The Whales around Iceland
If you’re visiting Iceland and looking for something unique, an interesting afternoon and an activity for the whole family, we highly recommend an encounter with our whales. Iceland is after all a prime location to go whale watching. At least 23 species of whale have been spotted around Iceland. Some wander occasionally into these waters while others have permanent residence here and are commonly seen close to the shore.
The following are our biggest and best permanent residents and frequent visitors, the ones we truly hope you get to meet on your travels.
The Blue Whale
Coming in hot at nearly 200 tons and over 30 meters long, the blue whale is the largest animal to have ever existed on Earth. That includes dinosaurs, mammoths and elephants. Its size is mind-boggling and hard to put into proper perspective, but common comparisons include the facts that an adult human can swim through its arteries, its heart is the size of a small car and its weight is approx. 30-fold that of an elephant. Its penis can be up to 5 meters and each testicle weighs around 50 kg. The Icelandic word for blue whale is Steypireyður, a feminine noun which is appropriate since the females grow to be much bigger than the males. While the population is slowly increasing since the blue whale became a protected species in 1965, they are still considered endangered, and the total population is estimated at only approx. 20,000 animals. Of those, it is believed 1,000 – 1,500 individuals hang out in Icelandic waters.
The Sperm Whale
While all whales have an aura of mystery and fantasy to them in the eyes of tiny humans, sperm whales must be one of the most magical and mysterious creatures on this planet.
They are the largest of the toothed whales and their favorite treat is giant squid but like all delicatessens, this one comes with a price. The giant squid doesn’t go down without a fight which might explain why so many sperm whales sport deep scars on their bodies, reminiscent of one of history’s most beloved novels. But it’s its odd body that evokes the biggest mystery. The sperm whale has a proportionally huge head, usually nearly a third of the entire animal’s length. And no wonder, sperm whales have the largest brain on Earth. They are extreme deep divers, reaching depths of over 7,000 feet (2,250m). The odd name comes from spermaceti or sperm oil that the whale produces and caused it to be hunted vigorously as spermaceti was widely used for oil lamps and candles. They also produce ambergris, a waxy waste substance produced by their digestive tract, a highly sought-after product for the perfume industry. Luckily, ambergris is only harvested as flotsam on beaches, so no whales are harmed in the process.
The Killer Whale / Orca
So, let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. While the Killer Whale is undoubtedly the most notorious whale species with the most badass name, it is technically a dolphin. Their sleek, black and white appearance undeniably resembles a sports car, a fitting connotation given that these are fast and agile apex predators. The most famous of these black beauties is undoubtedly Keiko, the star of the hit family drama Free Willy. Keiko was captured in Iceland in 1979 but in what can only be described as a classic family drama narrative, he was eventually “freed” following a worldwide campaign and returned to Iceland in 1998.
Beluga whales are sometimes nicknamed “sea canaries” or the “white whales”, descriptive of their two most notable features. They have a unique white color, making them easy to spot in any water but they’re also masterful singers. They can often be heard from the surface and their calls and songs are both a tool for echolocation and a way to communicate with each other.
And as if that isn’t enough, they are simply adorable. There’s something endearing and cute about their bulky appearance, crowned with that characteristic beluga smile. Iceland’s most famous beluga-residents are sisters Little White and Little Grey that like Keiko were freed from a water park in Shanghai and transported across the globe to a sanctuary in the south of Iceland. Unlike Keiko, they were captured in Russian waters but are being reacclimated to the wild with a plan to eventually release them to the open sea. Little White and Little Grey are charming characters that can be visited in the Beluga Whale Sanctuary in the Westman Islands, Keiko’s old hometown.
Ah, the little unicorn that could… swim in freezing cold waters. Famous for its unreal spiral tusk that can reach up to 10 feet (3m), the narwhal mostly occupies the waters around North America, Russia and Greenland but will occasionally wander into Icelandic waters, much to the delight of Icelanders. One theory claims that narwhal tusks washed up on shores or sold in markets were the source for the legendary unicorns. Regardless of their unicornlike appearance, the horns were also believed to have various magical powers that could heal and cure wild afflictions and they were extremely expensive and sought-after treasures for centuries. Medieval Europeans would probably be very disappointed to learn that these spiral horns are in fact canine teeth but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating and impressive.
A Note on Whaling – with a hint of politics
Iceland is one of very few countries in the world where hunting whale is still legal. Whaling is regulated with a strict quota per species but in the past few years only a handful of whales have been caught with the numbers being zero in 2019 and one minke whale in 2021. Talks of banning whaling completely are growing stronger and Icelanders seem to have little to no interest in continued hunting of these gentle giants. Those traveling to Iceland who oppose whaling and the hunting of whales for commercial use, are encouraged to not ask for whale meat at restaurants (you won’t find it anyway) and to support the whale watching tours and exhibitions. These whale-friendly industries are a strong argument against the killing of whales.
Where to see them
Whale watching tours are available in numerous towns around the west and north of Iceland with most of them departing from Reykjavik, Akureyri and Husavik.
The boat tour companies offer a variety of whale-watching tours and in summer they often include puffin colonies which are a real treat and there is just something incredibly magical about seeing huge whales or playful dolphins peeking at you from the deep, matching your enthusiasm and curiosity. But if boats and cruises aren’t your thing, you can always check out the Whales of Iceland exhibition to marvel at life-size replicas of these gentle giants. It’s a wonderfully informative experience that truly captures the magical presence and incredible size of these marvelous creatures.
Seeing whales up close and personal is a unique and unforgettable experience and while we hope you see some of the characters from our list, notable mentions also include the friendly and populous minke whale and the many cheerfully happy dolphins that often play with the whale watching ships close to shore.