Seeing a whale breach is an experience beyond compare.

Over the last two decades, Iceland has rapidly grown to become what is arguably the whale watching centre of Europe. Here is everything you need to know about whale watching in Iceland. 



Icelandic folklore is filled with fantastic stories that reflect the important role whales have played in shaping Iceland's cultural and economic history. 

As early as in the Heimskringla saga of King Olaf Tryggvason, it is written that when the devious King Harald Bluetooth was planning to invade Iceland, he had a sorcerer take the form of a terrible whale who was to locate the island’s points of vulnerability.

A map of Iceland, ca 1590.

But each of the four times the whale-sorcerer attempted to go ashore, the land wights of Iceland—the dragon of the east, the griffin of the north, the bull of the west, and the mountain giant of the south—sent him cowering back out to sea again, rendering the invading King’s efforts futile.    

But although countless legends tell remarkable tales of the meetings between Icelanders and magical cetacean creatures, the first official Icelandic whale watching ship didn't leave port until 1991, carrying under a dozen curious passengers seeking a personal encounter with the gentle giants of the sea.



Keiko the Killer Whale

Keiko on December 1, 1998.Keiko on December 1, 1998. Photo by unknown author. Wikimedia Creative Commons

The most famous whale ever to grace Icelandic waters, however, is not a magical creature of ancient literature or folklore, but the hero of a Hollywood blockbuster. 

Keiko, the male killer whale (orca) who portrayed Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy, was captured in Reyðarfjörður fjord in east Iceland in 1979, at the age of two and subsequently bought and sold between various aquariums and marine parks where he learned to perform for audiences before being cast by the Warner Brothers Studios.

Following Keiko’s rise to stardom, The Free-Willy Foundation was established in 1995 for the original purpose of finding him a better home; and in 1998, the world looked on in amazement as Keiko was loaded aboard a C-130 US-Air Force cargo plane and flown from the United States, back home to his birthplace in Iceland; Keiko would finally be given the opportunity to swim in the ocean again, with the hope of eventually being reunited with other killer whales. 

Keiko spent the next years in Klettsvík bay of the Vestmannaeyjar islands, where he underwent extensive training in preparation for a life of freedom in the open seas. 

In August 2002, Keiko finally left Icelandic territorial waters with a group of wild killer whales, but in September he showed up in Norway's Skålvik Fjord, desperately seeking human contact; his reintegration into the wild had failed and on December 12 the following year, Keiko died of pneumonia while swimming alone in Norwegian fjords. He was 27 years old. 

No single marine animal has brought more attention to the whales of Iceland than Keiko, and since his tragic passing, whale watching in Iceland has rapidly grown into a flourishing industry. Last year alone, just under 300,000 people ventured on whale watching trips from Icelandic harbours.

Commercial Whaling

Whaling has been practised in Iceland from as early as the 12th century, and despite Keiko's popularity and the recent surge in whale watching tourism, Icelanders remain one of only a handful of nations on earth that still hunt and kill whales.

In 1986 Iceland’s already highly controversial whaling industry became the subject of worldwide scrutiny when anti-whaling activists of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society sank the whaling vessels Hvalur 6 and Hvalur 7 (shown below) which made up half of the Icelandic four ship whaling fleet.

Whaling ships in Iceland. Photo by Wurzeller. Wikimedia Creative Commons.Paradoxically, the old whaling vessels in Reykjavík Harbor are anchored at the dock on which Iceland's largest whale watching society operates.

The incident sparked fierce international debate between various radical and moderate animal rights organisations, but the ultimate outcome of that debate was not in Sea Shepherd's favour; most environmentalists denounced the organisation's tactics as too extreme, with some going as far as branding the incident as an act of terrorism.

Domestically, public opinion immediately swayed in favour of the previously unpopular whaling industry, with the general population viewing the incident as a gross outside intrusion into domestic affairs. The two sunken vessels were promptly raised, and for a number of years, whaling continued, backed by even greater public approval than before. 

With the rise of the Icelandic whale watching industry, however, whaling has in recent years become increasingly unpopular amongst the general Icelandic population with only a fraction of Icelandic whale meat actually being consumed by Icelanders—less than 2% to be precise. The rest is either exported to Japan or served to tourists. 

In today's Iceland, commercial whaling is generally considered to be an expression of an ancient worldview that is slowly but surely fading into nonexistence.

Many old Icelandic whaling vessels are now used to watch and study whales in their natural habitat, and it is the hope of IceWhale (the Icelandic Whale Watching Association), that within a few years, commercial whaling will be completely eradicated from Icelandic waters. 

Whales of Iceland

Abundant summer daylight combined with a unique mixture of cold and warm sea currents that blend in Iceland's shallow fjords make the Icelandic territorial waters home to a rich variety of krill and fish, and consequently a bountiful feeding ground that attracts twenty-three species of whales, from the enormous sperm whale to the gentle little harbour porpoise. 

The species of whale found in Icelandic waters.This picture from WDC shows the most common types of whales found around Iceland.

The chances of spotting a specific type of whale on a whale watching trip vary depending on the port of departure, but the Minke whale is by far the most commonly sighted animal and can be seen all around Iceland throughout the year.

Below are the most common species found on these trips:

Minke Whales: Minke Whales are the most common great whale in Iceland’s waters, with many migrating here throughout summer and a few lingering through the winter months. They are small when compared to other species, but can still exceed nine metres in length. Their behaviour is usually rather shy, but due to their numbers, they can regularly be seen from almost all whale-watching ports, including Reykjavík.

Humpback whales tend to be the most photogenic, with their dramatic behaviour.Picture from Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching

Humpback Whales: Humpback Whales also come to Iceland during the summer, and, unlike Minkes, are renowned for their gregarious and acrobatic behaviour. It is common to see them breaching, slapping their tails and flukes, and feeding on whale-watching tours. Tour operators from northern towns, such as Akureyri and Húsavík, have had seasons where at least one Humpback has been spotted on every excursion.

A humpback whale breaching.Picture from Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching

White-beaked dolphins: White-beaked dolphins are the most commonly seen dolphin around Iceland, staying close to the shore throughout the year. They live in pods ranging from a few individuals to a hundred, and, though a bulky species, can often be seen bow-riding, breaching, and playing at the surface.

Harbour porpoises: One of the smallest species of whale, harbour porpoises can be seen all around the country throughout the year, for those with a trained eye. Small and shy, they usually only appear at the surface, alone or in groups of less than few individuals, for moments at a time. When feeding or threatened, however, they can race across the surface in a behaviour known as roostering, a dramatic and eye-catching display.

A harbour porpoise.

Orcas: About 5000 of the world’s largest species of dolphin live around Iceland throughout the year, coming closer to the shore during the summer months. Orcas, or killer whales, can appear on any whale-watching trip, but are not as easy to find as other species due to their transient nature; they do not tend to stay in the same area for long. When they are seen, however, their great size and occasional acrobatic behaviour make them one of the most popular animals to witness.

They are most common in the rich herring grounds of the East Fjords, around the Snæfellsnes Peninsular, and along the South Coast. One of the world’s most famous orcas, Keiko, was taken from the Westman Islands.

The back of a female orca.Photo Credit: 2 Day Snaefellnes Tour

While these species can be seen most often, they are not the only ones that frequent Iceland’s waters. Below is a list of other species that the very lucky will have the opportunity to see:

Other great whales: Humpback and Minke Whales may be the most common baleen whales, but they are not the only ones. The two largest creatures ever to live on Earth, Blue and Fin Whales, can also be seen throughout the summer months, although much more rarely. Sei Whales are also occasionally spotted.

A blue whale shot from above.

Toothed whales: Sightings of the largest toothed whale, the mighty Sperm Whale, are not uncommon off Iceland’s west coast in spring and summer. In the northern waters, groups of belugas and narwhals, which can usually only be sighted above the Arctic Circle, have also been spotted.

Pilot Whales: This large, sleek, sociable species of dolphin is spotted occasionally around the country; there are estimated to be 35,000 of them. Being a very transient species that spends most of its time offshore, however, they are not seen as much as one might think.

A pilot whales spy-hopping. Wikimedia, Creative Commons, photo by Barney Moss

Beaked Whales: Beaked whales are amongst the least known group of animals, spending little time at the surface, hours diving beneath it, and having a general apprehension around boats. Still, however, sightings have been had all around Iceland. In fact, there are thought to be up to 40,000 Northern Bottlenose Whales around the country, mostly concentrated in the South-East.

Seeing the whales and dolphins of Iceland is a mesmerising and rewarding experience, and there are a wealth of places to do it from. The town of Húsavík in North Iceland has in fact been dubbed ‘the whale-watching capital of Europe’. Tours leave from here, Akureyri and the Snæfellsnes Peninsular during the summer, and from Reykjavík’s Old Harbour throughout the year

Húsavík, in north Iceland, is known as 'Europe's Whale Watching Capital.'Picture from Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching

The Minke whale is curious by nature and boats always arouse its interest so that explorers are consistently provided with ample opportunities for up-close encounters with this magnificent creature.

On the most affordable whale watching trip departing from Reykjavik, the most commonly spotted animals are minke whales, whale beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises, but the chances of seeing the humpback heavyweight, are much higher on a Húsavík whale watching trip in Skjálfandi bay in North Iceland.

What are the best tours?

A whale watching tour will always be an unforgettable experience and there is an abundance of enticing options available for all whale watching enthusiasts.

I advise you to examine this list of whale watching tours to see your options, where you can choose from a variety of vessels, ranging from traditional Icelandic oak boats to modern RIB speedboats, and tours lasting from a couple of hours to whole days.

The puffin is as much a local to Iceland as the people.

The puffin, Iceland's unofficial national bird, breeds in large colonies on offshore islands and coastal cliffs, and therefore some tours include puffin watching as well. 

Below is a list of the most affordable whale watching tours, sailing from Iceland's main whale watching ports.

  Port of  departure  Cheapest Whale Watching Tours   Chances of Seeing a Whale      Common Species in Area    Availability 

Reykjavík

10,900 ISK - Best Value Whale Watching Trip by Reykjavík Sailors

95%

Minke and Humpback Whale, Whale-Beaked Dolphins and Harbour Porpoise

All Year
Akureyri

10,990 ISK - Akureyri Whale Watching by Eyjafjord Whale Watching

99% Humpback and Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise and White-beaked Dolphin All Year
Húsavík

10,300 ISK - Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching by Gentle Giants Whale Watching

99% Humpback Whale, Minke Whale, Blue Whale, and White-Beaked Dolphins May - November
Dalvík

 9,900 ISK - Whale Watching from Dalvík in North Iceland by Arctic Adventures

98% Humpback Whale and White-Beaked Dolphins May - November
Hauganes

9,400 ISK - Whale Watching and Sea Angling by Whale Watching Hauganes

99% Humpback and Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise and White Beaked Dolphin May - September