There are many creatures that call Iceland’s surrounding waters home. This is good for the Icelanders, whose main export is fish. It’s also a chief source of food for the locals. But Icelandic people aren’t the only ones who enjoy their ocean’s fish. Large numbers of whales travel up and down every coast, migrating as the seasons turn and snacking as they go. As a result of this whale traffic, it has become a very popular activity to go whale watching in Iceland.
Types of Whales Around Iceland
Twenty-three different species of whale (Icelandic: hvalur) traverse the waters around Iceland. There are things about our surrounding oceans that make them a great place for whales to hang out. The plentiful food supply and a mixture of warm and cold currents in the winter make for solid year-round living conditions. The long summer days also allow zooplankton and krill (important food sources for many whale species) to flourish. There are a few species that are particularly common, so let’s have a look at them:
This species is the most common to be seen around Iceland, on every coast. At around 9 meters (30 feet) long on average, they are the smallest whale species to be seen in this area. They have black or grey skin with a white underbelly and generally weigh at least 5,000kg (11,000 pounds).
Humpback whales grow to be around 12 to 16 meters (39 to 52 feet) long and weigh 30,000kg (66,000 pounds) when fully grown. They typically travel alone or in small groups and migrate vast distances every year; up to 5000km (3000 miles) regularly. They move between polar regions to eat and warmer waters to breed and give birth.
Also known as the killer whale, this species was made famous by the 1990’s ‘Free Willy’ movies. They’re easily recognizable, with their black/white contrast and white spots which resemble eyes (their eyes are actually below these spots). They are part of the dolphin family, and are the largest member, growing to about 6 meters (20 feet) long. They are apex predators in the ocean; they hunt most things, whereas nothing hunts them. This is mostly due to the fact that they travel and hunt in groups. Pods of forty or more orcas have been seen traveling together.
The blue whale is thought to be the largest animal that has ever existed. It can grow to over 24 meters (79 feet) long and weigh over 100,000kg (220,000 pounds). Due to whaling, these animals are much rarer than they once were, but measures are in place to protect them. They will normally travel alone unless they are mating or migrating.
What Month is Best for Whale Watching in Iceland?
The best time to go whale spotting around Iceland is from April to October. Whales can be seen here all year round, but it depends what whale you would like to spot. The best time to see humpback whales in Iceland would be in this period. They migrate south to breed in winter and come back north to feed in summer.
The absolute best whale watching in Iceland is from June to August. There’s also the advantage of warmer weather in summer, so you can focus on scanning for whales rather than shivering. However, whale watching tours leave from Reykjavík year-round, and there’s always a chance you’ll see some.
Best Place to go Whale Watching in Iceland
The best place to watch whales in Iceland is widely regarded as Húsavík (also called the whale capital of Iceland). This small town in north Iceland is located on Skjálfandi Bay, a rich feeding ground for several species. From here there are regular sightings of minke whales, humpbacks, white-beaked dolphins and blue whales.
The likelihood of seeing whales or dolphins from Húsavík is considered to be over 90% in the summer. North Sailing, a company based in Húsavík, charges ISK 10,690 per adult for a three-hour whale watching tour. Head north for the best whale watching in Iceland.
Whale Watching in Reykjavík vs Akureyri vs Husavik?
Húsavík is not the only place from which you have a high chance of whale sightings. Whale watching in northern Iceland can also be undertaken from Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest urban area. Some companies based there, such as Whale Watching Akureyri, have had 100% sighting success in previous summers. Their prices start at ISK 11,990 for a Classic Tour. A popular place for humpback whales to gather near Akureyri is the fjord known as Eyjafjörður. On another note, Akureyri is a beautiful town and has a different vibe to the capital; certainly worth a visit.
Which is better for whale watching then: Akureyri or Húsavík? It is hard to say, as there are many factors. Weather, time of year, and how the whales feel will all determine how successful your trips to either place are. Regardless, they are both incredible locations from which to see these natural wonders.
If you won’t be leaving the southern capital area, do not despair; there are whales here too. You can experience some of the best whale watching tours in Iceland only a short distance from your hotel. Conveniently, whale watching tours leave from the Old Harbour, near to the Harpa Concert Hall. Many of these tours will take you to Faxaflói Bay, a popular feeding ground for Iceland’s whale population. Minke whales, humpbacks, white-beaked dolphins and puffins are often seen here.
The Best Whale Watching Company in Reykjavik
A company called Elding offers year-round whale watching tours for the reasonable price of ISK 11,990 per adult. As of writing this, they had two humpback whale sightings on their most recent tour. One of the whales jumped out of the water right in front of their boat. In the summer months, they run six tours a day, and they fill up fast.
Whale Safari is another highly regarded company, which also runs the Classic Whale Watching tour for ISK 11,990. They also run a tour in an RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat) which allows you to get closer to the whales. These tours are priced at ISK 21,990.
Other than these companies, there are many more that operate throughout the capital, and indeed all over the country.
Whales of Iceland Museum
Maybe you’re not a fan of boats or the ocean. That’s okay; you can still get a taste of Iceland’s whale population without leaving dry land. The Whales of Iceland Museum features life-size models of these wonderful creatures, as well as a wealth of information. Entry is ISK 2,900 per adult and the museum is found in the Old Harbour.
If whale watching is on your bucket list, hop over to Iceland. Grab yourself a rental car and drive to the north, where you’re likely to see some gentle ocean giants. The country is connected by a handy ring road, Route 1, that circulates the whole coastline. Or, if you’re sticking to Reykjavík, the boats will be waiting for you at the Old Harbour. Tours book up quickly, so don’t miss your chance. See whales from the country that is now known as one of the best places in Europe to whale watch.
Samuel Hogarth, Cars Iceland.