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Best Time for Whale Watching in Iceland

Discover the Best Time and Tips to See Whales in Iceland

|May 23, 2023
Anhelina is a cat mom with a passion for cycling, adventure, and writing. She spends her days inspiring and educating other travelers through her stories by going down rabbit holes of research.

Iceland is a wonderland of incredible landscapes and captivating wildlife. The most magnificent creatures that grace its coastal waters are the majestic whales. To maximize your chances of spotting these gentle giants, find out about the best time of day and year to embark on your whale watching adventure.

While whale activity can be unpredictable, certain factors can influence the optimal time for whale watching. In this article, we will explore different seasons and times of day to see whales in Iceland and provide insights to increase your chances of encountering these mesmerizing marine mammals. So, when is the best time to go whale watching in Iceland?

Whale jumping above the sea level in Iceland

Best Time of Day for Whale Watching in Iceland

You’ve likely come to Iceland for more than just a whale watching tour, so it is essential to plan your day efficiently. Many tourists often regard the early morning hours, typically between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. as the best time to whale watching in Iceland. During this period, the ocean is relatively calm, and the weather conditions are usually more favorable, allowing for better visibility. Many tour operators offer morning excursions departing from various harbors across the country. Setting off early enhances your chances of spotting whales and offers a serene and tranquil experience as you embark on your adventure.

Whale's head above the ocean and seagulls

Going on an afternoon excursion from around 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. can also be a promising time for whale watching. By midday, the sun is higher in the sky, illuminating the waters, so it is easier to spot the telltale signs of whales surfacing. However, during the afternoon, the sea breeze often picks up, making spending time out on the boat less comfortable. Overall, afternoon tours leave some space for flexibility as travelers can choose a convenient time for their excursion and plan other activities before or afterward.

An evening whale-watching tour may be just the thing for those seeking a unique adventure. From 5 p.m. onwards, especially during the summer, you can witness the breathtaking Icelandic sunset while scanning the waters for whales. Even though visibility may decrease as the sun goes down, the experience and the possibility of spotting these magnificent creatures make it a must-do for whale enthusiasts.

Whale watching tour in the evening, perfect option to meet whales at the sunset

While certain times of the day may be considered more favorable for whale sightings, it's important to remember that other factors also influence whale behavior. These include tides, weather conditions, water temperature, and food availability in a specific location. Whales follow their prey, such as herring and krill, so areas with abundant food sources are often hotspots for whale activity. Knowledgeable tour guides stay informed about these factors and choose routes that increase the likelihood of encountering whales during the tours.

Best Time of Year for Whale Watching in Iceland

Winter (November to February):

Whale watching tour by rib boat by the glacier

The winter season in Iceland offers excellent opportunities to spot certain whale species. Orcas are more common in the South during this time, and Belugas, a type of whale not typically seen in Iceland, can be found in the North. The waters surrounding Iceland are a great feeding ground for these intelligent and powerful creatures. A benefit of going whale watching in the winter is that there are fewer people around, giving you more space on board to relax and a chance to see the Northern Lights from the deck. Guided tours during winter often focus on locating orcas, providing a thrilling and unforgettable whale-watching experience. However, winters come with harsh weather conditions, which can lead to more tour cancellations than in the summer.

Spring (March to May):

Whale watching boat tour

As the days grow longer and the temperatures rise, Iceland's spring season offers a transition period for whale sightings. During March, the orca season may still be in effect, providing opportunities for encounters with these fascinating creatures. Humpback whales, with their distinctive flukes and impressive acrobatics, occasionally make their presence known in spring as well. Seeing a humpback whale breaching or slapping its tail against the water is a breathtaking experience that stays etched in your memory! Additionally, minke whales become more active as spring progresses and are commonly sighted in Icelandic waters. Their presence increases from April onward, making spring an ideal time to witness the graceful and elusive minke whales.

Summer (June to August):

Whale seen above the sea splashing water

The summer season provides the highest chances of encountering a variety of whale species, making it the peak time for whale watching. Humpback whales, known for their acrobatic displays and iconic tail flukes, migrate to Icelandic waters to enjoy the abundant food supply. From June to August, these majestic creatures can be frequently seen breaching and feeding near the surface. Other species, such as minke whales and white-beaked dolphins, are also prevalent during summer, creating a rich and diverse whale-watching experience.

Autumn (September to October):

Guided whale-watching tour by boat perfect to meet these giant mammals

As autumn arrives in Iceland, the summer visitors begin to depart, but whale-watching opportunities persist. September and October still offer good chances to observe humpback and minke whales. The transition from summer to autumn may change the whale behavior as they prepare for their migratory journeys to warmer waters. This time of year can offer a unique perspective as the landscapes of Iceland start to display autumnal colors, adding to the overall charm of your whale-watching expedition.

Whale watching in Iceland is a thrilling and unforgettable experience, and the best time of year to spot these majestic creatures depends on the species you wish to encounter. It is important to note that whale behavior can vary, and sightings are not guaranteed. Check-in with your local tour operator, who can provide up-to-date information on recent whale activity to maximize your chances of a successful whale-watching adventure in Iceland.

Why Iceland Is a Great Place to See Whales

Iceland is a highly recommended destination for whale watching due to various reasons. Firstly, the waters of Iceland are abundant in marine life, providing a diverse ecosystem ideal for whales. The North Atlantic Ocean, which is rich in nutrients, supports a variety of fish species like herring. This fish is the primary food source for many whale species, so they are attracted to Iceland's waters. This abundance of prey increases the chances of whale sightings, making Iceland an excellent feeding ground.

Couple of Humpback whales under the water

Moreover, Iceland is situated at the intersection of major whale migratory routes. As whales move between their summer feeding grounds and winter breeding grounds, many species pass through Icelandic waters. This natural phenomenon provides an opportunity to witness these magnificent creatures during their seasonal journeys, enhancing the likelihood of encounters with various whale species.

Iceland also boasts breathtaking coastal landscapes that provide a stunning whale-watching backdrop. The rugged coastline offers a unique vantage point to observe these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.

Whale-watching boat tour in Iceland

Iceland is well-prepared for whale-watching activities with a developed infrastructure. Visitors can find many tour operators in coastal towns like Dalvik, Husavik, and Akureyri. These operators provide knowledgeable guides and responsible vessels that follow whale-watching guidelines. It ensures a safe and sustainable experience for both visitors and the whales.

Iceland's waters are home to various whale species, allowing visitors to see several iconic marine mammals. The most commonly sighted species include minke whales, humpback whales, orcas (killer whales), and white-beaked dolphins. Each species exhibits unique behaviors and characteristics, making whale watching in Iceland exciting and fascinating.

It's important to note that Iceland strongly emphasizes responsible whale watching. Tour operators follow strict guidelines and regulations prioritizing the whales' well-being and their natural habitat. These ethical and responsible practices aim to minimize disturbance to the whales while still providing visitors with immersive and educational experiences.

Many whale watching tour guides in Iceland offer cultural and educational insights into the biology, behavior, and conservation efforts related to whales. Besides just observing these majestic creatures, you will have the possibility to learn more about them.

Types of Whales You Can See in Iceland

In Icelandic waters, there are 23 cetacean species! It is an excellent location for whale watching because visitors can see various marine mammals. Below are some of the cetaceans commonly found in Iceland.

Minke Whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata):

Most frequently sighted species is Minke whales

The minke whale is one of Iceland's most frequently sighted whale species. It is known for its smaller size than other whales, measuring around 7 to 10 meters long. Minke whales are baleen and feed on small fish and krill through filtration. They can be seen year-round in Icelandic waters, but their visibility increases in the summer.

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae):

Humpback Whale jumping above the sea

Humpback whales are well-known for their impressive acrobatics and enchanting songs. You can spot these magnificent creatures in Icelandic waters between May and September. Humpback whales are recognized by their long pectoral fins, and they can jump out of the water, slap their tails, and make bubble nets to catch their prey! Due to their incredible behaviors, whale watchers particularly enjoy observing humpback whales.

Orca or Killer Whale (Orcinus orca):

Group of Orcas or Killer Whales swimming in Iceland

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are apex predators and highly intelligent and social creatures. During the winter season, from November to February, they can often be seen in Icelandic waters because they follow herring migration, their preferred food source. Orcas hunt and feed in groups and are known for their striking black-and-white appearance and complex social structures. If you're interested in observing these fantastic creatures, head to the herring-rich areas of the East Fjords, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, or the South Coast.

White-Beaked Dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris):

White-Beaked Dolphin in Arctic Ocean

During the summer, Icelandic waters are home to frequent sightings of white-beaked dolphins. They are characterized by their robust body, playful attitude, and white beak. These dolphins often exhibit bow-riding behavior by swimming alongside boats. Their highly social nature leads them to form large groups, creating an exciting and dynamic whale-watching experience.

Blue Whale (Balaenoptera musculus):

Blue Whale - biggest creature on the planet

It's possible to see the blue whale, the biggest creature on the planet, swimming in Icelandic waters occasionally. Although spotting them is rare, they tend to travel through the North Atlantic Ocean during summertime. These whales can grow over 25 meters long and are famous for their remarkable size and distinct bluish-gray hue.

Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus):

Fin Whale or finback whales swimming in the sea

Did you know that fin whales (also called finback whales) are the second largest whale species, only smaller than blue whales? During summer, they can sometimes be spotted in Icelandic waters, adding to the variety of whale species one can observe during a whale-watching excursion. With their streamlined bodies, fin whales are known for their remarkable speed and agility in the water.

Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus):

Group of Sperm Whales under the water in Iceland

In Icelandic waters, lucky tourists can occasionally spot sperm whales with their distinct block-shaped heads and prominent blowholes. These whales are skilled in deep-diving and can dive to great depths to hunt for their preferred prey, such as squid and fish. Although they are not frequently seen, lucky ones can see sperm whales around Iceland all year round.

Final Thoughts on the Best Time for Whale Watching in Iceland

When trying to find the answer to the question of when is the best time for whale watching in Iceland, keep in mind that the number of whales and their frequency of appearance can change based on factors like food availability, water temperature, and migration patterns. Additionally, make sure to stay comfortable during your trip with tips on what to wear for whale watching.

Nevertheless, whichever season you choose, the whale watching experience in Iceland leaves you with cherished memories, a deeper connection to nature, and a desire to continue supporting conservation efforts to safeguard these incredible marine species.

Join the whale watching adventure in Iceland and create memories that will last a lifetime!

Embark on your Icelandic whale watching adventure with enthusiasm and an open mind, and you will undoubtedly create memories that will last a lifetime!

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