Whale watching has always been at the top of our bucket list, and when we heard Iceland was one of the top destinations in the world to do it we jumped at the chance to participate.
Though whale watching is possible in many parts of Iceland (e.g. Reykjavík, Akureyri, etc.) Húsavík has been dubbed THE place to see whales, specifically in the Skjálfandi Bay. Whales of all sorts migrate here in the summer and stay until late September/October (depending on how hot the water stays that particular year) and depart again to warmer waters (i.e. Caribbean, African coast, etc.) during the winter. In this bay, visitors are able to see many different species of whales and dolphins, with the Minke Whale and Humpback Whale being the most sighted. Additionally, during the summer months there is an abundance of puffins in the bay (which we were extremely disappointed not to be able to see at this time of year).
Though activities in Iceland have the reputation of being quite pricey, we found that this activity was actually quite reasonably priced, especially once we realized how truly amazing the experience was. We joined North Sailing Húsavík on their Original 3 hour whale watching tour for one of the most awe-inspiring tours of our lives. Below you’ll find more information about what exactly is included in the tour, pricing and a glimpse at our experience itself.
When we first got to Húsavík we were immediately hit with the stunning view of the harbour and mountains. After driving around Iceland and seeing such impressive views around us all the time, we were pretty surprised that we could still be floored by how beautiful Iceland’s nature truly is.
It was extremely easy to spot the local whale watching companies – they are located right across from the harbour and sport either blue or yellow flags, depending on which tour company you decide to go with (North Sailing has the yellow flags). We promptly bought our tickets at the office for the afternoon tour and then had lunch on a nearby bench while waiting for our boat to start boarding. Most tour companies only offer morning tours at this time of year since there aren’t as many tourists in the area or whales in the bay, so be sure to check the times online beforehand to avoid disappointment.
North Sailing offers daily tours at 10AM and 1:30PM in October, with tours lasting 3 hours (see their year-round calendar here). The tour is priced at ISK 9 300 (around $97 CAD), which is about the same as all the other companies in town. Though pre-booking this tour is not necessary during the off-season months, we were told that the summer months can get extremely busy so we definitely recommend booking in advance if this is when you plan to visit Húsavík.
At promptly 1:30PM we walked over to the docks and boarded the really awesome old-style fishing boat that would be bringing us out to sea. We were greeted by our guide who then provided us with some huge jumpsuits to stay warm over the course of our journey.
After short introductions of the staff we were on our way. At first we thought a 3 hour tour was quite excessively long for the seemingly short distance across the bay, but we quickly realized that our boat’s slow pace probably had a lot to do with it. About 20 minutes into the ride our boat actually broke down! But no matter, our captain, the savvy man that he was, was able to fix it in about 15 minutes or so (which we thought was quite impressive seeing as he didn’t really have any tools onboard to help him). The view was so nice to look at and the day was so beautiful (for once) that we really didn’t mind hanging out at sea a little. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to stare at a view like that all day?
Once we were back up and running, we continued our journey to the other side of the bay in hopes of spotting some impressive whales. It’s important to mention that tour companies cannot guarantee that you will spot any whales or how close they will come to the boat (although in the summer months they have a 98% success rate). All the whales in the bay are wild animals and tour companies try not to interfere with them too much. In fact, Húsavík is a hub for whale research and even has a museum dedicated to learning about whales. Two of the staff members on the boat were there to take pictures of the whales in order to track them within the bay. We learned that whales actually have unique tails that are just like their version of finger prints.
After arriving to our desired part of the bay, we only waited about 10 minutes before spotting our first whale (we were so excited). It was nothing but a small speck in the distance but our guide was immediately able to tell us which species it was. Unfortunately our whale friend decided to immediately dive to the bottom of the ocean floor so we weren’t able to get close enough to get a good view in time. Apparently it can take around 5-10 minutes for them to resurface (even though whales can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes) as the water is not very deep. However we did see the huge imprint the whale left in the water. Apparently they dive with such force and are so heavy that they actually leave a mark in the water for a long time after they dive!
After waiting for the requisite period of time, our friend did indeed resurface and we were able to get a better view of him before he dove again. This spot and wait was repeated many different times and we saw many different whales in the hour we were in the bay. We even saw a Humpback Whale couple! The highlight of the trip was when the male of the couple actually got within 10 feet of our boat!! We were able to clearly see its fins underwater and had an amazing view of it when it dove to the ocean floor. According to our guide this a really rare occurrence and she and the researchers were quite excited about it, as were we.
Once the spotting part of our trip was over we headed back to Húsavík, with the journey taking around 45 minutes. It being October, the sun was starting to set at that time and so we were privy to an even more incredible view than before. To top it all off, we even spotted a rainbow along the coast! Talk about an incredible afternoon. Our guide served us some delicious hot chocolate and cinnamon buns which was a welcome treat to warm us up as we were indeed starting to get a little cold on the tail end of our journey.
Tips for whale watching
- Dress warmly. We would recommend wearing a warm fleece and a down jacket, thick socks and boots, and a hat and mittens. Though you will be provided with a jumpsuit, it gets very windy out at sea and the Arctic wind really has a way of seeping through your clothes after a while. Remember, you can always peel off the layers if you get too warm.
- Avoid sea sickness by looking at stable land along the horizon. These old fishing boats can get pretty shaky if there are waves so this is the best way to stabilize your body. The worst thing you can do is stare at the water or go below deck as this will only increase the rocking sensation. If you really don’t think you’ll be able to survive, try taking anti-sea sickness pills or non-drowsy anti-nausea pills before the trip.
- Consider bringing binoculars. Though we didn’t find we needed them, if you are really intent on getting a close view then this is probably your best bet. As we mentioned earlier, there is no guarantee at how close you’ll get to the whales throughout the duration of your tour.
- Bring a snack and water. 3 hours is a long time at sea on an empty stomach or if you’re thirsty.
- Bring a camera with a good zoom. If you really want to get the perfect shot of a whale diving to the bottom of the ocean than this is a must. Once again, no guarantees as to how close you’ll get but we really recommend taking a few pictures at the beginning and then leaving the camera behind to truly be present during the experience.
Have you ever been whale watching?
Where did you go and what was the experience like?
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