Over the last two decades, Iceland has become one of Europe's premier whale watching destinations. Whale watching is as essential a part of any trip to Iceland as seeing Northern Lights, Hot Springs and Glaciers. This article provides everything you need to know about whale watching in Iceland, plus some fun facts about whales in Iceland.
Whales are large aquatic mammals, also known as cetaceans. Several civilizations - including Icelanders - are known to have hunted them since as early as 875 AD. Today whaling is a less significant industry and the ocean's gentle giants are seen more as a tourist attraction.
In Iceland you can catch whales splashing around under the Northern Lights or illuminated by the Midnight Sun, depending on what time of year you visit. Tours depart from Reykjavik City and various other locations around Iceland all year round. Read on to find out what types of whales can be seen near Iceland and where the right whale watching tour for you departs.
Photo: Paweł Kowalczuk.
This picture from WDC shows the most common types of whales found around Iceland.
Abundant summer daylight combined with a unique mixture of cold and warm sea currents which blend in Iceland's shallow fjords make the Icelandic territorial waters home to a rich variety of krill and fish. Consequently, Iceland is a bountiful feeding ground that attracts twenty-three species of whales, from the enormous sperm whale to the gentle little harbour porpoise.
The chances of spotting specific types of whales 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 is a list of the most common species found on whale watching tours in Iceland, followed by honourable mentions of some less-common ones.
Minke Whales are by far 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 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.
Picture from Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching
Humpback whales also come to Iceland during the summer months. Unlike minke whales, humpbacks are renowned for their gregarious and acrobatic behaviour, basically, they are the attention seeking divas of the whale world. It is common to see them on whale-watching tours; breaching, slapping their tails and flukes, or feeding. Tour operators from northern towns, such as Akureyri and Húsavík, have had seasons where at least one humpback has been spotted on every excursion.
Picture from Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching
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.
One of the smallest species of whale, harbour porpoises can be seen all around the country throughout the year. Although you might need someone with a trained eye to point them out. They are small and shy and usually only appear at the surface, alone or in small groups, for moments at a time. When feeding or threatened they can race across the surface in a behaviour known as roostering, a dramatic and eye-catching display.
Orcas are the world’s largest species of dolphin and about 5000 of them 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 a favourite among whale watchers.
They are most common in the rich herring grounds of the East Fjords, around the Snæfellsnes Peninsular, and along the South Coast.
Photo Credit: 2 Day Snaefellnes Tour
While the aforementioned 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 whales and fin whales, can also be seen throughout the summer months, although much more rarely. Sei whales are also occasionally spotted.
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.
The Westman Islands are also home to the world's first beluga whale sanctuary, where visitors can meet two female whales: Little White and Little Grey in their new home in Klettsvik Bay.
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.
Beaked whales are amongst the least known group of animals, spending little time at the surface, but hours diving beneath it and having a general aversion to boats. Still, they have been sighted 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.
Photo: Paweł Kowalczuk.
A whale watching tour will always be an unforgettable experience and there is an abundance of enticing options available for all whale watching enthusiasts.
We 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, Iceland's unofficial national bird, breeds in large colonies on offshore islands and coastal cliffs, and therefore some tours include puffin watching as well. So you can tick two things off your must-see list at once!
Below is a list of the most affordable whale watching tours, sailing from Iceland's main whale watching ports.
Whale watching tours can be enjoyed throughout the year, but the season in which you embark on one will entirely shape your experience. There are advantages to whale watching in summer over winter, and visa-versa, that you should consider before booking your trip. Let us break it down for you.
Picture from Husavik Whale and Puffin Safari
Whale watching in summer has one obvious appeal over whale watching in winter: the weather. With calmer winds, fewer storms and clearer skies, not only are whale watching tours less likely to be cancelled, but your chances of seeing cetaceans breaking the flat surface of the water are much higher.
Furthermore, standing on the deck for the duration of the tour is not only more comfortable but a lot more enjoyable. While you may still need the protective overalls that most companies provide, you won’t find yourself running indoors every few minutes to warm up.
The balmier weather, however, is not the only reason why whale watching in summer has advantages over whale watching in winter. The second main draw is the greater diversity of life.
Picture from Whale Watching and Sea Angling
The migratory baleen whales of the world’s oceans tend to spend their winters around the equator breeding, and their summers closer to the poles to feed. Between April and October in Iceland, therefore, you can expect to see some of the world's largest creatures on your tour.
No matter the port you leave from in summer, you have an excellent chance of seeing minke and humpback whales; sei, fin and blue whales may also appear if you are lucky. The white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises that frequent Iceland’s waters year round are just as common in the summer months.
Picture from Whales & Puffins
Though they prefer deeper water than those in Faxafloi Bay, sperm whales and northern bottlenose whales are also more commonly found in Iceland in summer. The former are most often seen in Breiðafjörður Bay, where the water is deep enough for them to hunt; the latter are more randomly distributed offshore but do occasionally come into shallower seas when pursuing prey.
It is not, however, only species of whale that come to Iceland in summer and make each whale watching tour that much more spectacular. Basking sharks, the world’s second largest species of fish, can also be found cruising near the surface on occasion during this season; these enormous, prehistoric creatures move slowly and have a very placid nature, meaning sightings often last longer than with the whales, who dive to feed.
Migratory seabirds are also common sights on whale watches during summer. Arctic terns, great skua and, of course, puffins can be seen on tours from Reykjavík, Akureyri, Húsavík and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, bobbing on the surface of the water, circling overhead, or diving for fish.
A final advantage of whale watching in summer is that you can partake in a smaller vessel such as a RIB for a much closer, more personal encounter. This option is available in Reykjavík and the North.
Picture from Winter Whale Watching
Despite the many advantages of summer whale watching tours, there are also several advantages to taking a whale watching tour during winter.
Firstly, winter whale watching tours are much less busy; those who fear seasickness on the choppy surface of the water or the brittle winds from the viewing area are unlikely to join the tour. If you do not mind bracing these conditions, you are therefore likely to have a lot more space to search for cetaceans, and when sightings do occur, you are less likely to have to crane over others for a decent view.
Picture from Whale Watching in Akureyri and Reykjavík
Regarding the cetaceans you will see on winter whale watch tours, the most common are white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises. However, it is not unheard of for great whales to linger throughout winter occasionally, so it is reasonable to hope to see minke whales, and occasionally Humpbacks, as well.
The second advantage of whale watching in winter applies solely to whale watching in certain areas. Breiðafjörður Fjord, for example, which divides the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes Peninsula, is a herring wintering grounds, and the abundance of food attracts many predators. The apex predator of the ocean, the orca, is therefore much more common in this area in winter than in summer.
The herring in Breiðafjörður also means that Humpbacks who linger throughout winter will often congregate here.
In North Iceland, meanwhile, you are far more likely to see Belugas than you would be during summer. While these curious, gregarious animals are not residents of Iceland and only come here by chance, this only occurs when they have migrated away from the Arctic into waters with less ice.
Picture by Greg Hume. Wikimedia, Creative Commons
A final advantage of whale watching in winter is the fact that it allows you to experience some incredible nature, regardless of the wildlife seen. Searching for whales while surrounded by the snowy mountains of Eyjafjorður, for example, makes the scene even more spectacular, and will keep you alert and outside until there is a sighting. There is also a chance of spotting the Northern Lights on a winter whale watching tour.
Whale watching is usually more enjoyable, successful and rewarding during summer; the exception to this is on tours from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, due to the success rates of seeing orcas. Regardless, whale watching excursions go on throughout the year for good reason; Iceland has an abundance of cetaceans that can be reliably seen regardless of the season.
Picture from Whale Watching Tour from Reykjavík
The time of year you decide to embark on a whale watch will affect what you see; so, however, will the port you chose to depart from. Different species frequent different areas, so if you are seeking to see a particular animals, you should be aware of the best places in Iceland to go.
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’ but there are plenty of other places to take a whale watching tour.
Which location to choose for your tour depends on your expectations. On the most affordable whale watching trip departing from Reykjavik, the most commonly spotted animals are minke whales, white-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.
If you are staying in Iceland's capital city Reykjavík, leaving from Reykjavík’s Old Harbour is clearly the easiest option. The usual departure point is within easy walking distance from most downtown hotels, and as tours tend to last three hours or less, they allow you to enjoy an incredible experience without taking up over half a day of your trip.
This also means that if a tour is cancelled due to inclement weather or if you didn’t see any marine mammals, you might be permitted to join another tour for free and rearranging is unlikely to scupper other plans for those staying in the capital.
Picture from Best Value Whale Watching Trip from Reykjavík
The convenience of whale watching in Faxaflói Bay is certainly one part of its appeal, but it is not the only lure. In clear weather, you should be able to see a vast amount of iconic Icelandic sites on a tour from Reykjavík. To the south, you will be able to see the cone-shaped volcanoes that line the barren and haunting Reykjanes Peninsula; to the North, it is often possible to see all the way to Snæfellsjökull Glacier.
Furthermore, Faxaflói is a reliable place to find white-beaked dolphins, harbour porpoises and minke whales throughout the year. In summer, humpbacks are common, and because they nest in the thousands on the islands of Lundey and Akurey, puffins are spotted on almost every outing.
Whale Watching from the North
Picture from Whale Watching in Akureyri and Reykjavík
Whale watching tours that leave from Akureyri and Húsavík, into Eyjafjörður and Skjálfandi Bay respectively, have the highest success rates in Iceland; from both locations, many operators experience sightings on 100% of tours in summer.
In this season and from these destinations, the main appeal is humpback whales. The wealth of food in the cold northern waters draws them into the fjords, the depths of which still allow them to dive to hunt. They, however, are not the only common species; as with the rest of the country, harbour porpoises and white-beaked dolphins also frequent the waters.
Picture from Big Whale Safari & Puffins Husavik
North Iceland is also the best place for your chance of spotting the lesser-seen whales. Blue and fin whales also come there seeking food, although rarely, so do stray beaked whales, narwhals and belugas. In fact, all 24 species of cetacean that are found in Iceland’s waters have been seen in the north, something no other part of the country can claim.
The difference between whale watching in Akureyri and Húsavík is slight but exists. Húsavík is considered to be the whale watching capital of Iceland, some even claiming it has the best whale watching in Europe. Skjálfandi has a higher number of cetaceans than Eyjafjörður, and a higher number of animals means there are more chances of not only sightings but of watching exciting behaviours such as breaching, fluking, tail-slapping and spy-hopping.
Picture from Whales, Sea Birds & Eyjafjordur
Akureyri, meanwhile, is simply a more convenient place to whale watch from. It is the largest town outside of the greater Reykjavík area, meaning it has more activities and sites you can fill your day with when your whale watch is complete. That being said, Húsavík’s services are growing, so this difference may soon become negligible.
Puffins and other seabirds can be seen on tours from both Akureyri and Husavík, as they nest in the cliffs around Eyjafjörður and on islands in Skjálfandi.
Picture from Whale Watching | Snæfellsnes
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is better known for its incredible sites on land than it is for its sea-life, but avid whale watchers will find it to be a hidden gem. Tours leaving from Grundafjörður take you into Breiðafjörður, which, as mentioned, is a wintering herring ground that attracts dolphins, porpoises, humpback whales, and most uniquely, orcas.
Orcas live all around Iceland, but tend to be transient; that is, they move where the food goes. They are thus rarely seen in other parts of the country reliably, particularly in Faxaflói Bay.
Picture from 2 Day Snæfellsnes Tour
While they tend to be most commonly seen in winter, Breiðafjörður is also well worth visiting in summer, as it is the best place in the country to find sperm whales. While not reliably seen on every tour, weaker bulls, who were unable to find a mate in the warm southern shores, use these deep waters to hunt for prey and build up strength for a better shot next year.
Taking tours from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula also provides you with a chance of seeing pods of pilot whales, which can number in the hundreds. Though these animals are abundant around Iceland, they tend to hunt offshore, so are rarely seen. It should be noted, however, that even in Breiðafjörður, this is not a common occurrence.
Picture from Authentic Whale Watching Tour from Husavik
The best place to whale watch in Iceland, regarding likelihood to see cetaceans in abundance displaying their most entertaining behaviour, is undoubtedly Húsavík. That being said, each whale watching port has unique factors that may override this town’s qualities.
For convenience and time-management, considering most people joining whale watching tours are on holiday and want to pack in as many different activities each day as possible, Reykjavík and Akureyri are superior. For avid whale watchers who want to see animals that are less commonly spotted around the world, then a tour from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula wins out.
Icelandic folklore is filled with fantastic stories that reflect the important role whales have played in shaping Iceland's cultural and economic history.
One story tells of a man who was thought to have been lost at sea but was found a year later and brought back to his village. It turned out that he had been saved by a woman and stayed with her for the whole year and impregnated her. When she came to the village with their baby he refused to acknowledge the child she cursed him and he turned into an 'illhveli' an evil whale who caused trouble for the villagers by attacking their boats.
Evil whales are a surprisingly common occurrence in Icelandic stories. 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.
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.
Whales aren't the only sea creatures present in Icelandic Folklore, seals are also featured prominently in stories about selkies, creatures who can shed their sealskin and become human.
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 on December 1, 1998. Photo by unknown author. Wikimedia Creative Commons.
The most famous whale ever to grace Icelandic waters is not a magical creature of ancient literature or folklore, but the hero of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Keiko, the male 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.
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.
Keiko's old home in Klettsvík Bay now has permanent residents once more. Two beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, were brought from an amusement park in Shanghai to live in the Westman Islands on 20th June 2019.
Paradoxically, the old whaling vessels in Reykjavík Harbor are anchored at the dock on which Iceland's largest whale watching society operates.
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, which made up half of the Icelandic four ship whaling fleet.
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.
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.