gracefully high in the air. Humpback’s have unique, wavy trailing tails that are different with each individual. The whale descends gently back down again. The second animal follows soon after and the gentle giants disappear as they take a long dive.
Whale watching in Iceland is great. It’s a really special experience to head out to see the whales in their natural habitat and behavior, we are 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 group which the scientists call Cetacea. Despite sharing many common traits, whales are not ﬁsh but mammals.
There are more than 80 species in the category defined as Cetacea, which is then classiﬁed into two suborders: the baleen whales, who have baleen in their mouths and have two blowholes - blue and humpback whales for instance - and the toothed whales, which include the dolphins, porpoises, orcas and the sperm whales, who have teeth and a single blowhole.
The toothed whales use their teeth to capture their food. They feed on ﬁsh and squid. The baleen whales do not have teeth but rows of plates - baleen hair - inside their mouths that filters plankton, krill and small ﬁsh.
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 between 5 to 7 years of age and they will generally produce a new calf every 2 or 3 years. The calves are nursed for a long time, more than one year for many species. During this period they usually stay in warmer waters.
Why Iceland Is One of the Best Places in the World to See Whales
Most of the whale species are migratory species. Each year, they travel halfway across the globe moving 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 the polar regions, for instance, around Iceland.
However, these cold waters 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 why most whale species migrate to the equator to breed and give birth in far warmer waters.
During the months of breeding, however, these giant mammals actually fast and live off their fat reserves. They are literally starving when they finally return to their feeding grounds accompanied by their calves which are now mature enough to survive in cold waters.
Whales tend to love the Icelandic waters, some of 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 in which zooplankton and the krill flourish; and the relatively shallow oceans and fjords attract whales of many kinds.
Why Do Some Whales Stay Around Iceland in Winter?
The main species that can be spotted on a whale watching tour in Iceland in the winter are toothed whales such as white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises, and orcas. They feed on herring and capelin, which is more abundant around Iceland in winter.
Some species, for example, the orcas don’t have a defined breeding season. They seem to travel according to the availability of food, so there is a greater abundance of them in cooler waters all year round. Sightings of male humpbacks are not unusual either.
What Whale Species Can Be Found in Icelandic Waters?
23 different cetacean species frequent the waters off Iceland, 8 of which are seen regularly 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 Common Whales Seen Around Iceland
The Humpback Whale
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 seen most frequently on whale watching tours in Iceland - thankfully, they are also the liveliest ones. Most species of cetacean have developed used various surface behaviors which they use to communicate. Apparently, the humpbacks are not at all shy, they love to show themselves and put on a display, even when they know they are being observed.
They roll over, leap out of the sea, slap and splash with their fins and flukes on the surface, and sometimes they 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 is not uncommon to see them in small groups of 2–5 individuals. Humpback whales seem to protect other animals from attacks of orcas.
Where and when to see humpback whales in Iceland: These energetic and tourist-friendly behaviors bring pure joy to everyone. There is 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
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 known to have ever lived on earth. The longest blue whale on record measured over 33 meters, and the heaviest was about 200 tons. For comparison, the largest of the dinosaurs are thought to have weighed around half as much.
These impressive animals were abundant in many oceans before they were hunted almost to extinction. Excessive whaling during the 20th century has caused a drastic reduction of whale populations by almost 99% of the original numbers. Finally, they got some protection from the international community and whale populations are now slowly growing. They are solitary creatures or live in small groups and occasionally they travel together with ﬁn whales.
Where and when to see blue whales in Iceland: Blue whales are most commonly seen on whale watching tours from North Iceland in summer and, occasionally, from West Iceland and South Iceland in the autumn.
The Fin Whale
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 the earth after the blue whale, they are also the fastest swimmers of the larger species of whales, with speeds of up to 45 km/h They often live in groups of 6-10, sometimes traveling with blue whales, with which they occasionally crossbreed.
Fin whales are the species with the longest lifespan, specimens have been found who were estimated to be aged 135–140 years.
Where and when to see fin whales in Iceland: Fin whale sightings are not very common on whale watching tours in Iceland. They can, though, occasionally be seen in the north and south in the summer months and also in the autumn in South Iceland.
The Minke Whale
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 approaching the vessels quite closely.
Sometimes they dive under the boats and then stick their heads up out of the sea. Scientists call this behavior spy-hopping. However, unlike the humpbacks, minkes don’t raise their flukes out of the water when diving and are less likely leap.
Where and when 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 the 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.
Possessing the loudest voice in the animal kingdom, which can reach 230 decibels, sperm whales can hear each other in the ocean from thousands of miles away. The clicking sounds that they produce is 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 body length is comprised of its head, which contains a milky white substance. This was mistakenly identified as the whale’s semen, which is how the name sperm whale originated.
The oil was used in lamps, as a lubricant, for medicinal purposes, and in the production of cosmetics. It was, at one time, worth more than its weight in gold. Thankfully, this is not the case today. Sperm whales are, thanks to their distinctive angled blowholes, one of the easiest whale species to identify at sea.
Where and when to see sperm whales in Iceland: They are most commonly seen on whale watching tours from West Iceland in late spring and early summer, although they have also been seen on rare occasions around the north 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 whale species. They travel in family groups which stay together for a lifetime. They often develop their own unique dialect and very sophisticated hunting techniques.
Orcas are the ultimate predators of the oceans. They have been known to attack baleen whales, occasionally, even adult individuals. It is this behavior that led to them commonly being referred to as ‘killer whales’.
The world’s most famous killer whale, Willy, whose real name was Keiko, was actually an Icelander. He was captured in Icelandic waters in 1979. After performing well at several marine parks, Keiko became a film star as Willy, in the Free Willy movie.
Finally, he was reintroduced to the wild in 1998, which, sadly, wasn’t completely successful. Keiko died a few years after they set him free. He did, however, get to spend his last years swimming in Icelandic seas. Killer whales are commonly seen on whale watching tours in West Iceland in winter and early summer.
Where and When to Killer Whales in Iceland: They are most commonly seen on whale watching tours from West Iceland in late spring and early summer, although they have also been seen on rare occasions around the north 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 the boats. However, they are abundant all-around Iceland and sightings are quite common on whale watching tours in the summer.
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. However, they tend to lose interest rather quickly.
Where and when to dolphins and harbor porpoises in Iceland: Dolphins are commonly seen on whale watching tours all year round. In late winter (February/March) they can be seen in large pods with their calves, so this is a really good time to see them.
Responsible Whale Watching in Iceland
With the rising popularity of the 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 also being 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 this was signed by the entire IceWhale membership. The code ensures that best possible practices are followed, providing a great experience for tourists who can rest assured whale-welfare has been properly taken care of.
The whale watching companies follow a protocol to minimize disturbance of the whales.They turn off their engines when they get close to a whale and they never approach them from the front.
The Best Time to See Whales in Iceland and Success Rates
The best time for whale watching in Iceland is the summer: June, July and August, when the wildlife is at its highest peak and 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, however, whales are lurking in the deep throughout the year! The success rate of the summer tours is over 95%, in the north this is even higher at 98%.
Herring and capelin are abundant in the waters around Iceland in the winter, many species, for example, dolphins and orcas stay around Iceland throughout the year, but sightings of humpbacks and minke whales are certainly not uncommon either. The success rates in winter are still quite high, around 90%.
What are The Best Places to go Whale Watching in Iceland?
Whale Watching from Húsavík
Húsavík is an adorable, tiny town in North Iceland with a population of slightly more than two thousand people. It is known as the whale watching capital of Iceland, because of the many and great variety of whales in its bay, called Skjálfandi.
Humpback whales, blue whales, minke whales, harbor porpoises, white-beaked dolphins, and, because of the deep waters in the bay, even sperm whales are often sighted.
Skjálfandi means “trembling” in Icelandic, referring to the great frequency of the earthquakes in this area. A fissure extends into the middle of the fjord and the bay, creating amazing feeding grounds that attract all kinds of the whales. Whale watching tours from Húsavík operate with extraordinary success rates, in some seasons exceeding 98%.
Whale Watching from Dalvík
Dalvík sits on the shores of a beautiful fjord called Eyjafjörður, where, besides the whales, magnificent fjord scenery awaits you.
Dalvík is close to Akureyri in north Iceland. It is a small fishing village with a population approximately 1400 inhabitants. The ferry to Iceland’s northernmost island departures from here. Tiny Grímsey is still an inhabited island, which is quite famous because the Arctic Circle crosses it.
There are two options to go out whale watching. With an old, traditional fishing boat where you can also fish on the same tour or in a fast and safe RIB whale watching boat.
Humpbacks, white-beaked dolphins, minke whales and harbor porpoises are most commonly spotted from Dalvík but sightings of the majestic blue whales are not rare either. Just like in Húsavík, the success rate on Eyjafjörður is around 98%, 99% with the RIB boat.
Whale Watching from Reykjavík
Whale watch tours from Reykjavík are available all year round. They departure on a daily basis from the Old Harbor, which is located within a short walking distance the downtown area.
The whale watching boats sail out towards the Faxaflói bay, where mostly white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises and minke whale are frequent seen year-round and with a great number of humpbacks showing up in the summer.
In clear and nice weather, you will be able to see some of the most beautiful mountains around you in every direction. The Snaefellsjökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers and some cone-shaped volcanoes on the Reykjanes peninsula can be spotted in the distance.
Whale Watching from Snæfellsnes peninsula
The bay north of Snæfellsnes is called Breiðafjörður is especially rich in herring, which attracts the toothed whales that stay around Iceland winter. Orcas and sperm whales can be seen all around Iceland, but the chances to see them are the highest here. Spotting some minke whales, humpback, white-beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises are also common, especially in summer. Whale watching tours departure from Ólafsvík and Grunaarfjördður villages.
What are The best Whale Watching Tour Options?
There are plenty of options when it comes to whale watching in Iceland. Most of the tours depart from Reykjavik or in the North: Húsavík, Dalvík and Akureyri. Most of the cases, you can choose between a larger boat with a refreshment bar, smaller boats with no inside cabin or an even small but very fast RIB boat. The prices also differ depending on the type of the boat.
The bigger boats are more comfortable, usually with heated inside areas that offer shelter from bad weather. However, these boats are also slower, it takes longer for them to approach the whale watching areas. The smaller boats are faster and have the advantage that you can get much closer to the surface of the water.
The best value for money is probably the combined tours. In summer, it is often possible to combine the whale watching tour with puffin watching or sea angling and seafood barbecue. Puffin sightings are 100% guaranteed in summer as well as the fish catches. There are tour packages organized with another activity after the whale watching.
The Whales of Iceland Museum in Reykjavík
Whales of Iceland is an exhibition in the Grandi area - close to the Old Harbor - of Reykjavík. It showcases 23 man-made life-size models of whale species that occur in Icelandic waters. It offers the amazing opportunity to see the actual sizes of gentle giants up close and personal.
The models are soft, rubbery and squishy just like the real ones, and, for the joy of the children, they are allowed to be touched! Visiting the museum is an amazing educational adventure for people of all ages: the virtual reality glasses are especially popular. It is recommended visiting the museum prior the whale watching tour. The more we know about these incredible animals, the more we enjoy the encounter with them!
How to dress and what to pack for a whale watching tour in Iceland?
- Warm overalls are often provided on the tour (check the tour description)
- Dress in layers: fine wool, long-sleeved underwear, thermal insulation, wind and waterproof shell
- Pack hat and gloves - even in summer
- Wear comfortable, waterproof boots
- Pack sunglasses - even in winter if it’s sunny
- Optionally: binoculars (provided on tours that are combined with puffin watching); camera
Whales in the Icelandic Culture and Sagas
Whales have played an important role in Icelandic society as well as the county’s cultural history, they are 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 fishermen. The whales who surprised them were, naturally, demonized in folk stories. However, those whales, which were calm and easy to catch, were said to be endowed with a good spirit.
The Icelander’s strong relationship with whales is reflected in the language. The word “hvalreki”, (‘beached whale’) comes from the words “hvalur”, meaning whale, and “reki”, meaning something washed up on shore. Formerly, the same word also referred to something unexpectedly good which was a surprise. Supposedly, a beached whale was 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 and magnificent spirits, together with good and evil whales.
Whale Hunting in Iceland
Whaling in Iceland has a long history going back ten centuries and today, the country remains one of few nations on earth which still hunts whales.
For a long time, whaling was key to the survival of small communities who had to survive in harsh conditions. However, according to Ragnar Edvardsson, an archeologist, there is 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, this continued until 1935.
The Whaling Quotas
When the International Whaling Commission agreed in the 80’s to stop all commercial whaling, quotas were effectively set to zero. Although 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 has not been part of their daily diet for many decades. A poll conducted by Capacent Gallup, showed that only 3.2% of the population eat whale meat on a regular basis (6 times a year or more) and only 1.7% eat whale meat at least once a month.
Most of the whale meat harvested from Icelandic waters has been sold to Japan. However, 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 224 minke whales per year, although nowhere near that number has been caught in recent years. 17 minke whales were caught in 2017, 46 in 2016 and only 29 in 2015. Iceland´s new minke whale quota is 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 risen rapidly and many former whaling vessels have been converted into whales watching boats. In recent years, whaling has also become increasingly unpopular amongst the Icelandic population.