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Things to Know About Iceland's Pilot Whales

|July 31, 2023
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Iceland's coastal waters are home to a remarkable variety of marine life, and among the captivating creatures found here are the long-finned pilot whales.


Despite being called whales, these social and distinctive mammals are a part of the dolphin family. Found around the world, pilot whales may share a similar name to other whale species, but their unique characteristics really set them apart.

Discovering this species on a boat tour in Iceland is a real treat, especially once you learn how fascinating and feisty the long-finned pilot whale can be.

Long-finned Pilot Whales Whale Species in Iceland

Dark bodies of two Pilot whales against the deep blue water off the coast of Iceland

About Long-Finned Pilot Whales in Iceland

Thriving in the cold waters of Iceland, long-finned pilot whales are easily recognizable for their long, elongated bodies, which can grow up to 6-7 meters (approximately 20-23 feet) in length. Their coloration is black but with white markings across their bodies, making each one of them unique. Their small dorsal fin is distinctive, with a backward sweep. One of their other telling features is a rounded head, which protrudes from above their eyes.

They tend to live, hunt, and socialize in family pods of around 10-20 members. This social aspect allows them to develop a complex language of clicks, which they use to communicate. Pilot whales are highly intelligent, making them a sought-after species to find on a whale-watching tour.

As skilled divers, pilot whales can dive to depths over 100 meters deep and stay down for extended periods. While they are down in these depths, they hunt for the squid that thrives in such habitats. Their bodies have adapted to suit diving to these depths; they have specialized oxygen storage, which allows them to stay down for 10-20 minutes.

Pilot whales are rumored to get quite feisty particularly when orcas are involved. In fact, there have been a few sightings where orcas will attempt to avoid pilot whales. This unusual behavior is yet to be understood but there have been a few theories into this confusing inter-cetacean conflict.

When is the Best Time to See Pilot Whales In Iceland?

Two Long-Finned Pilot Whales Swimming Side by Side in Iceland

Two long-finned pilot whales swimming side by side in the deep ocean

Seeing long-finned pilot whales in Iceland is largely dependent on what food is available, like many other species living in these waters. Typically, the best time to see these social creatures is during the summer months, May to September, when the waters are teeming with their preferred prey, like squid and various fish species.

However, with any wild animal, sightings are never guaranteed. With pilot whales being able to dive to 100 meters for 10-20 minutes, you may be on top of one on your whale-watching tour without even knowing.

Where is the Best Place to See Pilot Whales in Iceland?

Iceland offers several excellent locations for observing long-finned pilot whales in their natural habitat. Some of the most popular and promising areas for sightings include:

Snæfellsnes Peninsula: Located on Iceland's western coast, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is known for its breathtaking landscapes and diverse marine life, from pilot whales to orcas. Tours operate from Ólafsvík and provide an opportunity to spot pilot whales along with other cetacean species.

Faxaflói Bay: Surrounding the capital city, Reykjavík, Faxaflói Bay is a prime location for whale-watching due to its proximity to feeding grounds. There are several tour options with guided boat trips from Reykjavík’s harbor, increasing the chances of witnessing pilot whales and other marine species.

Húsavík: Often referred to as the “Whale Watching Capital of Iceland," Húsavík, situated in the north, is renowned for its rich marine biodiversity. The waters here are frequently visited by long-finned pilot whales, and tourists are highly likely to encounter whales on a tour from here.

For more, discover our guide on whale watching in Iceland.

Two Adult Pilot Whales Swimming Next To An Infant Breaching The Water

Two adult pilot whales swimming next to an infant breaching the water

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