Whale watching in Iceland

There’s a sea change occurring in Iceland. Once staunchly pro-whaling – it was notoriously a hard-fought campaign point for politicians – enthusiasm for commercial killing has waned hugely in recent years. There was concern when whaling started up in 2003 after a long hiatus, but the industry stalled again 15 years later. Only one company still has a whaling license, and it hasn’t caught a whale since 2018.

There are several reasons why Iceland has pretty much called it a day on whaling, including a lack of appetite for whale meat and competition from Japan, who started whaling again in 2015. Another big reason: tourists. Over 350,000 visitors go whale watching in Iceland each year, contributing over €20 million to the economy. Most would rather see whales than see them slaughtered.
The biggest whales also play a huge role in capturing planet-warming carbon from the atmosphere. Before their numbers were decimated by whaling, they would have stored 1.7 billion tons of CO2 a year, sinking it into bottom of the ocean when they died naturally. Meanwhile, whale droppings fertilise phytoplankton – a type of plankton that absorbs carbon and produces half the oxygen in our atmosphere.
We are a hair’s breadth away from the final curtain call on Icelandic whaling.
– Sharon Livermore, Director of Marine Conservation for International Fund for Animal Welfare
Whale watching tours in Iceland set out to see these big whales: the minke, humpback, fin and blue whales, as well as the orcas (killer whales) that glide through the North Atlantic Ocean to feed on fish, seals and crustaceans. Experienced ship’s captains and guides are key. They’ll get great wildlife viewings from a respectful distance and reveal all about these complex and characterful cetaceans.

Despite the popularity of whale watching, the threat of whale hunting returning to Iceland is always present. Even after three lousy years in a row, the Icelandic government still gives out hunting quotas and subsidies to the one remaining whaling company. It’s still one of only three countries in the world that kills whales commercially, almost proudly rebelling against the International Whaling Commission’s 1986 ban on hunting whales.

Whale watching vacations in Iceland could be the thing that finishes off whaling in Iceland. Keep reading to discover what tours are like, which whales you’ll see and when and where to go whale watching in Iceland.

What whales will I see in Iceland?

Minke whales

You’re most likely to see minke whales in Iceland. Some years, over 40,000 minke come searching for sand eel, crustaceans and cod. Although the smallest whales in Icelandic waters, they’re still about the size of a bus. You’re also most likely to see minke whales on tourist menus in Reykjavik, where whale meat is passed off as a traditional Icelandic food. But don’t be fooled into trying it – it just gives the government a reason to keep handing out whaling quotas. The first whaling stations in Iceland were set up by Basque whalers for profit, not food, and these days less than three percent of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales will be too busy slapping their tail flukes on the water and backflipping (technical term: breaching) to notice you watching in awe nearby. At up to 18m long, they’re almost the length of a cricket pitch; their flippers alone are 5m long. There’s no missing them and you’re very likely to see at least one solo swimmer or a small pod on a whale watching trip. Humpbacks are also known for their haunting whale song. Some trips even give you the chance to jam with the whales while recording and collecting data.

Killer whales (orca)

Killer whales are technically the largest sibling in the dolphin family. They’re big travelers, rambling far and wide at speed, so they can be trickier to spot than other whales. You’re most likely to see them in winter in West Iceland, herding fish into the bays of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. They’re not easily forgotten, either – travel with an expert guide who can decode their family dramas and whip-smart hunting techniques.
Orcas triggered a surge in interest in whale watching in the late 1990s. Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was captured from Iceland in 1979 and released in 2002 after a successful campaign from the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP). Despite dying a year later from a virus, his rescue from a tiny aquarium is considered a success. Keiko had already outlived most captive orcas and spent his last year hunting, feeding and interacting with wild orcas for the first time since he was a baby.

Blue whales

The biggest creature that has ever existed on our planet, blue whales were the number one target of the whaling industry until the 1960s, when the North Atlantic population was hunted down to the last few hundred. Populations are increasing but still endangered, so seeing blue whales in Iceland is unusual but not unheard of. They like to sift through krill in the waters off the north coast, disappearing 100m into the deep and staying underwater for up to 15 minutes.

Fin whales

Fin whales are the second largest whale in the world – and about half of the population can be found in the North Atlantic Ocean around Iceland. They usually travel solo, swimming slowly and occasionally showing off their pale underbelly. Despite being endangered, there are still hunting quotas in place for fin whales in Iceland.

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Where to go whale watching in Iceland

Whale watching vacations in Iceland are small ship cruises that explore a corner of Iceland – or sometimes completely circumnavigate the island. There’s a good chance of seeing whales anywhere in Iceland, but you’ll see bigger numbers in the north, where melting ice and glaciers add nutrients to the waters that create an all-you-can eat buffet of fish and crustaceans.

Husavik

Before it starred in Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, Husavik was more famous for being the center of Iceland’s whale watching trips. From here, small inflatable RIB boats head out to see the humpbacks, minke and orca that like to feed in this north-easterly corner of Iceland. A mix of nutrient-rich waters, long summer days and expert whale watching skippers make it the place where you’re most likely to see whales in Iceland.
Visit the Husavik Whale Museum to marvel over the 25m-long blue whale skeleton – one of 11 whales here that died from natural causes. There’s also a sanitised history exhibit of whaling in Iceland that’s best taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

Akureyri

Akureyri is the second biggest city in Iceland – although it’s still got a cosy population of fewer than 20,000 people. It hunkers down in the far end of the 70km-long Eyjafjordur, one of the longest fjords in Iceland. Humpback whales and white-beaked dolphins smooth through the water here, but you might also see orca, as well as rare fin and blue whales. It’s also one of the best places to record whale song. Whale watching trips here skirt around seabird islands in summer, which are a hubbub of nesting puffins.

Westman Islands

Just off the south-west coast of Iceland, the Westman Islands are about as far south as whale watching tours go. The islands look like green icebergs, with sheer cliffs and tiny black beaches formed by relatively recent lava eruptions. Trips usually pop by Heimaey, the only inhabited island. Wild whales swim between the islands, but the Westman Islands also have an open ocean whale sanctuary that’s currently rehabilitating two ex-aquarium beluga whales.

Westfjords

The Westfjords erupt from the north-west corner of Iceland, where bays such as Steingrimsfjordur attract acrobatic humpbacks. There’s also a chance of seeing whales from land, thanks to the fjords that slice deeply into almost every inch of this little-visited peninsula. Most boats base themselves in Isafjordur, where you can also go hiking between roadless mountains and kayaking beneath puffin cliffs.

Reykjavik

Whale watching vacations usually begin and end in Reykjavik, the south-westerly capital of Iceland. You’ll board your ship in the Old Harbour, right in the city center and a couple of miles away from the big cruise ships. Reykjavik Maritime Museum and the iceberg-like Harpa Opera House are also along the waterfront.

Best time for whale watching in Iceland

The Iceland whale watching season is in summer, between early May and September. The waters warm, boosting krill and fish populations, plus there’s calmer weather and longer daylight hours. The midnight sun hangs in the sky between mid-May and mid-August in the north, while in September you’ve got a chance of catching the Northern Lights as the skies darken.
Killer whales (orca) go where the herring go, so their movements are more unpredictable – or non-existent if the herring head for Norway instead of Iceland. You’re most likely to see them between March and June.

Practicalities

Whale watching trips are usually part of a longer vacation in Iceland like a small ship cruise. The more time spent on the water, the better your chances of seeing whales. Choose a circumnavigation of Iceland, which spends 7-10 days exploring Iceland by sea, docking in well-known whale watching ports such as Reykjavik, Husavik and Akureyri. Some tours use a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) that seats 12 passengers. They’re light, speedy and safe on choppy waters, and cause the least disturbance to the whales. Small ship cruises in Iceland use bigger boats of 25-220 passengers that you’ll sail and sleep on for the full trip. They’re well-equipped for the Icelandic seas, often kitted out with expedition windjackets, an on-board lecture theatre and big, clear decks for wildlife watching. Food is sourced in Iceland where possible – even the strawberries and bananas are grown in hot houses heated geothermally. The best boats avoid using heavy fuel oils. All our whale watching trips are guided by expert sea captains, conservationists and marine biologists. They’re your eyes and ears, and often the first people to call attention to a spout of water or distinctive orca dorsal fin. Other activities on Iceland vacations often include sea kayaking, Northern Lights watching, glacier hiking, volcano jeep rides and Icelandic horse riding.
With thanks to Phoebe McCauley for her research.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Davide Cantelli] [Humpback: Pascal Mauerhofer] [Minke whale: Andrea Schaffer] [Orca: Guiseppe Milo] [Husavik: Luca Temporelli] [Westfjords: Bernard McManus] [Humpback: yashima]