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Keiko on December 1, 1998.

Whale Watching in Iceland & the Effect of COVID-19

Verified Expert

Seeing a whale breach is an experience beyond compare.

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 the 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 and various other locations around Iceland all year round.

But before you learn more about the whales and the tours that will help you see them, here’s some info on how COVID-19 might impact your whale-watching tour.

Whale Watching during COVID-19

If you’re traveling to the land of fire and ice to catch a glimpse of some of the largest animals on the planet, you’re in luck; Iceland is still open to visitors, and whale-watching tours continue operating

In fact, Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world to visit during the pandemic; more vaccinations have been administered than there are people and after months of stringent measures, the country has lifted restrictions such as mask-wearing. In fact, the only rules remaining are on international travelers, and for those vaccinated or with proof of antibodies from a past infection, this only involves filling out a pre-registration form before arrival.

Whale watching is a markedly safe activity anyway for those who wish to spend the whole excursion out on the deck, so even if you have lingering concerns regarding COVID-19, this is still a trip you can enjoy!

Stay informed with the help of our COVID-19 information page.

Whales of 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 wide variety of krill and fish.

Consequently, Iceland is a bountiful feeding ground that attracts twenty-three whale species, from the enormous sperm whale to the gentle little harbor porpoise. 

The chances of spotting specific types of whales on a whale-watching trip vary depending on the port of departure. However, 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 honorable mentions of some less-common ones.

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 compared to other species but can still exceed nine meters in length. Their behavior is usually rather shy, but due to their numbers, you can regularly see them 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 months.

Unlike minke whales, humpbacks are renowned for their gregarious and acrobatic behavior. Humpback whales are basically 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 in which they have spotted at least one humpback 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, you can often see them bow-riding, breaching, and playing at the surface.

Harbor porpoises 

One of the smallest whale species, you can see harbor porpoises all around the country throughout the year. However, 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 behavior known as roostering, a dramatic and eye-catching display.

Orcas 

Orcas are the world’s largest dolphin species, and about 5,000 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.

However, their great size and occasional acrobatic behavior make them a favorite among whale watchers.

They are most common in the East Fjords' rich herring grounds, around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and along the South Coast.

Orcas are most commonly seen in the waters near Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Picture from: Whale Watching on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

While you can see the species mentioned above 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.

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 you can usually see 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.

Pilot whales 

This large, sleek, friendly dolphin species 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

Picture by Barney Moss from Wiki Creative Commons. No edits made.

Beaked whales 

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. There are thought to be up to 40,000 northern bottlenose whales around the country, mostly concentrated in the Southeast.

What Are the Best Whale Watching Tours in Iceland?

A whale watching tour

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 check out this list of whale-watching tours to see your options. You’ll be able to choose your tour 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. 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.

Reykjavik

  • Whale-Watching Tour from Reykjavík by Special Tours
  • Price: 11,990 ISK
  • Chances of seeing a whale: 99%
  • Availability: all year
  • Common species: Minke and Humpback Whale, Whale-Beaked Dolphins, and Harbour Porpoise

Husavik

  • Húsavík Traditional Whale Watching by Gentle Giants Whale Watching
  • Price: 10,490 ISK
  • Chances of seeing a whale: 99%
  • Availability: April to November
  • Common species: Humpback Whale, Minke Whale, Blue Whale, and White-Beaked Dolphins

Akureyri

  • Akureyri Whale Watching by Eyjafjord Whale Watching
  • Price: 10,990 ISK
  • Chances of seeing a whale: 95%
  • Availability: all year
  • Common species: Humpback and Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise, and White-beaked Dolphin

Hauganes

  • Whale Watching and Sea Angling by Whale Watching Hauganes
  • Price: 9,900 ISK
  • Chances of seeing a whale: 99%
  • Availability: April to December
  • Common species: Humpback and Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise, and White Beaked Dolphin

Olafsvik

  • Whale Watching on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula by Láki Tours
  • Price: 9,900 ISK
  • Chances of seeing a whale: 95%
  • Availability: April to October
  • Common species: Orcas, Minke Whale, Harbour Porpoise,  White Beaked Dolphin and  Humpback Whales

What is the Best Season for Whale Watching in Iceland?

You can enjoy whale-watching tours 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.

Whale Watching in Summer in Iceland

Puffins have to clumsily run over the surface of the water to gain flightPicture from Andy Brunner on Unsplash

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 canceled, but your chances of seeing cetaceans breaking the flat surface of the water are much higher.

Furthermore, standing on the deck for the tour's duration 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.

However, the balmier weather is not the only reason whale watching in summer has advantages over whale watching in winter. The second main draw is the greater diversity of life.

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.

It’s also worth noting that the white-beaked dolphins and harbor porpoises that frequent Iceland’s waters year-round are just as common in the summer months.

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.

You can often see sperm whales in Breiðafjörður Bay, where the water is deep enough for them to hunt. Northern bottlenose whales are more randomly distributed offshore but do occasionally come into shallower seas when pursuing prey.

However, these are not the only whale species that come to Iceland in summer and make each whale watching tour that much more spectacular.

Basking sharks, the world’s second-largest fish species, can also be found cruising near the surface on occasion during this season.

These enormous, prehistoric creatures move slowly and have a very calm nature, meaning sightings often last longer than with the whales, who dive to feed.

Basking sharks are enormous, but only eat plankton

Migratory seabirds are also familiar sights on whale watches during summer.

You can see arctic terns, great skua and, of course, puffins on tours from Reykjavík, Akureyri, Húsavík, and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. They are frequently spotted bobbing on the water's surface, 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 best option for a RIB boat whale-watching tour is from Reykjavík.

Whale Watching in Iceland in Winter

A Humpback Whale in front of Mount EsjanPicture from Winter Whale Watching

Despite the many advantages of summer whale-watching tours, there are 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 water's choppy surface or the brittle winds from the viewing area are unlikely to join the tour.

If you do not mind bracing these conditions, you are 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.

A might Humpback breachingPicture from Whale Watching in Akureyri and Reykjavík

Regarding the cetaceans you will see on winter whale-watching tours, the most common are white-beaked dolphins and harbor 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, which divides the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes Peninsula, is a herring wintering ground, and the abundance of food attracts many predators.

The apex predator of the ocean, the orca, is therefore much more common in areas such as Breiðafjörður Fjord in winter than in summer.

The herring in Breiðafjörður also means that humpbacks who linger throughout winter will often congregate here.

Meanwhile, in North Iceland, you are far more likely to see belugas than you would be during summer.

While these curious, gregarious animals are not Iceland residents and only come here by chance, this only occurs when they have migrated away from the Arctic into waters with less ice.

Belugas are rarely seen around Iceland, but do visitPicture by Greg Hume. Wikimedia Creative Commons. No edits made.

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, which can add so much to your experience.

So, Should You Go Whale Watching in Iceland in Summer or Winter?

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 a good reason; Iceland has an abundance of cetaceans you can reliably see regardless of the season. So, whichever season you travel in, you will have an unforgettable experience.

Where is the Best Place to go Whale Watching in Iceland?

The time of year you decide to embark and the port you choose to depart from on a whale-watching tour will affect what you see.

Different species frequent different areas, so if you seek to see a particular animal, you should be aware of the best places in Iceland to go.

Seeing the whales and dolphins of Iceland is a mesmerizing and rewarding experience, and there are a wealth of places from which to do it.

In fact, the town of Húsavík in North Iceland has been dubbed ‘the whale-watching capital of Europe,’ but there are plenty of other places from which to take a whale-watching tour.

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

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 harbor porpoises. The chances of seeing the humpback heavyweight are much higher on a Húsavík whale-watching trip in Skjálfandi Bay in North Iceland.

Whale Watching from the Capital Area

If you are staying in Iceland's capital city Reykjavík, leaving Reykjavík’s Old Harbor is the easiest option.

The usual departure point is within easy walking distance from most downtown hotels. 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 length also means that if a tour is canceled due to inclement weather or if you didn’t see any marine mammals, you might be permitted to join another tour for free. This arrangement is unlikely to scupper other plans for those staying in the capital.

Although they can reach up to 40 metric tonnes, Humpbacks can breach clear of the waterPicture from Best Value Whale Watching Trip from Reykjavík

The convenience of whale watching in Faxaflói Bay is undoubtedly 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. Whereas to the North, it is often possible to see Snæfellsjökull Glacier.

Furthermore, Faxaflói is a reliable place to find white-beaked dolphins, harbor 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, you can spot puffins on almost every outing.

Whale Watching from the North of Iceland

A Humpback Whale seen up closePicture 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.

However, humpback whales are not the only common species; as with the rest of the country, harbor porpoises and white-beaked dolphins also frequent the waters.

The blow of great whales can be seen from great distances on clear daysPicture 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 you can find 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. Having a higher number of animals means there are more chances of sightings and watching exciting behaviors such as breaching, fluking, tail-slapping, and spy-hopping.

A Humpback spy-hopping and revealing its baleen platesPicture from Whales, Sea Birds & Eyjafjordur

Akureyri, meanwhile, is simply a more convenient place from which to whale watch. 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 with the rise in tourist numbers over the past decade, 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.

Whale Watching from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is better known for its incredible sites on land than for its sea-life, but avid whale watchers will find it 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.

While you can see them most commonly 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 could not find a mate in the warm southern shores use these deep waters to hunt 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 they are rarely seen. It should be noted, however, that even in Breiðafjörður, this is not a common occurrence.

The Verdict?

The best place for whale watching in Iceland 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.

Whales in Icelandic Folklore and Sagas

A map of Iceland, ca 1590.

Fantastic stories that reflect the important role whales have played in shaping Iceland's cultural and economic history fill Icelandic folklore. 

One story tells of a man thought to be lost at sea. He was found a year later and brought back to his village. A woman saved him, and he stayed with her for the whole year, impregnating 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 the Killer Whale

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

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

Keiko, the male orca who portrayed Willy in the 1993 film Free Willy, was captured in Reyðarfjörður Fjord in east Iceland in 1979. He was subsequently bought and sold between various aquariums and marine parks, where he learned to perform for audiences before being cast by 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. 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 allowed to swim in the ocean again, hoping he would eventually reunite 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.

Keiko’s 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. Since his tragic passing, whale watching in Iceland has rapidly grown into a flourishing industry.

In the previous year alone, just under 300,000 people ventured on whale-watching trips from Icelandic harbors.

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.

Commercial Whaling in Iceland

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 practiced in Iceland from as early as the 12th century. 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 a fierce international debate between various radical and moderate animal rights organizations.

The outcome of that debate was not in Sea Shepherd's favor. Most environmentalists denounced the organization'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 favor 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 several years, whaling continued, backed by even greater public approval than before. 

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

Today's Iceland generally considers commercial whaling to be an expression of an ancient worldview that is slowly but surely fading into nonexistence.

In fact, for the first time in 17 years, in the summer of 2019, Iceland didn’t hunt any whales. This hunting restraint is a trend that is expected to continue.

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

We hope you enjoyed our guide to whale watching and whale spotting in Iceland. Spotting whales, for many, is part of the ultimate bucket list. By knowing everything from the whale species that explore our waters, the best time of year for whale watching in Iceland, and the best locations and tours around the country, you should be well-prepped to plan this into a fantastic trip.

We’d love to hear and respond to any comments or questions you may have regarding whale watching in Iceland in the section below.