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The larger-than-life landscape of Iceland fits well with the idea of giant, mythical beasts such as dragons or griffins. The country is known as “the Land of Fire and Ice” after all. Unsurprisingly, there are mystical creatures that still dwell along the frigid coast of Iceland – whales. The presence of whales in Iceland goes back centuries; these great creatures are featured in the sagas of the old Norse kings. Nowadays, their fame stems from the growing popularity of whale watching in Iceland.
Known as the place to have a personal encounter with whales in Europe, Iceland is slowly becoming famous for sea excursions. Numerous Icelandic tales and legends talk about the intelligent beasts that inhabit the waters surrounding Iceland, but it wasn’t until the 1990’s that whale watching became an attraction in Iceland. In 1991, the first Iceland whale watching ship left port. In 1993, arguably one of the most famous Icelandic whales of all time – Free Willy – made his debut film appearance. This cemented the new trend for whale watching in Iceland, and it has grown ever since.
The inviting mix of cold and warm currents in Iceland’s surrounding waters create an abundant feeding ground of krill and fish. These tasty snacks attract as many as 23 species of whales that can be seen all through the year. The Minke whale is a curious creature that most often makes an appearance on Iceland whale watching trips. Their interest in boats and other vessels means there are many opportunities to see them in close proximity. However, other whales are also commonly spotted, from relatively small Harbour porpoises and white-beaked dolphins to giant sperm whales. Even the mammoth blue whale can be found on rare occasions.
The type of whale you see depends largely on the location and time of year. Departing from different ports in Iceland will give you a higher chance of seeing a certain species. The good news is you always have at least a 95% chance of sighting these wonderful cetaceans.
As many visitors choose to stay in the cosmopolitan capital of Reykjavik, it is one of the easiest ports to set sail from. While you are staying in the city, take a short drive or walk to the Old Harbour, where many vessels begin their excursions. In the waters of Reykjavik, you have a 95% chance of spotting a whale on any given trip and they are available year-round. Look out for minkes, humpbacks, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises.
Found in Skjalfandi Bay in north Iceland, Husavik is known as the whale watching capital of the world. So, you can be 99% sure that you’ll see some whales! This small town of 2,000 inhabitants is possibly the best place to go whale watching in Iceland. It also features a whale museum and a civic museum for culture and biology. From Husavik, you’re also likely to see humpbacks, minke and white-beaked dolphins as well as the rare Blue whale. It’s important to note that excursions are only available here between the months of May and November. It’s possible to drive to Husavik from Reykjavik along the route 1 ring road. Follow the ring road for approximately 425 km before joining the Norðausturvegur road for 45 km to Husavik. The total drive should take under 6 hours in favourable conditions.
Known as the capital of the north Iceland, Akureyri is a great place for Iceland whale watching in an urban area. Just 100km from the Arctic Circle, Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest urban area and a popular jump-off spot for sighting humpback and minke whales as well as white-beaked dolphins and porpoises. Being so close to the Arctic Circle, you have a 99% rate of spotting a whale at any time of the year. Akureyri has an international airport just 3 km from the city centre. You can also drive there from Reykjavik. Follow route 1 north for 377 km to Hlíðarbraut in Akureyri. The drive should take approximately 4.5 hours.
These locations are not an exhaustive list of places for whale watching in Iceland. Dalvik and Hauganesare are also popular choices to see the humpback whale, minke whale and harbour porpoise. However, Reykjavik and the northern areas are the most popular places. If you want to see as many species as possible, choose to set sail on your whale watching expedition during the summer months between April and September. The summer feeding is plentiful and attracts more rare whales such as orcas and the mighty blue whale.
While whale watching in Iceland is becoming increasingly popular every year, the whaling industry is still prevalent in some parts of Iceland. Whale meat has fallen out of favour in Iceland itself due to anti-whaling activism. In fact, just 2% of Icelandic whale meat is consumed in Iceland. A fraction is sampled by tourists and the majority is exported to Japan. The growing popularity of whale watching has helped to significantly lower the impact of the whaling industry, however, it is still a part of the Icelandic economy and culture.
There are a variety of excursions and tours that range from 3 hours to whole days on the water. The vessels used for whale watching also vary widely, from a traditional wooden boat to a speedboat or something larger. The tours are generally intimate affairs with a limited number of passengers per excursion and they are, of course, family-friendly. Whale watching tours in Iceland are also great ways to see some of Iceland’s beautiful islands and the wildlife that inhabits them. Puffins are a common bird to see while whale watching in Iceland – an added bonus!
Iceland is by far one of the most accessible and popular places for whale watching in Europe. It offers a new perspective of the Icelandic coastline as well as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some of the world’s most majestic creatures.
Travelling to Iceland? Chat with a local travel specialist in Iceland who can help organize your trip.
Adrien Heriaud Travel Expert in Iceland & Norway
Harpa Groiss Travel Expert in Iceland
Lára Ósk Hafbergsdóttir Travel Expert in Iceland