Do you want to have a whale of a time? Then go on a whale safari while you’re in Iceland. The waters around Iceland are the natural habitat of these gentle giants. Baleen whales are a migratory species, and most travel long distances to tropical waters in winter and back to polar regions in summer. The best season for whale watching in most parts of Iceland is therefore between April and October. Cetaceans often sighted are minke whales, humpback whales, sei whales, fin whales and blue whales. Going on a whale watching tour and actively searching for whales is an exciting and unique experience.
Whales near Reykjavík
You don’t have to travel far to go on a whale safari, as Reykjavík offers good options for whale watching. Different whale watching companies have regular departures from the Old Harbour area. White-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises are seen year-round in Faxaflói bay, a large bay next to Reykjavík, stretching between Reykjanes and Snæfellsnes. In summertime, there are regular sightings of humpback whales and minke whales. You can choose to go on a bigger boat with a refreshment bar, or on a small RIB boat. The bigger boats have snug inside areas that offer shelter from bad weather, but the small boats have the advantage that you can get very close to oceanic wildlife. At the ticket offices you can ask for complimentary motion sickness pills, but don’t worry, tours are cancelled if the waves are too high.
Whales in Grundarfjörður
The bay north of Snæfellsnes is called Breiðafjörður bay and this is the place to be in winter. To be more precise, the fishing town Grundarfjörður is where it’s all at. In wintertime, the bay is filled with herring feeding on phytoplankton. Now, seeing breaching herring is probably not the reason why you traveled to Iceland. However, this herring aggregation attracts all kinds of cetaceans, like dolphins, porpoises and most importantly, killer whales. Orcas can be seen all around Iceland (Free Willy’s orca Keiko was captured in Icelandic waters), but the chances are a lot higher in areas where there’s a high concentration of food. This is why in wintertime, they stay close to Grundarfjörður. Can you think of anything more spectacular than seeing a pack of killer whales swim by?
Whales in North Iceland
There are excellent whale watching opportunities in North Iceland. Three popular spots for whale safaris are Húsavík, Akureyri and Hjalteyri.
Húsavík is also known as the whale watching capital of Iceland, because of the many whales in its bay, Skjálfandi bay. Humpback whales, blue whales, minke whales, pilot whales and sperm whales are often sighted. Because of the deep waters in the bay, there is also a higher chance to see rare species like the basking shark, the northern bottlenose whale and the beluga. Whale watching in Húsavik is always a good choice.
Akureyri & Hjalteyri
From both Akureyri and Hjalteyri (about fifteen minutes by car from Akureyri) you can go on whale watching tours in the beautiful Eyjafjörður fjord. In earlier days, Hjalteyri was one of the main hubs in the herring fishing industry, but since the closing of the herring processing factory, it’s mostly known for its whales and eco-friendly whale watching tours. Dolphins and humpback whales are often spotted in the fjord, just outside of the harbour area of Hjalteyri.
Combo tours – whales and puffins
The most popular combination tour on offer is the whale and puffin tour. Puffin colonies are to be found all around Iceland, but only in summer. The first small flocks arrive in April and the last ones leave in September, but the best months to see puffins are from May to August. Most whale watching companies offer the whale and puffin combination tours. For puffin spotting, it’s best to be on a small boat and to bring binoculars. Puffins are tiny, and the closer you can get to them, the better the experience will be! This tour is possible from Reykjavík. Just off the coast of the city, puffins breed each year on three small islands. Next to puffins and whales, common sights during these tours include arctic terns and the great skua.
Whales of Iceland exhibition
Whales of Iceland is an exhibition in the Grandi area of Reykjavík. It showcases 23 man-made life-size models of whale species that occur in Icelandic waters, like a 25 metres long blue whale and a full-size sperm whale. It offers a great opportunity to see the actual sizes of these whales (they are bigger than you think), and to learn interesting facts about each whale at the same time, by reading information stands and watching videos. Educational and fun! You can buy your entry tickets for Whales of Iceland here.
Common sights while whale watching in Iceland
A small baleen whale measuring 7m to 8m in length, weighing between 5 to 10 tonnes. It’s black- and grey-coloured, has a dorsal fin, and will live for 30 to 50 years. It’s not likely to breach, so look for its back and dorsal fin during a tour. Also called “stinky minkes” because they smell of rotten fish.
A large baleen whale measuring 12m to 16m in length and weighing about 36 tonnes. It has long pectoral fins, a stubby dorsal fin, and a knobbly head. They are known for breaching, their high spouts of water, and for showing off their flukes as they go for deeper dives!
The most common dolphin in Icelandic waters. It is 2.5m to 3m in length and weighs up to 350kg. They are often spotted in big groups, sometimes hundreds together! They love playing, jumping out of the water, and splashing about.
The smallest cetacean around Iceland. They are only 1.5m to 2m in length and weigh 55kg to 70kg. They are usually quite shy, but sometimes jump out of the water and play with the whale watching boats.
FAQ about Whales and Iceland
What about Whales and Iceland?
Whales are magnificent mammals, some of the biggest creatures that live on this planet and many of them just happen to inhabit the waters around Iceland. They’re majestic creatures and seeing them splashing about is an unforgettable sight.
Does Iceland hunt whales?
We don’t anymore! You’ll be glad to know capitalism won out in the end, there was no international market for the meat so the whaling has stopped. Still, just to reiterate, Icelanders weren’t hunting endangered whales. You can still try whale meat at many Reykjavík restaurants if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
How can I see whales in Iceland
You can go on whale-watching cruises from Reykjavík and several other towns in Iceland. If you get seasick, don’t worry, you can still see some whales on dry land. The Whales of Iceland exhibition down by the old harbour in Reykjavík allows you to experience the gigantic size of these creatures and learn all about the different species living in the waters around Iceland without leaving the harbour.