Whales of Iceland: Which whales can you find around Iceland?

Whales of Iceland

Iceland is a fantastic place to observe whales. Due to its prime location in the North Atlantic Ocean, many whales migrate to Icelandic waters to feed during the warmer summer months. More than 20 whale species call the Icelandic waters their home. Venturing out on one of the many whale-watching tours is usually one of the easiest ways to spot the cetaceans, but some lucky devils might also catch a glimpse of a whale from Iceland’s shores! 

If you’re interested in finding the best whale-watching tours in Iceland, make sure also to check out our whale-watching guide and find the best spots to observe these large ocean mammals!

Here’s a guide to all the whale species around Iceland and their favourite spots.

Whales of Iceland

Whale species in Iceland

Whales are warm-blooded mammals which nurse their offspring and need to come up to the surface to breathe air. Interestingly enough, all whales have hair in some way or another. Most whales have their hair follicles, whereas land mammals have their whiskers today. Humpback whales, for instance, have bumps on their head, each containing a follicle with a single hair! The existence of hair might be a remnant of their land-mammal ancestors. Whales and cows (and other hoofed animals) actually share a common ancestor about 50 million years ago!

Whales belong to the cetacea category, also including dolphins and porpoises. Whale species can generally be distinguished into toothed and baleen whales. While baleen whales, like blue whales and humpback whales, have – well – baleens to filter their food, toothed whales like orcas (also commonly known as “killer whales”), beluga whales and pilot whales use their teeth to hunt and eat larger prey items.

Due to their proximity to the Arctic, Icelandic waters are rich in nutrients, such as krill, small fish, and other small crustaceans. That is why many whales spend their summers in colder waters off the shores of Iceland, Canada and Greenland. They stay in these waters for 4 to 6 months, eating and bulking up in blubber as a food reserve for the winter months when they migrate back to tropical areas for breeding and calving season, where food is scarce.

Whales of Iceland
Whale-Watching in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Baleen whales around Iceland

Baleen whales are among the biggest species on our planet and are generally larger than toothed whales. In contrast to toothed whales, they have two blowholes on the top of their head, whereas toothed whales only have one. With their baleen plates, they mostly feed on plankton, especially krill, which are tiny crustaceans that can be found in all the world’s oceans. Baleen whales also have wide ranges and usually migrate thousands of kilometres to reach their destination. Generally, baleen whales tend to be slower than their toothed peers, with a few exceptions: one of them is the fin whale, also called the Greyhound of the sea.

Blue whale
Blue Whale
Swimming blue whale (credit: NOAA)

Famously known as the biggest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale also visits Iceland during summer. Female animals can reach a length of up to 32 metres (104 ft), while their male counterparts reach about 27 metres (88 ft). In Iceland, we have the northern blue whale, mostly found in the north of Iceland. Húsavík is the whale-watching capital of Iceland, and even though it is quite rare, there have been sightings of blue whales nearly every year! 

In a single mouthful of water, a blue whale can engulf over 100 tonnes of water and eat up between 10 and 22 tonnes of krill per day (22,000-48,000 pounds). As blue whales produce very tall blows (about 10m/32ft), they are easily spotted. Usually, they can dive for more than 30 minutes, making it quite possible to observe one on a whale-watching tour! “Icelandic” blue whales usually migrate here from places like the Azores and the northwest coast of Africa, though not all migration routes are known.

During the peak of commercial whaling, thousands of animals were killed, leading to repercussions in blue whale populations today. The species is on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red Endangered Species list. In Iceland, blue whales have been protected from whaling since 1960.

Fin whale
hvalur whaling in iceland
Dead fin whale at the whaling station on Hvalfjörður (credit: Golli)

Fin whales are the second largest animal on earth after blue whales. In contrast to their blue whale peers, they are also called the greyhounds of the sea, as they can reach a very fast speed (for their size) of a maximum of 47 km/h (15mi/h) in small outbursts. Females can reach a length of about 18-20 metres (65ft). Fin whales tend to favour offshore waters between Iceland and Greenland as their summer feeding grounds and are usually quite far out – further than whale-watching observation grounds. As blue whales and fin whales share their feeding areas within Icelandic water, there are cases where the two species have produced offspring together, so-called hybrids.

The worldwide population of fin whales is considered vulnerable, with about 40,000 individuals in the entire North Atlantic. Unfortunately, Iceland is still one of the only countries to commercially whale – and the only nation left that hunts fin whales. After a short hiatus, whaling in Iceland resumed in the last few years, killing hundreds of fin whales and small numbers of hybrid whales for meat export to Japan. If you’re interested in reading more about whale hunting in Iceland, you can check out our recent feature article here and listen to our Deep North podcast episode here.

Humpback whale
Whales of Iceland
Humpback whale munching on some food in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Humpback whales are one of the kinds that are most commonly observed from the shores or on whale-watching tours in Iceland. Female humpbacks reach an average length of about 15 metres (50ft), while males are up to 14 metres in size. Due to their agility, they often breach, making it easy to spot them! In the summer of 2019, humpbacks were seen on 28 out of 31 days from whale watching tours in Reykjavík!

Usually, humpback whales like to stay in solitude but occasionally stay in small groups and pairs. Interestingly enough, they have various hunting techniques, like bubble-net feeding, where they swim beneath a school of fish and release air bubbles, which trap the fish in the bubble net, making it easy and clever for them to catch their prey!

Minke whale
Minke whale Iceland
Minke whale swimming about (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Waielbi)

While the previous baleen whales have all been massive in size, the minke whale is the smallest species of baleen whales found around Iceland. The North Atlantic minke whale is dark grey with a white belly and distinctive white bands on their pectoral fins. 

They usually surface quite often before venturing on a deeper dive that lasts approximately 20 minutes. They are, therefore, quite commonly spotted from whale watching boatsMinke whales are the most common whales in the coastal Icelandic waters, with approximately 13,000 individuals. Iceland stopped hunting the species in 2019.

Sei whale
A mother Sei Whale and it's calf.
A sei whale mother and her calf (credit: Christin Khan, NOAA)

Sei whales are the third-largest baleen whales. Just like fin whales, they are very fast and prefer offshore waters. They are, therefore, not very likely to be spotted either from land or on a whale-watching tour. According to observations, there are about 10,000 individuals in the North Atlantic, with the most animals between Iceland and Greenland. During the height of modern whaling in the 20th century, the population of sei whales also decreased drastically after stocks of prior “popular” hunted whales were nearly depleted. Since the late 70s, the population size has slowly been recovering.

Grey whale
A grey whale breaching in Alaska (credit: Merrill Gosho, NOAA)

These large species can reach a maximum length of about 15 metres (50ft) and cannot be found in the North Atlantic, and therefore Iceland, anymore. You might wonder why they are then mentioned on the list of whales around Iceland. Well, a long time ago, grey whales were abundant around Europe. However, due to extensive whaling dating back as early as AD 500, the species was driven to extinction in that region. In Iceland, grey whales have been wiped out since the early 1700s. Nowadays, grey whales can only be found in the Pacific Ocean.

Toothed whales around Iceland

Toothed whales generally feed on fish and squid. They utilise their teeth for capturing and tearing their prey into smaller pieces, but they don’t chew them as we humans would. Most toothed whales use echolocation to communicate and hunt.

Orca / Killer whale
Orca, Whales of Iceland
An orca in the wild (credit: Felix Rottmann)

This apex predator can kill great white sharks without trouble and is also part of Iceland’s flourishing ocean wildlife! Orcas are highly intelligent, and they usually hunt in groups. They have quite a diverse diet, eating everything from fish, and sharks, to seals and other whales. The best place to see orcas in Iceland is on the Snæfellsnes peninsula with Láki tours from Ólafsvík. If herring is in the fjord, orcas can also often be spotted in the winter months – but the best time for observing them is from March until June. Check out orca whale-watching tours here

Pilot whale
Pilot whales
Pilot whale pod (credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS)

Long-finned pilot whales can be found in the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. The animals are very sociable, forming large groups of 20 to 150 individuals, but the pods can reach up to thousands of individuals. They form very strong bonds within their matrilineal group, with other adult animals often “babysitting” calves, even when they’re not closely related. 

Pilot whales frequently beach themselves, and often, the whole pod follows one leading animal, leading to hundreds dying. In 2019, around 50 pilot whales beached on the Snæfellsness peninsula, which was Iceland’s second-largest mass stranding of the past 40 years. It is not too usual to see pilot whales on whale-watching tours, but with some luck, you could definitely catch sight of a pod offshore the Snæfellsness peninsula!

Beluga whale
Beluga whales Little White & Little Grey take their first swim in their Beluga Whale Sanctuary home in Iceland
Little White & Little Grey in Klettsvík bay on Heimaey (credit: Sea Life Trust)

The “Canaries of the Sea” – as the species is often called due to their high vocality and use of various songs, clicks and whistles. Belugas have a distinct melon-shaped head with the melon – as it’s called – consisting of oil, which helps echolocation. Their vertebrae in the neck are not fused, so they can turn their heads without moving their white bodies, making their movement seem quite human-like. 

Belugas are not commonly seen in Iceland, but two rescued beluga whales are in the Sea Life sanctuary on Heimaey in the Westman Islands. Little White and Little Grey were rescued from an aquarium in Shanghai, and it is planned for them to move into a bay on the island for more freedom.

Narwhal
Narwhal Iceland
A narwhal and its great tusk near the Karl Alexander and Jackson Islands (northern part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago), June 2019 (credit: Wikimedia Commons, press service of Gazprom Neft PJSC)

Narwhals (Yes, they are spelled like that), also commonly referred to as the unicorns of the sea due to their unique ivory tusk, are excellent deep divers, reaching depths up to 800 metres (2,600ft). They travel in pods of about 20-30 animals. Their tusk grows out of their mouths into a spiral and possesses millions of nerve endings, helping them sense their surroundings. The tusk can reach a size of up to 3 metres (10ft). Interestingly enough, the tusk is the animals’ only tooth – so they swallow their prey whole! 

Generally, narwhal sightings in Iceland are pretty rare, with their natural habitat being in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Rarely they can be spotted in the far north of Iceland. 

Sperm whale
Sperm whale Iceland
A sperm whale mother with her calf (credit: Gabriel Barathieu, Wikimedia Commons)

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales, reaching lengths between 11-16 metres (36-50ft). The species regularly dives to depths of 500-1000 metres (1640-3280ft) and can remain underwater for up to 40 minutes. They are quite known for their strong echolocation clicks, which they use to search for prey and communicate with their peers. Their top prey are medium-large squid and fish, with some sperm whales even carrying battle scars with giant squid! Interestingly enough, sperm whales around Iceland tend to hunt bony fish rather than squid. 

They are not often observed around the shores of Iceland, as they spend very little time at the surface, but they can be found off Iceland’s west coast and occasionally in the north of Iceland in late spring and summer.

The Whales of Iceland Museum

If you want to see all the mentioned whales above and even more in life-size, we highly recommend checking out the Whales of Iceland museum in Reykjavík. You can learn more about these fantastic animals inhabiting Icelandic waters in their exhibition. It’s also a great choice, in case the weather should be bad and your whale-watching tour has been cancelled! The museum is located in Grandi, right by the ocean, next to the big supermarket chain Krónan. 

Check out their website here.

You can book a whale-watching tour here.

No Whaling in Iceland for Second Summer in a Row

whale Iceland hvalur

Hvalur, hf. will not do any whaling this summer, RÚV reports. CEO Kristján Loftsson attributes the suspension to difficult conditions, both on the Japanese market, where the company sells the vast majority of its catch, as well as social distancing regulations that make production difficult in Iceland.

Kristján enumerated a number of hurdles that will make whaling in Iceland untenable this summer. For one, he said, the Japanese government subsidises local whalers’ production, which means that Hvalur is not in a competitive position to sell its own products on the market. He continued that there is also now more demand for tests and chemical analysis on whale products from Iceland – tests that are aren’t done on whale products caught and sold in and around Japan. On top of this, social distancing regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic mean that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to cut up any catch. It’s work that must be done in close proximity with other employees and if one staff member were to get infected, a number of employees would then need to be quarantined.

This is the second summer in a row that Hvalur has suspended its operations, but Kristján says that the company is conducting research on whether iron-rich byproducts from whale catch can be processed for use in dietary supplements for people suffering from anaemia. The company is also researching whether gelatin in whale bones and blubber can be used in therapeutic applications or other food products.

Current Icelandic quota allows for a yearly catch of more than 200 fin whales and 200 minke whales. In 2018, 146 fin whales were caught and six minke whales.

No Whaling This Summer

whale Iceland hvalur

There will be no whaling conducted in Icelandic waters this summer, neither of minke whale nor of fin whales. RÚV reports that this will be the first time in 17 years that whaling has not been conducted in Iceland during the summer season.

Whaling resumed in Iceland in 2003, after a 14-year hiatus. When it started again, it was for scientific purposes. Commercial whaling then resumed again in 2006. Minister of Fisheries Kristján Þór Júlíusson issued an authorization in February which allowed for fin and minke whaling to continue until 2023, although whaling regulations are to be renewed every five years. The Marine and Freshwater Institute has recommended a maximum annual quota of 209 fin whales and 217 minke whales; this official annual quota will be valid from 2018 to 2025.

The decision to suspend whaling this summer stems from commercial, rather than specifically ethical reasons or protests. For instance, Kristján Loftsson, the CEO of Hvalur hf, the only company to hunt fin whales, announced earlier this month that Hvalur would not be whaling this summer, but made a point of saying that the decision had nothing to do with the Greenpeace ship Esperanza docked in Reykjavík harbour.

Initially, Kristján said that the decision to suspend whaling this summer was based on the fact that the company’s permits did not arrive until February, which he said was too late to allow for the necessary ship maintenance. More recently, Kristján has added that conditions on the Japanese market, where all of Hvalur’s fin whale catch is exported, have not been profitable enough to make whaling worth it this season.

Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson, the CEO of IP útgerð, which focuses on the domestic market, echoed Kristján’s sentiments. “As the situation stands right now, it doesn’t suit us [to whale this season]” he remarked. “So we made the decision to skip it.” IP útgerð will instead focus its efforts this summer on harvesting sea cucumbers. Gunnar explained that he would be importing Norwegian whale meat to address local demand and said that his company plans to resume whaling again next spring.

The Marine and Freshwater Institute also confirmed that there would be no whaling for research purposes this summer.

Icelandic Economists Say Whaling Overall Profitable

A newly-published report on whaling concludes the industry is economically beneficial to Iceland overall. The report also found no indications that whaling decreases the amount of tourism in the country. RÚV reported first.

The report focused on whaling’s overall economic impact on Iceland. It was commissioned by the Ministry of Industries and Innovation and carried out by the University of Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies. Iceland’s whaling industry accounts for about 3% of all whales hunted worldwide, according to the report. The report suggests that Iceland has practiced whaling responsibly since it began the activity in 1935, in part by protecting all whale species whose populations are considered at risk.

Despite conservationist campaigns in the late 20th century, tourists in Iceland increased by 34% between 1986 and 1990, more than in the UK during the same period. According to the report, there is also no evidence that Iceland’s whaling activity has reduced interest in whale watching in the country.

Hunting more whales would increase fish stocks

According to Oddgeir Ágúst Ottesen, an economist at the Institute of Economic Studies, whaling created ISK 1.7 billion ($14.1m/12.4m) in revenue in 2017. “We evaluated this and looked at all the positive and negative aspects and when everything is put together it’s economically advantageous to hunt whales,” Oddgeir stated.

According to the report, hunting more whales would increase fish stocks in Icelandic waters. “Whales eat seven to eight times what we fish. And that eating has a great impact. Whale populations are increasing very much and whales’ impact could increase,” Oddgeir explained. “The conclusion was that yes fish stocks benefit from the fact that whale populations are reduced.”

Import and export

The report explains that fewer minke whales were hunted in 2017 and 2018 due to unfavourable weather conditions. In the first 10 months of 2018, Iceland imported 4.2 tonnes of minke whale meat from Norway at a total cost of ISK 5.3 million ($43,900/€38,000), despite the fact Icelanders caught far below the quota of over 200 whales. The report considers the local minke whale population large enough to supply both local demand and export.

Fin whale products (mostly frozen meat) from Iceland have largely been exported to Japan in recent years. Each whale hunted between 2009-2017 created an average revenue of ISK 16.4 million ($136,000/€119,000), and total revenue between those years amounted to around ISK 11.3 billion ($93.6m/€82.1m), for 699 fin whales.

Suggest regulating whale watching

In 2017, the total revenue of whale watching companies in the country amounted to ISK 3.2 billion ($26.5m/€23.2m). The report considers whale watching an appropriate use of natural resources, but suggests that increased regulation of the industry is necessary. If too many whale watching companies operate within a small area, it can affect whale behaviour and feeding habits. Both nature conservation groups and the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute of Iceland have previously suggested the need for regulation of the industry.

Whales a Huge Part of Iceland’s Marine Ecosystem, Say Researchers

iceland whale

Whales in Icelandic waters eat roughly six million tons of fish and other food sources a year and therefore play a large role in the marine ecosystem, both as a whole and in Iceland in particular, Vísir reports. This comes per a statement issued by Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Institute regarding a recent parliamentary resolution to re-evaluate Iceland’s whaling policy.

There has been a great deal of fluctuations with Iceland’s whale populations since the country began keeping official statistics on the stock in 1987. The number of fin whales increased from 10-15,000 to 30,000 in 2015, while the number of minke whales has been declining since 2000, going from around 40,000 minke whales to 10-15,000.

These figures, however, are not as up to date as they could be. “The statement references scientific articles from 1997,” remarked Gísli Arnór Víkingsson, a marine biologist at the Institute. Moreover, there is still a number of fairly big details that remain unknown about these mammals, such as exactly what each species is eating.

“There are twelve species [around Iceland] and we don’t know what most of them are eating,” continued Gísli. “Based on foreign studies, we can estimate that of these six million [tons], two million were different kinds of fish, about the same amount would be crustaceans and krill, and the rest would be squid and the like.”

Nevertheless, even though the data is incomplete, it still shows, researchers say, how prominent the role is that whales play in Iceland’s marine ecosystem.