Whale-watching features are high on many people’s travel activity bucket lists. And one of the best places to see these magnificent mammals is in the Arctic Circle.
The Arctic is home to 17 different species of whales, and many of these are regularly seen in the waters around Iceland. Everything from the commonly spotted minke whale, seen year-round, to the more reclusive blue whales, fin whales and belugas.
When is the best time to see whales in Iceland?
The best time of year to go whale watching in Iceland depends on the species of whale you are hoping to see. Humpback whales are most active during the summer months, from June to August. This is when they migrate to Icelandic waters to feed on abundant fish stocks. Blue whales, on the other hand, can be seen in Icelandic waters year-round although sightings are more likely during the summer months when the weather is more favourable.
Other species of whales, such as minke whales and orcas, can be seen in Icelandic waters throughout the year. However, the best time to see these species may vary depending on the specific location. For example, minke whales are more likely to be seen in the Westfjords during the summer months, while orcas are more likely to be seen in North Iceland during the winter months.
Overall, the best time to go whale watching in Iceland is during the summer months, from June to August, but whale watching can be enjoyed in Iceland year-round. The best time to see a particular species of whale will depend on the species you are hoping to see and your location and you should research this fully before booking a tour.
The different species of whales that can be seen in Iceland
There are over 20 species of whales and dolphins that can be seen in Icelandic waters. Some of the most common species include humpback whales, minke whales, orcas, and blue whales.
- Humpback whales are one of the most popular species of whales to see in Iceland. They are known for their acrobatic behaviour, such as breaching and lob tailing. Humpback whales are most active during the summer months, from June to August when they migrate to Icelandic waters to feed on abundant fish stocks.
- Minke whales are the smallest species of baleen whales and are often seen in large groups. Minke whales can be seen in Icelandic waters throughout the year, but they are more likely to be seen during the summer months.
- Orcas, also known as killer whales, are apex predators and can be seen in both coastal and open waters. Orcas are most likely to be seen in Icelandic waters during the summer months when they hunt for seals and other marine mammals.
- Blue whales are the largest animals on Earth and can reach lengths of up to 30 metres. Blue whales can be seen in Icelandic waters year-round, but they are more likely to be seen during the summer months when the weather is more favourable. A full skeleton can be seen in the museum in Húsavík
- Fin whales are the second-largest species of whale in the world and can reach lengths of up to 20 metres. Fin whales are most likely to be seen in Icelandic waters during the summer months when they migrate to the area to feed on krill.
In addition to these common species, there are a number of other whales, dolphins and porpoises that can be seen in Icelandic waters.
Best places to see whales in Iceland from land or a short boat trip
Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, offers a captivating whale-watching experience amidst its vibrant urban setting. Departing from the Old Harbour, tucked behind the impressive Harpa, whale-watching tours from Reykjavík provide an opportunity to explore the rich marine life of Faxaflói Bay.
These tours run year-round although storms may make their departures less certain during the winter months. A departure from Reykjavík in the winter will ensure you can actually get to the harbour.
Departing from Reykjavik’s bustling harbour, you embark on an adventure, accompanied by knowledgeable guides. The waters surrounding Reykjavik are teeming with diverse marine species, including minke whales, humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and even orcas.
As the boat ventures further out into the bay, the breathtaking scenery of Iceland’s coast unfolds, serving as a stunning backdrop to the whale-watching experience. Witnessing the majestic creatures breach and play in their natural habitat is a sight to behold. Guides share fascinating information about the whales, their behaviours, and the importance of conservation efforts.
If you cannot get out on a boat tour then walking along the shoreline may result in seeing whales. The best place is close to Þúfa, the mound with a small fish drying shed. On the sea wall here you will find information boards about all the whales that come into the fjord.
Reykjavik itself offers a wealth of attractions for visitors to enjoy before or after the whale-watching tour. With its vibrant cultural scene, iconic landmarks like Hallgrímskirkja Church, and an array of cosy cafés and restaurants, offering a delightful blend of urban charm and natural beauty.
The two main starting points for sustainable whale-watching tours in Iceland are Reykjavik and Húsavík. You’re virtually guaranteed to spot some of these beautiful beasts in Húsavík in the months of June, July, and August.
Húsavík, located on Iceland’s northeastern coast, offers a captivating whale-watching experience in a charming coastal town setting. Serving as the whale-watching capital of Iceland, Húsavík is renowned for its exceptional tours and abundant marine life. It also has an amazing whale museum on the harbour.
Embarking from the harbour, the tours explore the pristine waters of Skjálfandi Bay, which teem with diverse whale species. Majestic humpback whales, minke whales, and playful white-beaked dolphins grace these seas.
Aside from whale watching, Húsavík boasts other natural wonders. The town is surrounded by stunning landscapes, including lava fields, dramatic cliffs, and serene fjords. Birdwatchers will delight in the variety of seabirds, including puffins, that nest in the nearby cliffs.
Húsavík’s charming town centre offers a range of amenities, including the relaxing GeoSea baths, local museums, and historic landmarks such as Húsavíkurkirkja, a beautiful wooden church. If you are looking to escape from reality a visit to the Eurovision Museum may be needed!
Akureyri is the second-largest city in Iceland, situated on the shores of Eyjafjordur. Here, humpback whales can be seen throughout the year. That being said, the availability of food sources in the fjord for the whales determines the best time to see them.
Nestled in the picturesque landscapes of northern Iceland, Akureyri is not only known for its charming town and scenic beauty but also as a premier destination for whale watching. Departing from the harbour of Akureyri, whale-watching tours offer an extraordinary opportunity to witness the humpback whales that inhabit the surrounding waters.
As the tour sets sail, the vast expanse of the Arctic Ocean will unfold, revealing an enchanting realm inhabited by humpback whales, minke whales, dolphins, and sometimes even the magnificent blue whale. Knowledgeable guides accompany the tours, providing fascinating insights into the behaviour, biology, and conservation efforts surrounding these marine mammals.
Akureyri itself is a vibrant town with a unique atmosphere. It is often referred to as the “Capital of the North” and boasts a range of attractions, including cosy cafés, cultural events, and captivating landmarks like the Akureyri Church. The tours typically leave from the harbour, where visitors can board specially designed boats equipped for whale watching.
The Westfjords region of Iceland offers a unique and breathtaking whale-watching experience amidst its rugged coastal landscapes. Several towns in the area serve as departure points for whale-watching tours, including Ísafjörður and Hólmavík.
Ísafjörður, the largest town in the Westfjords, sits nestled within fjords and mountains, providing a picturesque starting point for whale-watching excursions. Hólmavík, a charming village known for its rich folklore and mystical charm, also offers whale-watching opportunities.
These tours venture into the waters of the surrounding fjords, where visitors may encounter a variety of whale species. Humpback whales and minke whales are the main visitors to these waters. If you’re lucky, you’ll also catch a glimpse of blue whales, pilot whales, orcas, and even sperm whales.
Beyond whale watching, the Westfjords region is renowned for its stunning natural beauty. It is possible to explore dramatic fjords, cascading waterfalls, and expansive bird cliffs that host numerous seabird species. The area is also home to Arctic foxes, seals, and other wildlife.
Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking trails that offer panoramic views, hot springs for a rejuvenating soak, and untouched wilderness for unforgettable adventures. The remote and untouched nature of the Westfjords makes it a haven for those seeking tranquillity and connection with Iceland’s unspoiled natural wonders.
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula, located on the western coast of Iceland, provides a captivating backdrop for whale-watching adventures. Departing from Grundarfjörður, visitors set sail into the waters of the surrounding fjords, where a diverse array of marine life awaits. Most commonly sighted in the area are orca (killer whales) as well as humpback whales.
In addition to whale watching, the peninsula offers an abundance of natural wonders to explore. Visitors can venture into Snæfellsjökull National Park, with its mystical lava fields, enchanting caves, and vibrant birdlife. The charming fishing villages along the coastline provide a glimpse into traditional Icelandic life and offer opportunities to sample fresh seafood delicacies.
How to watch whales in Iceland responsibly
The Icelandic Whale Watching Association, also known as Ice Whale, developed a detailed Code of Conduct for responsible whale watching. However, most countries that have similar codes of conduct in place would agree on some basic principles.
Ice Whale’s code of conduct aims to increase knowledge of and respect for the whale population. Although committed to fostering a deep love of this sea mammal, their prime focus is the continued welfare of Iceland’s wheels.
Therefore, they set out an operator’s manual for whale-watching tour organizers. This manual recommends the best practices to keep the whale population safe while allowing greater awareness of their natural habitat.
The importance of sustainable whale watching
Sustainable whale watching plays a vital role in preserving marine ecosystems and promoting conservation efforts. By adhering to sustainable practices, such as maintaining a respectful distance from whales, limiting the number of vessels, and following the code of conduct, whale-watching operators can minimize disturbance to these majestic creatures. This approach ensures that whales can continue their natural behaviours and migration patterns without significant disruption, reducing stress and potential harm to the animals.
Moreover, sustainable whale watching contributes to local economies and communities that rely on tourism. It fosters a greater appreciation for marine life and generates opportunities for education and research. By supporting sustainable whale watching, visitors can actively participate in the conservation of these incredible animals and their habitats, encouraging the long-term protection of whales and their ecosystems.
Ultimately, sustainable whale watching serves as a powerful tool for promoting environmental stewardship, raising awareness about marine conservation, and inspiring future generations to preserve the world’s oceans for years to come.
Beluga whale conservation in Iceland
The Beluga Whale Sanctuary on Westman Islands provides a remarkable haven for these intelligent and sociable creatures. Situated off the south coast of Iceland, this sanctuary offers a spacious and natural seawater environment where beluga whales can thrive.
It aims to rehabilitate and provide a permanent home for belugas previously held in captivity. It is possible to watch these magnificent beings up close, learning about their behaviours and the importance of conservation efforts.
The sanctuary serves as a shining example of ethical and responsible practices, promoting the welfare and preservation of beluga whales in a sanctuary setting.
Can I take a tour to see whales in Iceland?
Yes, it’s possible to take a tour specifically to go whale watching in Iceland.
You’ll also be able to spot whales on a multi-day Arctic expedition, which will familiarize you with many species of Arctic wildlife. This will give you a more comprehensive view of the animals that have adapted to life in the Arctic Circle.
Whale museums in Iceland – where to learn more
Whales are part of life in Iceland and feature in folklore. If the weather stops you from going on a whale-watching tour then there are a number of museums where you can learn more about whales.
- Whales of Iceland (Reykjavik): This museum in Reykjavik showcases life-size whale replicas and interactive exhibits, providing insights into the biology, behaviour, and conservation of whales.
- The Húsavík Whale Museum (Húsavík): This museum explores the history of whale hunting and the significance of whales in Icelandic culture through exhibits, artefacts, and multimedia presentations.
- The Icelandic Sea Monster Museum (Borgarnes): Although not solely dedicated to whales, this museum delves into the rich folklore surrounding sea monsters, including tales of encounters with mythical whale-like creatures called “selkies.”
- The Maritime Museum (Akranes): This museum, situated in the town of Akranes, features displays of Iceland’s maritime history and includes exhibits on the country’s fishing industry, which has connections to whales.
- Perlan (Reykjavik): While not specifically a whale museum, Perlan is a prominent landmark in Reykjavik that offers a unique exhibition called “Wonders of Iceland.” It includes immersive displays and an artificial ice cave where visitors can learn about Iceland’s natural wonders, including its marine life such as whales.
Quick summary of the best places to go whale watching in Iceland
Whale watching is a popular activity in Iceland, and there are many different towns and cities where you can go to see these amazing creatures. Some of the best towns for whale watching in Iceland include Húsavík, Reykjavík, and Akureyri.
Húsavík is known as the “Whale Watching Capital of Iceland” and is located in the North of Iceland. It is a small town with a population of around 2,000 people, but it is home to a large number of whales. Humpback whales, blue whales, and orcas are just some of the species that can be seen off the coast of Húsavík.
Reykjavík is the capital of Iceland and is located in the southwest of the country. There are several whale-watching tours that depart from Reykjavík, and you have a good chance of seeing whales such as minke whales, humpback whales, and dolphins.
Akureyri is the second-largest city in Iceland and is located in the north of the country. It is a popular destination for whale watching, and you can often see humpback whales, minke whales, and orcas in the area.
The best time to go whale watching in Iceland is during the summer months, from June to September. However, you can also go whale watching in the spring and autumn. tours run in the winter months but seeing a whale is a little more hit-and-miss.
No matter which town you choose to go whale watching in Iceland, you are sure to have an amazing experience. Just be sure to dress warmly, as the weather can be unpredictable in Iceland.
Here are some additional tips for whale watching in Iceland:
- Choose a reputable tour operator.
- Bring binoculars or a camera with a zoom lens.
- Dress warmly and wear layers.
- Be prepared for the weather to change.
- Respect the whales and their habitat.
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