The History of Whales in Iceland
Iceland is the best location in Europe to enjoy whale watching. The country’s unique position in the North Atlantic, between two ocean currents, means that its waters are filled with krill and fish – perfect for hungry whales and dolphins.
Read on to learn more about whales in Iceland, as well as Arctic Adventures’ range of unique whale watching tours.
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 the blowhole and causing it to burst. As punishment, the man was told he couldn’t enter the sea for twenty 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.
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 were caught by Icelandic boats, which was well within the recognized quota of 269.
The reasoning 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)
Unknown to many, but 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.
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 will regularly swim up to a boat and even breach the water, just to see what’s going on. 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 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!
Worldwide, the Orca population is unknown, however, every effort is made to preserve their population and maintain their native Icelandic territories.
In Iceland, Orcas are typically found in the west, along the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, as well as the north, where a brand-new pod of orcas has been 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 is most commonly seen in the north of Iceland in the summer months but has been spotted in the south 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.
Where Can I See Whales in Iceland?
Travelers will be happy to know that it’s possible to see whales in the waters surrounding Reykjavík. Whales, dolphins and porpoises are regularly seen in Faxaflói Bay, which is 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 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.
The Best Time for Whale Watching in Iceland
There is no perfect time of year to enjoy whale watching. Whether you choose to book your tour in summer or winter, there are advantages to both.
It probably goes without saying that Iceland enjoys warmer weather and calmer winds in the summer, which all make for easier sailing conditions. The improved weather conditions also mean there’s less chance of tours being canceled, and more chance you’ll see whales or dolphins breaking the surface.
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 which 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 the 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 any 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 to whale watching in the winter is the beautiful scenery you can enjoy. From the top deck, visitors can take in the surrounding landscapes and snowy mountains.
Iceland’s Best Places for Whale Watching Tours
Most visitors to the country will have two options when it comes to booking a whale watching tour. They can choose to book tours departing from the capital or in the north, specifically in Dalvik.
Check out Arctic Adventures’ Full Range of Whale Watching Tours to Find the One for You