Header photo credit: Gentle Giants Whale Watching
In Iceland, whale-watching is one of the most popular visitor activities available, providing guests with a thrilling wildlife adventure out on the waves.
- You can check out our selection of Self-Drive Packages in Iceland here.
Having first begun in 1991 as locally organised day trips from the northern town of Húsavík, Iceland’s whale-watching industry has since exploded, with tours now available in several locations around the country.
Whale watching tours provide fantastic memories for thousands of visitors to Iceland each year. From which harbour these guests choose to depart for their marine adventure varies depending on their itinerary.
To help plan your adventure, we have compiled the essential questions about whale-watching in Iceland below. If you are already up-to-date on the latest information and are looking to book a tour, make sure to check out our selection of whale Watching and Puffins tours here.
Why choose to go whale watching in Iceland?
Topping bucket lists worldwide, nothing in the world compares to watching whales and dolphins in their wild habitat.
Breaching acrobatically from the crashing waves, the sight of these majestic creatures bestows visitors with a vivid appreciation of nature, as well as an intrinsic desire to see their environment protected for years to come. Thankfully, whale watching directly contributes to these animals’ prolonged conservation.
- Dont miss out on these Privately Guided Tours in Iceland
Iceland remains at the forefront of sustainable whale watching practises, following the IceWhale Code of Conduct. Its membership means minimising any negative impact that might change animals’ behaviour, or negate the benefit of long-term research.
For instance, in conjunction with sustainable practises, ships in Iceland do not use sonar, which has been shown to disturb the natural communication calls of marine animals.
Instead, whale watching operators rely on their eyes and ears, as well as communication with other tour operators already out at sea.
- What other plans do you have on your holiday? See 14 Best Things to See and Do in Iceland for ideas!
The most crucial aspect, however, remains allowing guests to experience Iceland’s marine life for themselves. It is only by observing the beauty and intelligence of wildlife up-close that people will learn to care enough about protecting it from future harm.
Aside from the wildlife, boat trips from Iceland’s towns allow for beautifully scenic panoramas. Standing on deck, wind in your hair, you’ll bear witness to Iceland’s coastal islands, sea cliffs and mountainscapes, all while your eyes remain peeled for that distinctive Y-shaped fluke or the thin mist of a whale’s spout.
Finally, whale watching tours allow guests to see Iceland’s seabirds. Soaring high over the water, or bobbing placidly on the waves, a variety of birdlife will no doubt have the twitchers in the family eager to depart at the next possible opportunity.
- Make sure to read our feature article Everything You Need to Know About Puffins in Iceland
Gorgeous and unique bird species such as Arctic terns, Great Skuas and Great Auks are all commonly sighted on these trips, as well as what is, arguably, Iceland’s most iconic resident—the Atlantic Puffin.
In short, whale watching trips provide not only exquisite natural beauty, but also adventure, variety and, most importantly, a boatload of fun for kids and adults alike.
When is the best time of year to see whales and dolphins in Iceland?
The short answer is; whenever you choose to arrive! Whale watching tours are available to depart in both the summer and winter in Iceland, leaving your options open regarding when you plan to visit.
The animals that live off Iceland are well-suited to subarctic waters, blessed with a thick layer of fat that provides them with permanent thermal protection.
Species like Minke Whales and Killer Whales can all be potentially seen, regardless of what month you’re here. Some are migratory species, however, thus can only be seen when they pass by Iceland each year.
This latter case includes the likes of Blue Whales and Humpback Whales, who will generally appear during the summer months.
How likely is it to see whales in Iceland?
There is between 95–99% chance of spotting whales on a whale watching tour in Iceland during the summer.
Between April to mid-October is considered the high season for whale watching tours in Iceland, though they are, of course, available to see the year round. The peak months are June, July and August. Summer tours typically boast a 95% sighting rate, while those In the north rate even higher at 98%.
During the winter, fish like herring and capelin flock to Icelandic waters, luring the larger animals in with them. Dolphins and orcas are greatly attracted to these large shoals, and it is not uncommon to spot minke whales and humpbacks during this period too. The winter season still promises fantastic sighting rates, with 90% of trips returning to port in success.
Do note, however, that whale watching tours from Husavík (in the north) operate from the latter half of March to the end of November, while those from Reykjavík operate all year.
- Make sure to read a Complete Guide to Visiting Iceland in Winter
When it comes down to what time of day is the best to spot whales; well, that’s really down to you. Most whale watchers choose to embark on morning and afternoon tours, while photographers might opt for the better lighting conditions that come with a dusk-lit adventure. The whales will be there regardless of the time of day.
What is the best type of whale watching tour?
While in theory, it is quite possible to see whales and dolphins from the coastline, the likelihood of such an event happening is pretty uncommon.
- Plan on visiting Iceland soon? See the Best Things to See and Do on the Golden Circle | A Practical Guide to Iceland’s Most Popular Sightseeing Route
Thankfully, there are several different tour options in Iceland, the cheapest and one of the more popular choices being on board a specialised vessel from Reykjavík Old Harbour.
These come with a spacious, comfortable interior, plenty of room on deck and bathrooms for those susceptible to seasickness.
Refreshments are often available to purchase on board, and most ships come with a spacious indoor area in which to relax and warm up between your time on deck.
Many of these larger vessels can hold up to 200 people on busy tours. Tours will last for approximately three hours, and there is no age requirement!
Throughout your experience, a professional whale watching guide will stand on deck to provide more information, as well as point guests towards spotting the creatures.
Another option is to take a whale watching tour on a RIB boat. These crafts are much smaller, thus are better suited for private parties, and will also come with a personal guide/boat crew.
Reminiscent of something out of a James Bond movie, RIB boats are known for their speed, manoeuvrability and quiet engines, allowing the captain to get closer to the whales, as they are less disturbed by the sound.
RIB boats also come equipped with high-suspension seating, meaning participants are blessed with a smooth and comfortable sail throughout the trip.
Unlike the larger vessels, guests on RIB boats must adorn a life-jacket to ensure their safety during the whale watching experience. Guests must be a minimum of 7 years old to ride as a passenger on a RIB boat.
Where are the best places to see whales in Iceland?
Guests are spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding where they partake in a whale watching tour in Iceland.
Those looking to stay within easy access of the city might opt for departing from the capital’s quaint harbour, while those travelling in the north will have to decide between leaving from Akureyri, Husavík or Dalvík.
Of course, there’s always the option to go whale watching on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland, which is particularly suited for those seeking out orcas. We have included more information on your possible tour choices below.
Whale Watching from Reykjavik, Capital Region
Whale watching tours in Iceland’s capital depart from the charming and historic Old Harbour district in central Reykjavík.
Old Harbour is located beside the up-and-coming Grandi neighbourhood. Once a central fishing hub, the area has long inspired the city’s residents with its gently bobbing yachts and stunning backdrop of Esja mountain.
Today, it’s a little more gentrified, with artisan shops, ice cream parlours and cafes now lining the harbour side.
Out on the waves, guests are privy to a new perspective of the city’s most iconic landmarks, including the glassy, postmodern architecture of Harpa Concert Hall and the rocky steeple of Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church.
Many cetaceans reside in Faxaflói Bay, though the most frequent sightings are of Minke Whales, Humpbacks and Harbour Porpoises.
You’ll be in awe as they swim beneath the boat, jump from the waves, and blow mists of water into the air.
This experience is made more inspiring by the sight of Mount Esja overlooking the many green coastal islands that dot the shores of West Iceland.
Whale watching can work up quite the appetite! Upon returning to Old Harbour, guests will be spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurants and bars. Make sure to try out Grandi’s new food hall for a delicious selection of international and fusion street food.
If that doesn’t strike your fancy, then why not stop for a bap at the famous Tommi’s Burger Joint? If you’re looking for more class and sophistication, then how about cocktails and seafood at Kopar?
As the saying goes; the world is your oyster when it comes to dining choices after your whale watching adventure. This is one major benefit of embarking on a tour directly from Iceland’s capital city.
Whale Watching from Husavik, North Iceland
Húsavík is commonly referred to as the ‘Whale Watching Capital of Europe’ thanks to the sheer breadth and numbers of cetaceans that can be seen there.
Iceland’s whale watching industry began in Húsavík, way back in the early 1990s in the form of boat-trips on-request by the few travellers who passed through.
As the number of tourists grew, so too did interest in seeing its majestic wildlife. Today, both Húsavík and Iceland as a whole are famous around the world for whale-watching, demonstrating just how far the industry has come in thirty years.
Participants in Húsavík will be exploring the spectacular Skjálfandi bay.
This glittering fjord is known not only for its wide variety of cetacean species, but its swooping seabirds too.
All the whales listed in this article can be seen here, including acrobatic porpoises, breaching Humpbacks and even Orca pods.
Húsavík can be accessed via the Arctic Coast Way, a 560-mile (900-km) drive through the dramatic fjords of North Iceland, stopping at 21 charming fishing villages en route.
Húsavík also happens to be the unofficial starting point of the Diamond Circle sightseeing route. This trail also includes Lake Mývatn, Dettifoss Waterfall and the breathtaking Ásbyrgi Canyon.
This town came to the attention of international audiences thanks to the Netflix comedy, Eurovision Movie: Fire Saga, starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams.
Whale Watching from Akureyri, North Iceland
Iceland’s unofficial northern capital, Akureyri, is another popular location from which to depart on whale watching tours. Many guests choose to stay in Akureyri for a few days, leaving enough time to enjoy the wildlife and local culture of the town.
Akureyri’s excursions take place on Eyjafjörður, a 60-kilometre long fjord that boasts a blend of freshwater and ocean currents. This mixture makes the area it rich with nutrients and krill. As expected, these feeding grounds attract countless species, making it a true feast for the eyes for passing whale watchers.
In 2016, 2017 and 2018, whale watching operators in Akureyri enjoyed a 100% sighting success each summer. Another stop for departing on whale watching tours is the small town of Dalvík, only 35 kilometers north of Akureyri.
Whale Watching from the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Known as ‘Iceland in miniature’ thanks to its plethora of attractions, the peninsula of Snæfellsnes is the best place in the country to spot orcas.
- Checking out the Snæfellsnes area? Then see What to See and Do on a Visit to Iceland’s Flatey Island
Between December and February, guests should opt for taking a whale watching tour from Grundarfjörður. This town is best known for its landmark mountain, Kirkjufell—made better by the sight of black dorsal fins moving by.
From March to August, it is in Ólafsvík where guests will find their next vessel waiting primed in the harbour. On these excursions, you are most likely to see orcas in the months of April, May and June, while the sight of Snæfellsjökull glacier is imposing and clear throughout the year.
- Read our feature article Top Attractions & Activities on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Aside from the orca, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is also well known for its many sperm whale sightings, only adding to the joy of your visit.
What can I expect from a whale watching tour in Iceland?
First things first upon boarding your whale watching vessel, you will be provided with thermal outerwear to protect you from the chilly ocean winds.
When you’re dressed nice and warm, the next step is finding a comfortable place to settle down for the adventure ahead.
The top deck of the boat is the most advantageous position for spotting, given its sweeping 360-degree view of the ocean, as well as proximity to the guide.
During your trip, they and fellow crew members will be on the lookout for what’s known as the 3 B’s— “Bodies, Blows and Birds”.
Bodies refer to the sight of whales breaching from the water. Always be on the watch for the whale’s dome-like back, the pointed dorsal fin or the distinctive Y-shape of their tails.
Meanwhile, blows point to the jet of steamy water ejected from a whale’s blowhole as it breathes out near the surface. Another name for blows is the spout.
The reason why crew members watch out for birds is that their presence indicates a school of fish beneath the water.
Ample feeding grounds will attract not only seabirds but also whales and dolphins, providing subtle clues as to where the undersea mammals are at any given time.
What to wear for a whale watching tour?
Whenever you’re planning a trip to Iceland, it is vital to keep in mind the weather here is very temperamental. Given this fact, a level of foreknowledge is needed when it comes time to pack your suitcase.
Your tour operators will always provide you with thermal outerwear at the beginning of the adventure, so you don’t need to worry about stuffing your suitcase with a bulky overalls.
An unpredictable climate is as correct for the dark winter months as it is for the long days of summer. Regardless of the season, when it comes to whale watching this is what you should wear:
- Layers of medium-thickness to wear underneath a thermal outerwear
- Beanie hats, scarves, and thick gloves
- Warm, waterproof shoes with excellent grip
On your feet, you’ll want to wear comfortable shoes with excellent grip. The deck will often become sodden wet during your travels, creating a slippery surface for those unlucky enough to be caught out in unsuitable footwear.
When it comes to accessories, the one essential item to remember is your camera, for this is one experience you’ll want to look back on for years to come.
Always be sure to keep your shutter-speed on a fast setting to capture these creatures jumping acrobatically from the water.
On the subject of packing, those prone to nausea will likely want to bring seasickness tablets with them. Some operators will provide tablets themselves, though it is best to check beforehand.
What whales and dolphins can you see in Iceland?
There are around twenty-three species of cetacean that live in Icelandic coastal waters, further categorised into dolphins, toothed whales and baleen whales.
For those unsure, baleen whales are named after the 200 or so plates that line their jaw, used primarily for sifting krill and other small creatures.
In the last two centuries, 15 toothed whale species and eight baleen whales have been spotted off Iceland. We’ve included more information on a handful of our guests’ favourite whale, dolphin and porpoise species below.
The barnacled Humpbacks are the undisputed superstars of the whale watching industry. Adults can reach up to 16 metres in length and can weigh up to 30 metric tons, meaning their presence is an imposing sight on any whale watching trip you might embark upon.
As baleen whales, they live on a diet of mainly krill, yet still, possess immense strength, and can routinely breach their whole bodies from the water.
Each year, Humpback whales migrate from the Gulf of Mexico to Iceland, a gruelling 7000-kilometre swim that leaves them vulnerable to attacks by orcas.
This migration is one of the longest journeys undertaken by any animal, a testament in itself to the strength, intelligence and determination Humpbacks possess.
Most Humpbacks that arrive in Icelandic coastal waters have not travelled alone. Instead, delighted whale watchers will often spot a mother and her calf as they make their way towards rich feeding grounds.
A species of baleen whale, Minkes make up the smallest member of the Rorqual family, which also contains Blue whales, Humpback whales and Fin whales.
They are one of the most commonly spotted species in Iceland year round, though can be found in almost all oceans on the planet.
On average, adult Minke whales reach a length of 7-10 metres and can weigh between 5-7 tonnes. Guests can recognise them by their narrow snouts, high and curved dorsal fins and smooth, streamlined bodies.
Those in northern waters can also be distinguished by the white band around their pectoral fins.
Generally, minke whales prefer to spend their time alone—typical behaviour among baleen whales. However, they will sometimes travel in groups of two or three, and will often amass in larger numbers when arriving at prominent feeding grounds.
What harbour porpoises lack for in size—they are among the smallest marine mammals on earth—they more than make up for in character.
As incredibly agile swimmers who remain at a shallow depth, these fantastic animals will often jettison their full bodies from the water—a genuinely heart-racing sight!
Otherwise called Common porpoise, small pods of eight or less live their lives close to the coast, thus have become a staple sight on whale watching tours globally.
Porpoises live on a diet of small fish and are best seen in Iceland during the spring and summer due to their migratory behaviour.
There are an estimated 27,000 individual porpoises in Icelandic waters—though many scientists believe the number is much higher—with their population considered stable.
Orcas (Killer Whales)
Given the infamous nickname, it should come as no surprise that Orcas are apex predators, demonstrating incredible intelligence and teamwork capabilities.
Most people aren’t aware, however, that they are the largest species of dolphin and not a whale at all.
Their name is also a misnomer given that killer whales have never killed any human being in the wild—a point that should do more for banning worldwide captivity.
The behaviour and diet of Orcas differ greatly depending on where in the world they are found. For instance, some populations are solely carnivorous, often attacking much larger whales, while others feed on fish and seabirds alone.
It is this latter category that is found off Iceland. According to local scientists, such as those from the Icelandic Orca Project, the killer whales here are considered Herring specialists.
Orcas in Iceland follow their food source and so they can be seen all around the country year round. However, according to tour operators, they seem to be a slightly more common sight on excursions on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
As if Iceland had not already offered enough in natural beauty, you can also see the largest animal on the planet passing through her waters.
Blue whales can reach up to 29.9 meters in length and 173 tonnes in weight. Despite their enormous size, the animals live almost exclusively on a diet of tiny euphausiids (krill).
Up until the 19th Century, Blue whales were abundant in almost all the world’s oceans, but unfortunately, their numbers diminished to near extinction numbers due to commercial whaling.
Thankfully, in the decades that followed the 1986 International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) ban on whaling globally, their populations have begun to grow once.
Blue whales are migratory creatures, thus can only be seen from Iceland between May and October, generally on tours departing from either Reykjavík or Húsavík.
Pilot whales—known throughout history as blackfish—are among the largest oceanic dolphins, exceeded in size only by the killer whale.
Pilot whales travel in pods and survive on a diet of squid and groundfish. Their name is derived from the fact that scientists once believed pods were ‘piloted’ by a leader.
There are two extant species of this large-toothed whale; the long-finned pilot whale and the short-finned pilot whale. Don’t expect to be able to tell the difference from a whale-watching boat; the two are almost indistinguishable from one another.
Pilot whales can usually be seen in late summer in south or west Iceland. Sometimes their pods travel with other whale species such as Fin whales or Orcas.
Given its worldwide range, Sperm whales are considered favourites among whale watchers. Their name is derived from a waxy substance called spermaceti, stored in the whale’s head which was initially misinterpreted as semen.
They are the largest of the toothed whales, reaching up to twenty metres in length, with their head constituting a third of their body. Given this size, it should come as no surprise that Sperm whales have the largest mammalian brains on the planet.
It is also the third deepest diving mammal on earth, reaching depths of 2,250 metres (7,382 ft)—exceeded only by the Southern Elephant Seal and Cuvier’s Beaked Whale.
Sperm whales were historically prime targets for the whalers, an industry that reached its peak in the 19th Century. Their blubber, spermaceti and bones were used for countless products in the centuries both before and after, including cosmetics, candles, soap, lubricants, lamp oils and even crayons.
Once the International Whaling Commission provided the species full protection in 1985, populations have steadily been growing back across the world, though it is a slow process. Even so, Sperm whales are today considered vulnerable rather than endangered, which demonstrates just how effective the IWC has been in protecting whale species globally.
Sperm whales are a migratory species and only males come into Icelandic waters. They have been spotted all around the country, but almost only in the summertime.
Reaching around 3 metres in length, White-beaked dolphins prefer to spend their lives feeding in subarctic waters—perfect for any whale watchers visiting Iceland!
Not as much is known about white-beaked dolphins than other species; their population, life expectancy and breeding patterns are still all a mystery to scientists. However, we do know that they are social creatures, usually found in groups of ten or less and that their diet consists of fish like whiting, haddock and cod.
White-beaked dolphins are also incredibly acrobatic, leaping metres from the ocean and surfing along with a boat’s bow waves. Given their sociability, it is not uncommon to even find them feeding alongside other whales and dolphins, including larger predatory species like killer whales.
White-beaked dolphins have been seen all year round, in Faxaflói Bay and North Iceland, though more of them are spotted together in the summer months.
Where can you learn more about whales and dolphins in Iceland?
Given Iceland’s notoriously unpredictable weather, circumstances might mean a whale watching tour is not possible during your visit.
Though indeed unfortunate, there are still several locations you can visit where you can learn more about the whales and dolphins that call Icelandic coastal waters home.
Beluga Whale Sanctuary in the Westman Islands
At 12 years old and 900 kg each, the female beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, had about as hard an upbringing as wild animals can have.
Captured at a young age off the Russian coast, the animals were first held at a research facility, then moved to Changfeng Ocean World aquarium in China in 2011.
The following year, the aquarium was bought out by Merlin Entertainment, a company who opposes keeping marine mammals in captivity.
The Icelandic island of Heimaey was chosen as the beluga whales’ new sanctuary due to its natural conditions and subarctic waters. Heimaey is part of the Westman Islands archipelago in South Iceland.
Moving the whales from Asia to Iceland took a tremendous international effort, made all the more difficult by the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Thankfully, their arrival to the country has gone smoothly, and now Little White and Little Grey are acclimatising to their new home.
A visit to the Sea Life Trust Beluga Sanctuary will take around an hour, though guests will also want to stop at the Puffin Rescue Centre just next door.
Whales of Iceland Exhibition in Reykjavik
In collaboration with the Marine Research Institute of Iceland, the Whales of Exhibition is the country’s premier museum dedicated to aquatic mammals.
Twenty-three life-sized replica models of Iceland’s whale species hang decoratively around the exhibition space, truly allowing guests to appreciate the sheer enormity of said creatures.
Each of the models on display has been lovingly hand-painted, with their dimensions, measurements and details based off an actual living whale, adding real authenticity to the experience.
Not only that, the models are built of a soft, spongy material, which allows for younger guests to touch them freely.
Aside from the models, visitors can take part in a new Virtual Reality experience created by the Icelandic technology company, Motive.
Adorning a specialised VR headset, participants will descend to the ocean floor where whales and dolphins surround them, providing not only educational information but fantastic visuals that can’t be seen anywhere else in the country.
Before arriving, make sure to download the free companion app on your phone and tablet to compliment your visit with an informative guide. Fear not, the exhibition space provides both free wifi and headphones and takes about thirty minutes to complete.
- Heading south? See Top 11 Things to do in the Westman Islands
At 10.30 and 13.30 every day, a live-guided tour is offered at no extra cost for ticket-holders. This experience can last up to forty-five minutes and includes an examination of whale teeth and bones.
Ticket prices vary, though children under seven are admitted for free. 7-15 years old must pay 1500 ISK, and adults 2,900 ISK. Travelling families (2 adults, two children) can save some expense by purchasing a group ticket at 5,800 ISK.
When you have finished discovering all the museum, make sure to pay a visit to the adjoining Whale Café & The Whale Souvenir Shop; the perfect place to stop for a delicious cup of coffee, best enjoyed while reading Moby Dick, or any other of the insightful books on offer.
Húsavík Whale Museum
Húsavík’s Whale Museum makes for another fantastic choice for anyone looking to learn more about these animals. Thankfully, this fascinating little establishment provides a rich air of authenticity while doing so.
- Learn more about this town in What to See & Do in Húsavík
Aside from the whales, guests can delve into the eclectic world of marine ecology, as well as get a deeper understanding of the historic relationship early Icelanders shared with the sea.
One of the Húsavík Whale Museum’s greatest assets is how much importance they place on immersing their guests in the subject matter. As such, walking through its exhibitions feels akin to walking beneath the waves, a fun novelty that also helps you picture what this alien world must be like for those that live there.
Fascinating exhibitions are composed of media displays and video. Still, the pièce de resistance is, without doubt, the blue whale skeleton, meticulously reconstructed to display the sheer enormity of this wild and elusive creature.
Tickets are 2,000 ISK for adults but children aged 17 or younger can go in for free.
Final Thoughts on Whale Watching in Iceland
No adventure to Iceland is complete without having ventured out onto its oceans.
The awe-inspiring wildlife that lives off this island’s coastlines—whales, dolphins and puffins—have long added to the fabric of life here. As proof, there are around seventeen stories in the Icelandic Sagas that tell of the relationship between man and whale.
That relationship continues today, but with new respect, and a better understanding of the efforts needed to protect these animals going into the future.
With that said, it should be clear that not only is whale-watching an excellent activity for the family but a proactive means of contributing to these animals’ safety, longevity and happiness.
Iceland would not be the country it is without its unique flora and fauna, and travellers here should walk away with a new appreciation of the natural world.