Beached Whales in Iceland

On the 7th of September, 2013 something out of the ordinary happened on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West-Iceland.  Now 6 years later this is happening more and more. There was a storm and really bad weather and 50-70 pilot whales swam into the harbour of the village Rif on the northern side of Snæfellsnes. Many of the poor whales got stuck on the beaches in the neighbourhood and died there :(

We tried to rescue them, but they were too many and the weather was too bad. We don't know why this happened. 

Beached whale in Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The pilot whales are much more common in the Faroe Islands, where pilot whale meat is very popular. We come across stranded whales here in Iceland from time to time, but the only whale I have seen myself ashore was up in the Westfjords. It was a 2-year-old carcass of a whale on Rauðasandur - Red Sands. It was rotting on the beach and there was still oil leaking from it.

I really wanted to see the pilot-whales and we drove for 2.5 hours from Reykjavík to Snæfellsnes to have a closer look.

Beached whale in Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Poor whale :(

When we reached our destination I was amazed, the dead pilot-whales were spread all over the beach. I touched the first one I saw and it was so soft and so cute really as they look a lot like dolphins. I felt sorry for it having to end its life here on the beach of Iceland, but there must be a logical or illogical reason for this to happen...

Why does this happen? I guess nobody knows, it is just nature at work. So the most sensible thing to do is to make the best of this sad situation and use the whale meat for human consumption. So the word spread that people were free to get meat from the dead whales for personal use to prevent the whales from rotting on the beach.

Beached whale in Snæfellsnes Peninsula

A lot of people in the neighbouring villages and from Reykjavík went there to save the meat.  In the olden days when whales stranded, it was considered a godsend and I am sure it made living on this cold island a whole lot easier when a whale stranded in remote inhabited regions. The Icelandic term for a stranded whale is hvalreki which also means a godsend.

We did get our share of meat and gave it to friends and family and had a whale dinner that night with the family.  I was vegan for 26 years and don't eat red meat, so I found it disturbing seeing the cut up whales on the beach, but I do understand that the meat has to be used for human consumption. Otherwise, it would have been a waste of the lives of the stranded dead whales. 

Beached whale in Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Most of us Icelanders had no idea how to cut the meat from the dead pilot whales and got a lesson from the Faroese Consul General to Iceland, who had driven from Reykjavík with his wife to get some meat.

Not all of the pilot-whales got stranded on the beach, a lot of them ended their lives on the bottom of the sea in the harbour.

There is one theory as to why the whales swim ashore like this. It is believed that they rely on the earth's magnetic field to find their way in the ocean. So if there is a disturbance in the magnetic field they might get disoriented and swim ashore. And it is difficult to rescue them as they tend to swim ashore again.

A similar thing happened in this same area in 1982 when some 380 pilot whales lost their way, as it were. A lot of them were rescued back then. Pilot whales swim in very large groups and when the first part of the group gets disoriented the whole group follows them - often to their death.

Beached Whales in IcelandThere is another excellent theory about earthquakes causing the whales to strand. You can read up on this theory on the Deafwhale Society webpage by Capt. David Williams.

In the summer of 2018, a large group (around 100) of pilot whales entered Kolgrafafjörður bay on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and got trapped in the fjord behind the bridge. It took several days to help them out of the fjord.

It is now happening more and more that the whales are losing their way, as it were, and I frequently read on the news about whales being seen in different places of Iceland. F.ex. in August 2018 a flock of them (some 40 pilot whales) swam into Pollurinn in Akureyri up north., where they are rarely seen. The whale species, Bottlenose, is, on the other hand, sometimes to be seen in Pollurinn.

In 2019 it happened several times that pilot whales lost their bearings and got beached. Above is a video of the rescue operation in Garður on the Reykjavík peninsula.

Most Icelanders love whales and only a minority wants to hunt them. We would much rather watch and enjoy these majestic creatures.

Beached Whales in Iceland

We have many whale watching tours in my country - I have joined 4 of them already. Do join a whale watching tour if you want to see these beautiful big creatures up close and alive. It is an amazing experience and I have written 4 travel-blogs on my experience of whale watching tours:

Whale Watching from Húsavík - the Whale Watching Capital of Iceland & a Visit to the Whale Museum

Humpback Whales in Abundance on a Fantastic Whale Watching Tour from Akureyri in North-Iceland

Whale Watching from Hólmavík in the Westfjords of Iceland

Whale Watching and Sea Angling from Reykjavík Harbour with Reykjavík Sailors 

Beached Whales in Iceland

Have a lovely time whale watching and I hope you get to see many whales on your tour! 

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