If you want to see whales and dolphins in the wild, Iceland is the place to do it!
The waters surrounding Iceland are teeming with life. An incredible variety of whales and dolphins come to hunt here year-round.
There are 23 different species of cetaceans that are regularly spotted in the Icelandic seas.
- White-beaked dolphins
- Humpback whales
- Blue Whales
- Minke Whales
- Harbour Porpoises
- Fin Whales
- Sperm Whales
Some of the rarer visitors to Icelandic waters include the Beluga whale and the Narwhal. They occasionally swim over from the Arctic waters of Greenland, Canada, and Russia in the depths of winter. The Narwhal might be a rare sight, but it is one that you will never forget. They have a huge tusk that looks just like a unicorn horn of legends.
Photo by Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center
Beluga’s are just as unique. They are the only white whale in the ocean and have a high pitched call that sounds like a little bird.
You’re most likely to see a Minke whale during a whale watching trip to Iceland. They are the most common whale in the country and can be seen near the coast year-round. These whales are very curious, so don’t be too surprised if they come swimming up to your boat to have a good look at you.
Most Minke whales travel to warmer feeding ground in the wintertime, but there’s always a few of them that stick around through the cold winter too.
The Best Time Of Year For Whale Watching In Iceland
The winter visitors are unique, but whale watching in summer is much more likely to be successful.
April to September is the best time of year to see most whales in Iceland, with an incredible success rate of 95-98% at this time.
You can expect to see plenty of Minke whales in the summer, as well as Sperm Whales and Humpbacks. It is also possible to see Blue whales in the North of Iceland during the summer, and they sometimes swim down to the South during the autumn.
In winter there is much less chance that you will have a successful whale watching trip near Reykjavik, but you can still go out for a lovely Northern Lights boat trip. There is also a high chance of seeing Orcas (Killer Whales) in the West of the country, who congregate around the herring grounds at the fjords of Grundarfjörður.
The tours will be busier in the summertime, and it’s a very good idea to book in advance to avoid disappointment. The waters are usually less choppy at this time, so there’s also less chance that you will feel seasick on the water.
Insider Tip: The conditions can change very quickly in Iceland, even in the summer. If you do tend to get seasickness, it’s a good idea to bring along any medication or pressure bands that you normally use even if the weather seems fine.
Where To See Whales In Iceland
You can see Whales in most places around Iceland, but different species are known to congregate in different regions. Where you will find different species is also influenced by the time of year.
If you are taking a boat tour from the old harbor of Reykjavik, you have a good chance of seeing porpoises, dolphins, and minke whales. The harbor is within walking distance of most hotels and the trips are usually quite short.
So if you are limited by time and transport, Reykjavik is a perfectly good place to set off for a whale watching tour.
If you are hoping to see the mighty Blue Whale, you will want to head North. The Blue Whale is the largest animal to have ever existed. People are always saying that a blue whale’s tongue can weigh the same as an elephant. It’s mostly true!
The blue whale’s tongue commonly weighs the same as an adult female elephant, but not quite the same as a male elephant. All the same, they are enormous!
Bigger than a house, Blue whales have an impressive set of lungs too. They have the loudest song of all the whales and communicate with their kin from over 60 miles (nearly 100km) away.
If you want to see a humpback whale, your best bet is to head North or West. These aren’t as big as the blue whale, but they make up for it with their playful acrobatics. Humpback whales are the showoffs of the sea, splashing and jumping around in the water for the joy of it.
Getting sprayed with seawater as a massive tail comes crashing into the ocean is an experience you’re not likely to forget.
Whilst you’re in the West, keep your eyes open for Orcas and Pilot Whales. Orcas are particularly active in the Wintertime, but they can also be spotted in spring and summer. Pilot whales are a rarer sight. They are actually a type of dolphin and usually live out at sea.
In recent years they have been spotted closer and closer to the Icelandic shores. If you are lucky enough to see these rarer species, you won’t be disappointed. These fiercely loyal animals live in family groups that can reach up to 100 individuals.
Insider Tip: Try to book your whale watching tour as early on in your trip as possible. If you are not successful in seeing a whale or the trip is canceled due to bad weather, some tour operators will let you organize a second go for free. This is completely at the discretion of the individual tour company, so don’t forget to ask them about these policies at your time of booking.
Best Transport To The Whale Watching Tours
If you’re going to take a boat tour from Reykjavik, you probably don’t need to organize any special transport. It is normally possible to walk to the harbor from your downtown hotel, or you can ask the hotel you’re staying in for the best bus route to the harbor.
Buses are cheap in Iceland, at around 3.50 USD per single fare. Taxis are a lot more expensive, but they are obviously more convenient too.
If you want to go on one of the more adventurous Whale Watching Tours in the West or North of the country, we recommend that you book a self-drive tour.
This will give you the flexibility to choose when and where you want to go Whale Watching, as well as plenty of ideas for other fun things to get up to during your trip.
Driving in Iceland is more challenging in the winter than the summertime, but the main Ring Road is kept clear of snow and ice for most of the year.
For lots of information about driving safely in Iceland, you can check out this article.
How Much Does It Cost To Go Whale Watching In Iceland?
On average, a whale watching trip in Iceland costs between 75 USD and 100 USD per person.
Although this might seem expensive, it’s a lot more affordable than a similar trip in many nearby Scandinavian countries.
This is due to the recent boom in Icelandic tourism, leading to more competition between providers.
What to Wear When Whale Watching In Iceland
No matter what time of year that you come to see the whales, you should wear warm and waterproof clothes. T-shirts and shorts are never a good idea!
Don’t forget to bring your gloves and a hat. The hat is particularly good for protecting your ears from the wind which can be annoying and even painful after a prolonged period.
Most tour companies will provide you with some overalls to help keep you warm and dry. Nonetheless, try and bring warm and waterproof clothes, sturdy shoes with a good grip, and some sunglasses.
Polarised sunglasses make it easier to see the whales and dolphins below the water. It’s a good idea to bring your camera, but try and enjoy the whales with your eyes before you get lost behind the shutter!
Are There Sharks In Iceland?
Sharks normally prefer much warmer waters than you can find in Iceland. The Greenland shark is an exception, as well as the porbeagle and a few species of dogfish.
Greenland sharks are huge. They are known to grow to 5 meters (16 feet) in length. Reindeers and even horses have been found in their stomachs, but they aren’t hunters. These animals are believed to have drifted off the Icelandic mainland already dead before being scooped up in the shark’s enormous jaws.
Although the Greenland shark meat is toxic, it was frequently eaten by the Icelandic settlers after being fermented to make it safe. Fermented shark meat is still part of the Icelandic cuisine, but it is less and less sought after by each new generation.
It is possible to eat it whilst you visit Iceland, but the taste is usually very unpleasant to tourists who are not used to the strength of fermented fish meat.
If they haven’t been hunted for meat, Greenland sharks have an astounding life expectancy. They can frequently live for 400 years. One particular Greenland shark is believed to be over 500 years old. This means she would have been alive at the same time as William Shakespeare.
It is, however, is very unlikely that you would see a Greenland Shark on a whale watching tour because they prefer keeping to the cold waters of the deep.
A Very Famous Icelandic Orca
Somewhat ironically, it was a captive Icelandic Orca that played the part of Willy in the international film sensation ‘Free Willy.’
After being caught in Icelandic waters, Keiko was sold to the National Aquarium before being moved to the US and eventually Mexico where he performed tricks in an aquarium for many years.
If you haven’t seen it, Free Willy is the story of a troubled boy who fought to free a captive Orca called Willy (actually the captive Orca Keiko) from an aquarium so he could swim free in the ocean again. The film captivated the hearts of people all over the world and ignited a movement to try and end the captivity of whales and dolphins.
After all, whales and dolphins are extremely intelligent and loving animals. After losing her calf, a wild Orca called Tahlequah kept the body of her baby close to her for 17 days, pushing the calf through the water before finally letting it go.
They also have a complex social hierarchy and communication systems. When hunting, Orcas team together to create waves that knock sleeping seals from Ice sheets. They also jump onto the backs of Humpback whales to drown them.
This might sound quite savage, but humans are wiping out far more whales and dolphins than the Orcas are!
Keiko was eventually freed thanks to the international pressure that followed the success of Free Willy. Unfortunately, it was difficult for him to reintegrate into the wild after so many years in captivity. He died of pneumonia a year after his release.
When in captivity, whales and dolphins are frequently kept in tanks more shallow than the length of their own body. They are known to experience boredom and loneliness so extreme that they are medicated with tranquilizers and antidepressants. This is a world apart from what you will see on a whale watching tour in Iceland.
Watching wild humpbacks crash in and out of the water and playful dolphins swim right up to the boat to say hi, there is just no comparison.
If you believe that whales and dolphins should swim free, then taking part in an Icelandic Whale Watching tour is one way to support this. We live in a world where money talks. By proving that keeping whales alive and safe in their wild habitat is profitable, governments and corporations are much more likely to protect them.
The Surprising Link Between Whales and Climate Change
Whales are not only magnificent creatures that are a lot of fun to see. They also play a vital role in healthy oceans and capturing carbon. Thriving whale populations is one of the key elements needed to tackle climate change!
This is because whales boost the phytoplankton in the ocean, which holds 40% of all carbon produced in the world.
Over their lives, they also hold a huge amount of carbon dioxide in their bodies. When they eventually die, they slowly sink to the ocean floor where the carbon is held for hundreds of years.
We often assume that planting forests is the solution to the climate crisis. Whilst it is true that trees go a long way to capture carbon, they only store around 48 pounds of carbon in a year. Whales hold an incredible 66, 000 pounds of carbon over their lifetime!
The good news is that whaling is becoming less and less commercially viable. People are less interested in eating whale meat as the years go by, and there is increasing pressure on governments to make the practice illegal.
Whilst whale hunting profits have plummeted, the whale watching industry is booming in Iceland. This means money for the tourist industry, protection for the whales, and carbon capture for the climate. What could be better!
Unfortunately, the threats to whales and dolphins go far beyond the whale hunting industry. Far more of these incredible creatures are lost due to a scarcity of food caused by overfishing or being accidentally caught in commercial fishing nets.
They are also threatened by oil spills and other pollutants, like the runoff of pesticides and the accidental consumption of disposable plastics.
Whilst many challenges are facing the whales and dolphins of the future, they continue to thrive in the oceans surrounding Iceland. You can help keep their preservation and protection a priority by paying to see them swim in the wild.
Whether you head West to see the Orcas hunt in the magical Icelandic fjords or drive North to watch the enormous Blue Whales surface for air, a whale watching trip in Iceland is an experience that you will never forget.
See You Soon!
We hope you enjoyed this article about whale watching in Iceland. We have a huge range of resources to help you plan your trip to the land of fire and ice.
We also offer some wonderful self-drive tours to help you start exploring the spectacular sights of Iceland with as little hassle as possible.
We look forward to welcoming you here as soon as possible!