Iceland has in recent years become the European capital of whale watching. This is for many visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so don't miss your chance to book an excursion to observe these mighty cetaceans in their natural habitat.
Iceland is the top destination when it comes to whale watching, so you'll find many tour companies offering a boat or zodiac trip to spot whales in and around the Icelandic fjords.
Whale near Dalvik: jrossko @fotolia
Whaling boats have become a symbol of the changing culture. Now they are not only harmless to whales but even promote them by raising awareness, so you can book some great tours in these old ships, or alternatively on a zodiac which can be quite the thrill as you ride very close to the waterline. These tours operate in small groups so it's best to book in advance.
Whale watching tour companies are thriving and there are many of them nowadays, especially in Húsavík, and they all guarantee a success rate of over 95%. If the first excursion fails, and you don't see any, they will often offer you a free tour so you get another chance.
The outing generally lasts 2 to 4 hours, and it gets very cold, so dress as warmly as you can. Even in good weather, the percieved cold at sea with the arctic wind is much more pronounced than on land!
These sea trips are carried out with the utmost respect for these sea creatures, and the boat keep their distance so as not to frighten the stars of the show. If a whale wants to approach the boat, it can choose to do so. In fact, whales and dolphins are quite curious by nature and are often happy to play near the boat and even “pose” for photos.
Whale watching is often reserved for the summer period between May and September, but some companies offer outings all year round.
The best period is summer as this is when cetaceans come back to feed after spending the winter in the warmer seas, so this is when you have the best chance of observing them.
In summer, the long days of sunshine and the clash of hot and cold sea currents in Iceland's shallow fjords make the country's coastal waters an ideal environment for the plankton and fish.
12 different species have been observed in Skajálfandi Bay just off the coast of Húsavík in recent years, but these are the species most commonly found around the Icelandic coast:
This is by far the most commonly found whale in Iceland. An estimated 30,000 individuals travel to the coast of Iceland and take up residence there while the days are warm, and during an excursion you are liable to see whales stretching 7 to 10 meters in length, weighing 8 to 10 tons. The Minke whale is the most curious of them all and often approaches boats to the delight of passengers.
This whale is a much larger species, weighing up to 40 tons and measuring up to 17 meters. Once in a while you will spot one leaping and crashing into the Icelandic waters (see photo above). They are shy and usually steer clear of the boats, but are a favourite of visitors for their ability to propel that huge mass out of the water to perform incredible acrobatic tricks.
This is the big one, the whale of legend, the largest animal in the world: its weight can reach 190 tons for 33 meters tip to tail... It is mainly found in the north of Iceland.
A common sight in Iceland's waters, the boreal whale measures up to 20 meters and can weigh nearly 30 tons.
Even more impressive than the boreal whale, the fin whale can measure up to 25 meters and weigh 80 tons.
At 3 meters long, the white-billed dolphin is the only dolphin that can be found in Iceland.
Keiko, the famous orca from the 90s blockbuster “Free Willy”, was recently spotted in Iceland in the Reydarfjördur Fjord! Numerous orcas can be found around the Icelandic coast, particularly in the western fjords from April to June. This cetacean can weigh up to 9 tons with a length of 9 meters tip to tail.
The town of Húsavík in the far north of Iceland is the gold standard for whale watching, but there are many other ports with tour boats striking out to try their luck, including Reykjavik, Akureyri, Dalvìk... Húsavík is also home to Husavik Whale Museum where you can learn more about these gentle beasts.
Tours generally take you out in a traditional wooden whaling boat refurbished for this new activity, but increasingly tour companies offer Zodiac outings for that added thrill.
Whale-watching trips do not provide the best conditions for nature photography, but here are a few tips to avoid the most common mistakes.
For example, when choosing between a traditional whaling boat and a zodiac during these outings, we recommend the zodiac. While on average more expensive, they have you riding close to the waterline, and more importantly the boat will be less crowded. On a whale boat, you will be more cramped and difficult to find a good viewpoint.
If you can't the zodiac trip, another tip is to choose the right location and travel time. In summer, we recommend waiting for an evening trips from Húsavík, or for even more privacy try and book a tour out of a lesser-known port like Dalvik.
When it comes to the technical aspects of camera settings and gear, sports modes with a fast shutter speed are best, and you should try to find a place on the boat where you can stabilize the camera. As you can imagine, the rolling deck of a ship isn't the most stable place to put a tripod.