Overview of Whale Watching in Iceland
Iceland boasts not just the best whale watching in Europe but is also one of the best places to whale watch in the world. The country’s unique position between two ocean currents in the North Atlantic means that its waters are filled with krill and fish – the perfect attraction for hungry whales and dolphins. Boat tours in Iceland have an amazing success rate and whales often swim right beside the tour boats.
5 Whale Fast Facts
- Bowhead whales are the longest-living mammals.
- There are only 2 classifications of whale, Baleen and Toothed.
- Whales don’t shoot water from their blowholes. It’s actually a mix of hot air and bacteria condensed into water droplets.
- Whale brains don’t sleep. Instead, one part of their brain is always alert to control their breathing.
- Cuvier beaked whales can dive deeper than any other mammal at almost 10,000 feet deep.
Best Whale Watching Season
There is no perfect time of year to enjoy whale watching. Whether you choose to book your tour in summer or winter, you’ll find advantages to both.
Summer is one of the best times for whale watching. During this season the country enjoys warmer weather and calmer winds. The nice weather offers better conditions for whale sightings and slimmer chances that your tour will be cancelled.
Furthermore, standing on the deck is much more enjoyable when you don’t have to battle Arctic winds and biting temperatures!
Another benefit to whale watching in summer is the great diversity of maritime life on display. Migratory whales tend to spend their summers close to the poles to feed. This makes Iceland an ideal location for whale watching during the summer months (April to October).
Basking sharks, white-beaked dolphins, and harbor porpoises can also be spotted in the waters surrounding Reykjavík.
Whale watching in winter comes with all the Arctic conditions that are avoided in summer, as well as increased tour cancellations.
However, the big advantage of whale watching during the winter is that you’ll get to enjoy reduced crowds. With more room on board, you’ll have more opportunity to relax, enjoy and talk to other passengers on deck while keeping a close eye out for whales.
Thanks to an abundance of food, orcas are much more prevalent in the South during the winter, while Belugas, a species of whale not usually seen in Iceland, can be found in the North.
Another advantage of whale watching in the winter is the chance to witness the magic Northern Lights, available on our Whale Watching & Northern Lights Tour From Reykjavik!
From the top deck, visitors can take in the surrounding landscapes and snowy mountains.
Where to Go Whale Watching in Iceland
Travelers will be happy to know that tour operators run whale watching tours in Reykjavík, Iceland. Whales, dolphins and porpoises are regularly seen in Faxaflói Bay, located between the Snaefellsnes and Reykjanes peninsulas.
The bay is most frequently visited by humpback whales, minke whales, porpoises and dolphins, but orcas have been known to make an appearance every now and then.
For tourists willing to make the trip, whale watching tours from the north of the country have a slightly higher viewing rate. Fin whales, blue whales and orcas are all more prevalent in northern waters thanks to the rich supply of food.
The giant mammals swim to the cold northern waters to take advantage of the nutrient-rich seas and to hunt in the fjords. 24 species of cetacean can be found in Iceland’s northern waters, making your chances of seeing a whale much higher.
Why Whales Love Icelandic Waters
Icelandic waters are the perfect habitat for whales. The unique mixture of cold ocean water and warm currents create the perfect conditions for a rich food supply. Whales are migratory and move to warmer waters in the winter as food becomes scarce, or to breed. During the long summer months the zooplankton and krill fed on by whales flourish, making it the peak season for these tours.
Not all whales have a specific breeding season like orcas, which means that as long as there is a plentiful food source they will remain year-round. Along with orcas you can witness white-beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises in the colder months.
This is good news for visitors who want to catch a glimpse of these sea creatures in the winter months. Our Iceland boat tours have a success rate of 98% and excursions are available year-round!
Types of Whales and Dolphins Found in Iceland
In total, there are more than 24 species of whale (or cetacean, to the scientifically-minded among you), including dolphins and porpoises, found in Icelandic waters.
With such a diverse range of aquatic life, it’s no surprise that Iceland is one of the top whale watching locations in the world.
Below you’ll find some of the most common and most sought-after species of whale in Iceland:
Although nicknamed “killer whales,” orcas’ moniker isn’t justified when it comes to their interaction with humans as an orca has never killed a human in the wild. Naturally inquisitive and intelligent, the whales regularly swim up to boats and even breach the water just to see what’s going on. The orca’s killer instinct only comes to light when hunting or competing with other animals.
Typically a very social mammal, they live in groups called pods, which usually have up to 40 members. Through extensive research, scientists have discovered that there are two different kinds of pods. Resident pods are less aggressive, with its members tending to hunt fish, while transient pods are more aggressive and generally hunt other marine mammals in a pack. Even great white sharks have found themselves on the orcas’ menu!
In terms of size, orcas are the largest species in the dolphin family and can weigh up to 10 tons and grow up to 32 feet in length – almost as long as a bus!
The worldwide population count of orcas is unknown. However, every effort is made to preserve their population and maintain their native Icelandic territories.
Orca whale watching in Iceland typically occurs in the West, along the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and in the North, where a brand-new pod of orcas was recently discovered in Grundarfjördur.
Humpback whales are one of the most naturally acrobatic species of water mammal and regularly leap out of the sea, much to the joy of onlooking crowds.
This species can be spotted in large numbers from April to October in North Iceland, which makes summer the best time to see humpback whales in Iceland. For tours operating in the South, however, they have been spotted as late as winter. Humpbacks are krill-feeders and need an enormous amount of food to fill their hungry bellies. On average, an adult humpback whale can eat up to 1.5 tons of food a day.
Although completely at home in Arctic waters, Humpbacks breed, give birth and care for their new-born calves in the warm waters of Tonga.
After the blue whale, fin whales are the second-largest mammal inhabiting the Earth. This species is most commonly spotted in the waters around North Iceland and can grow up to 90 feet long and weigh as much as 130 tons.
Despite its size, the giant mammal is known for its speed and relatively slender frame. Fin whales’ V-shaped and streamlined bodies allow them to reach speeds of over 25 miles per hour.
Fin whales are filter feeders, meaning they hunt their prey (crustaceans, krill, squid and fish) with their mouths open and do not bite or chew.
In most cases, these whales will travel in pods of up to 8, but super pods as big as 100 have been discovered during feeding periods.
Despite being the biggest animal ever to have lived on the planet, much bigger than any dinosaur, the blue whale is notoriously elusive and hard to find. There are few places in the world where we know for certain the Blue whale will appear, but Iceland is one of them.
The Arctic’s nutrient-rich waters make it an ideal feeding ground for the blue whale, which can consume up to 36 tons of krill a day.
Unfortunately, blue whales are currently classified as endangered and are on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List. Today, it’s estimated that there are only 10,000-25,000 Blue whales left in the world’s oceans, so they are becoming an increasingly rare sight.
Pods of Belugas can be found in the Arctic waters close to Greenland, Russia and North America, with an estimated population of 136,000 total. Unlike other whale species they don’t have a dorsal fin, making it easier for them to swim below sea ice.
A very social species, belugas travel in groups consisting of thousands of whales. These expressive white whales have their own language consisting of clicks and whistles, but can also mimic other sounds. Nicknamed the “canaries of the sea,” they can even mimic human speech!
Previously listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, Beluga populations have fortunately stabilized.
Whale Sanctuary in Iceland
Beluga whales in Iceland are a rare sight as they are non-native to the area. As of 2019, however, tourists can visit a pair of the white whales at the new SEA LIFE TRUST Beluga Whale Sanctuary on Heimaey Island in the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) archipelago.
The goal of the sanctuary is to rehabilitate formerly captive beluga whales in a natural environment and put an end to whale and dolphin entertainment. To get information on visiting the Westman Islands check our Vestmannaeyjar destination page.
Whaling in Icelandic Folklore
Whales have featured prominently in Icelandic sagas and folklore throughout the century. The best-known saga is Heimskringla, which tells the story of evil King Harald Bluetooth who planned to invade Iceland.
Before sending his army, the king sent his sorcerer, who was disguised as a whale, to discover the island’s weak points. However, the journey was fruitless as the country’s guardian spirits protected the island and refused to let the whale enter.
Another famous legend recalls the tale of a man who threw a stone at a fin whale, hitting its blowhole and causing it to burst. As punishment, the man was told he couldn’t enter the sea for 20 years. On the 19th year, the man couldn’t resist the sea any longer and went fishing. A whale, having learned of his return to the sea, found and killed him.
It has been said that whales can forgive any crime committed against them, but only if it’s been properly atoned for.
Traditional and Commercial Whaling
Iceland has practiced whaling since the 12th century and today is one of the few countries in the world to practice commercial whaling today.
While Iceland is committed to the conservation and protection of all maritime life (it even has two two whale sanctuaries, one in Faxaflói Bay and the other in the North), the country supports whaling when strict quotas are in place.
In 2017, 17 minke whales total were caught by Icelandic boats, which was well within the recognized quota of 269.
The reason behind Iceland’s decision to pursue commercial whaling is twofold. Domestically there’s a demand for minke whale meat, while there’s an international demand for fin whale meat, which is exported to Japan.
Keiko the Orca Whale (Free Willy)
Most people don’t know that the most famous whale to come out of Iceland was actually a movie star (for more Icelandic movie connections, see our list of movies filmed in Iceland). Keiko the orca whale was captured near Reyðarfjörður, Iceland in 1979 before being moved to an Icelandic aquarium.
Over the years, the orca was sold between different North American aquariums and amusement parks before being discovered by a movie scout in Mexico City. Keiko would go on to star in Warner Bros’ classic film, Free Willy.
After the film’s release, fans fundraised to provide Keiko with a bigger water tank with the aim of eventually releasing the orca back into the wild.
In 1998, Keiko was flown to Klettsvík Bay, Iceland and housed in an enclosed ocean pen while undergoing intensive training designed for his eventual release.
By the summer of 2002, Keiko was completely free and swam outside of Icelandic waters in August before making his way to the Norwegian fjords. Unfortunately, Keiko developed pneumonia on his travels and died in Taknes Bay in 2003 at the age of 27.
Best Places for Whale Watching Tours in Iceland
Tourists can find tours operating from multiple Iceland harbors. Most tour agencies depart from the capital or from Dalvik in the north. Some select excursions offer West Iceland whale watching tours, giving the chance to explore the beautiful Snæfellsnes Peninsula!
Check out Arctic Adventures’ Full Range of Whale Watching Tours to Find the One for You
What’s the best place to go whale watching in Iceland?
All of our whale watching boat tours have wonderful success rates. Excursions in the North Icelandic ports, such as Dalvik, have slightly higher rates, but during peak whale watching season tourists can expect to see these playful animals jumping all over Iceland!
How old to go whale watching?
Whale watching is an activity that can be enjoyed by all ages! Some of our adventure combination tours have age restrictions because of the other activities involved. Our popular whale watching Reykjavik tours and Dalvik tours, however, have no age restrictions. Enjoy our Whale and Puffin Tour of Iceland for more wildlife, open to everyone!
What are the best binoculars for whale watching?
Out on a boat you are exposed to water, fog and shock from the waves, so weather-proof binoculars are your best bet. To prevent your binoculars from slipping out of your hands, look for a rubber-coated model, which will provide a non-slip grip.
What’s the best month for whale watching in Iceland?
The best whale watching is in May, June, July and August. That being said, the Reykjavik Whale Watching Tour can be enjoyed year-round!
What’s the best time of day for whale watching?
Whales are active day and night so the time of day doesn’t affect your likelihood of spotting them. Day tours in the summer have a 98% success rate on whale watching trips. For the photo lighting, sunrise, early morning and sunset provide the best conditions. Want a truly spectacular scenic adventure? Book our Whale Watching & Northern Lights Tour From Reykjavik!