Whale watching is one of the many unique experiences to enjoy on your visit to Iceland. We have a unique combination of currents and weather that attract many different types of whales to our waters. There are over 20 types of whales, along with other special sea birds and mammals, to spot, and, best of all, you can get a glimpse of these beautiful beasts almost any time of year!
Your Friend in Reykjavik offers this quick guide to the whales (and other creatures) of Iceland along with some tips for times of year and places to go!
What whales can I see when I visit Iceland?
The cold currents from the Arctic and the warm currents from the North Atlantic meet and swirl off the Icelandic coasts creating an ideal habitat for krill and fish. Many whales love krill and fish. So, some travel thousands of miles to feed here, creating ideal opportunities for whale watching!
Generally, there are two main types of whales – toothed and baleen. Toothed whales, well, have teeth and tend to hunt fish and other sea creatures to eat, while baleen whales have sheets of baleen, like hairs, that they use to filter mouthfuls of seawater for krill, fish, algae, and plankton for their food.
And this may be a little confusing, but – dolphins are a type of toothed whale. It’s just that not all whales are dolphins. Also, porpoises are not dolphins and vice versa. Blame it on biologists. Still, they are all fantastic creatures to watch carrying on in the water!
Here are a few of the 20-some whale species you might encounter:
Minke whales are among the smallest baleen whales and is the one you’re most likely to see in Iceland. Small is relative, as they can get as big as 32ft (10m) long and weigh around 7 tons. They tend to travel alone or in groups of twos or threes, and boats often spark their curiosity. If you’re lucky you’ll see one leap out and crash down on the water! People have spotted minke whales all year round in across Iceland, including Reykjavik.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are the largest of dolphins (see our note about the whole dolphin/whale overlap!). The males can reach up to 32ft (10m) long and weigh around 10 tons. The females are almost as large. They usually travel in groups of two to nine and hunt in packs. Around 5,000 orcas are known to live in the waters off Iceland all year long. There is a better chance of spotting them feeding among the herring grounds in the East Fjords and the South Coast.
Harbor porpoises are some of the smallest marine mammals around and one of only seven types of porpoises (remember, they aren’t dolphins!) in the world. They grow only to up to around 60in (160cm) long and about 132lbs – the females are typically larger than the males. You might see small groups, but they also gather in large groups when they migrate. In Iceland, you can have a chance of seeing these creatures all year round.
Humpbacks are baleen whales and are among the largest. Females grow up to 59ft (18m) and weighing up to 40 tons (the males are just a bit smaller usually). They are known for their winglike pectoral fins that they may slap the water, along with their tales, as a show for lucky whale watchers. Although they were almost hunted to extinction, current populations have grown and there are thousands off Iceland’s shores. While it is more likely to see them in summer, they have been spotted during the winter as well.
White-beaked dolphins are playful creatures that can swim up to 25mph (40kph). Sometimes you may see them around the larger baleen whales. These curious creatures can grow to around 10ft (3m) and 770lbs (350kg), and there is an estimated 30,000 living in Iceland’s waters. Their pods range for a few to almost a hundred, and since they stay near the shoreline, there is a good chance of seeing them, especially around Faxaflói bay in the southwest, where they feed on the fish teeming there.
You may also see…
In addition to the whales listed, you could also catch sight of sperm whales, fin whales, sei whales, or even a blue whale, the largest animal on Earth. These sightings are more likely during the summer. If you’re whale watching off the northern coastline, you may get lucky see the elusive narwhal with their unicorn-like tusk! Summer is usually the best time as the warmer waters attract many species for breeding and feeding on the flourishing krill and fish population, but as mentioned above, there are still those that swim the waters all year round.
While you are out watching the waters, you should also keep an eye out for seals, such as harbor or grey seals, along the coastlines, including Reykjavik, Svalbarðshreppur, and the Westfjords. There is also a good chance you’ll see puffins and arctic terns as well.