Ísafjörður to Limit Cruise Ship Passengers: No More Than 5,000 Daily

ísafjörður cruise ship

In accordance with a new action plan for handling the volume of cruise ships and cruise ship tourists in Ísafjörður,  there will be a maximum number daily number of cruise ship passengers allowed in the popular Westfjords destination. RÚV reports.

City council approved action plan

Following an April 4 meeting, the Ísafjörður municipal council approved an action plan for the reception of cruise ships and cruise ship passengers for the years 2024 – 2027.

The new regulations come in the wake of ever-increasing numbers of tourists to Ísafjörður. RÚV reports that nearly 200 cruise ships with 200,000 guests are expected this summer in the town of some 2,700.

Read more: Ísafjörður to introduce environmental rating system for cruise ships

Gylfi Ólafsson, chairperson of the municipal council of Ísafjörður, stated to RÚV that the community has indeed benefitted greatly from the volume of tourist traffic. However, in recent years, summer crowds have swamped the small town. “The biggest innovation in this policy,” Gylfi stated, “is that we are setting a numerical limit on the number of guests we can accomodate.”

The limit will increase as infrastructure grows and the town is able to accommodate more. The 5,000-person limit is scheduled to be raised in two years.

“If the tourism industry continues to improve the level of infrastructure, buying more buses and improving service […] ensuring that there are enough toilets and so on, then we can easily accommodate more guests,” Gylfi stated.

Docking fees for cruise ships also represent a significant source of income for the local port authority, accounting for some two-thirds of the total income.

Other key points from action plan

Some other key points from the recent action plan include financial incentives to reduce pollution. Additionally, the municipality will prioritise sustainable solutions for waste management issues relating to the tourism industry.

Other developments outlined in the plan include further developing pedestrian walkways in the town and building more accessibility infrastructure near the harbour area.

There are also plans to limit noise pollution from the cruise ships, whose captains will only be allowed to sound their horns in emergency situations.

Read more about the impact of cruise ship tourism on Iceland’s small towns.

 

Deep North Episode 68: White Sahara

kerlingarfjöll highland base

Kerlingarfjöll is one of the gems of the Icelandic highland. Even in the summer, the rugged highland roads leading out to these mountains are difficult to navigate. And in the winter, it’s nearly inaccessible. We went on an exclusive winter expedition to this amazing area to learn more about it, and pick up some cross-country skiing as well.

Read the article here.

Watch our short documentary on Kerlingarfjöll here.

Authorities Combat Fake Volcano News

eruption, Stóra-Skógfell, Sundhnjúkargígarröð

Minister of Culture and Business Affairs, Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir, has spent ISK 100 million [€670,690 / $725,584] on marketing to respond to and correct international news coverage on the volcanic activity in the Reykjanes peninsula over the last few months.

The current eruption has been ongoing since Saturday, making it the longest-lasting in the recent spell of volcanic activity on the peninsula.

Imprecise reporting

The Icelandic Tourism Board, social media influencers and others have received public funding from the ministry, Vísir reports. “It’s very important that the correct information gets out there,” Lilja said, pointing to a BBC online article which indicated that Iceland was in a “state of emergency”. This would be an imprecise translation of the civil protection alert levels which the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management decides on at any given time.

Effect on tourism

Other news articles have connected the volcanic activity to tourism and questioning whether anyone would want to go to Iceland. “Tourism is the industry responsible for most of our foreign currency income, around 35%,” Lilja said, adding that tourism was an important pillar in securing the stability of the Icelandic Króna, along with energy intensive industries, fisheries and the creative and tech industries.

 

Tourist Traps in Iceland… And How To Avoid Them

Akureyri sign post.

What infamous tourist traps in Iceland should you avoid during your time in the country? What activities might take advantage of a visitor’s naivety, and how can you ensure the best value of money throughout your trip? Read on to learn more about the tourist traps you should avoid on an Iceland vacation! 

The Icelandic tourism industry is adept at permeating the myth that operators – no less, Iceland itself – can do no wrong when it comes to providing their visitors with a faultless and memorable vacation experience. 

Don’t hold this against them – whereas once it might have been the catching of fish, it is the snaring of tourists that now drives the engine of Iceland’s economy. Given the wealth of fantastic natural sights, and the fascinating cultural hubs this island boasts, one can hardly blame the Icelandic people for capitalising on what the Norse Gods have bestowed them.

túristi tourist ferðamaður tourism
Photo: Golli. Tourists at Fjallsárlón glacier lagoon

A word of warning – while this article is, of course, intended to attract visitors to Iceland, it may poke fun at the innocence some cannot help but demonstrate while exploring the land of ice and fire… as raiding marketeers have deemed it.

Do not take offence, for you, surely, are not the type of person to be so willfully drawn in by what amounts to be snake-oil salesmen dressed in horned helmets. 

Keeping an open mind in Iceland


There is no need to read this article suspiciously. Most of the time, no lies are told about the absolute majesty on offer here. But sometimes – and, rarely – foreign guests might realise they have been oversold on aspects of the
essential Icelandic experience.

There is no need to sit in the Blue Lagoon feeling you’ve been had! It might be a wonderful spot, but if it’s not for you… you should not go. 

The Blue Lagoon Iceland
Photo: Golli. Blue Lagoon

As stated, tourism is what drives Iceland’s economy – much like a Scandinavian version of Disneyland, if one might be so bold as to suggest it – and it is not unwise to realise that it does the Icelanders, or anyone who call the country home, extremely well to ensure guests are provided, or sold, the best experiences possible. 

If you were to believe such promises without once questioning the validity of your purchase – bless your naivety. 

Again… don’t get us wrong. Iceland is an incredible place to visit, filled with wonder of nature and cultural highlights that can be found nowhere else on the planet. This is so true that validating the fact is completely asinine. But, we would be doing an enormous disservice to guide you into purchasing packages that do not suit you, or that you may regret upon experiencing them. 

Having been around since 1963 – long, long before the tourism boom of the 2000s – you best believe that Iceland Review has your (and Iceland’s) best interests at heart. So, now that we’ve qualified our respect for the country we call home – and you, of course – let’s take a look at a few realities that you should avoid during your time here. 

Don’t shop at 10/11 convenience stores 

Nettó Hagkaup Bónus Iceland Fjarðarkaup
Photo: Golli. Bónus supermarket

For anyone with the luxury of choice, 10/11 sells nothing of importance; let’s get that out of the way from the beginning. Understandably, your instincts might be different upon spotting the luminous green and white of their logo, but do not be fooled… 

Should you desire a packet of biscuits, toilet paper, potato chips, candy, shampoos, chocolate bars – there are always, always, places that will sell you the exact same product for much cheaper. Sure, it might very well be easier to stop at 10/11… after all, it’s right there… but you would be doing yourself a disservice.

Prices at 10/11 are elevated beyond belief, as though it were designed specifically for the purpose of deceiving foreign visitors. 

Shoppers in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Shoppers in downtown Reykjavík

Aside from the typical convenience store items on sale, 10/11 also sells a range of hot products, including pastries, hot dogs, and pizza. Now, we understand better than anyone that, sometimes, hunger defies financial awareness, but know that these warm treats are not generally of the best quality. 

(The one exception could be Sbarro pizza, which is only sold at 10/11 in Iceland, and in truth, is rather delicious if you’re inclined towards guilty culinary pleasures.)

Actually, Sbarro pizza might be the only reason to stop by 10/11, and only if you’re in need of a quick snack. Otherwise, you can find cheaper alternatives in other shops. The best options are called Bonus and Kronan; both supermarkets are the logical choice for those sticking to a vacation budget.  

Save your drinking for Happy Hour 

Cocktails in the making at Tipsy, Reykjavík.
Photo: Golli. Cocktails in the making at Tipsy, Reykjavík.

The wonderful – if not sometimes unfortunate thing – about drinking is that it lends itself to more drinking. 

Oh, what a surprise this is

Outside of Happy Hour, this can cost you a pretty penny in Iceland – and by that, we mean an absolute fortune – which, no doubt, is surprising upon looking at your bank balance the next day. 

Icelanders are very aware of this – after all, they like sipping on alcohol as much as the next heathen. The local way of getting around it is to drink plenty before even heading to the bars and clubs, but this does not tend to be the best way forward for visiting guests. After all, you have a snowmobiling tour booked for tomorrow… 

People partying in Reykjavík Iceland
Photo: Golli. Reykjavík nightlife

Hence the many Happy Hours on offer throughout the city. The vast majority of bars offer happy hour, which you can track through the Appy Hour app developed by local newspaper, The Reykjavík Grapevine. You can download it on Google Play and the Apple Store

If you’re not mobile savvy, it is wise to inquire as to whether you’re purchasing during Happy Hour or not, or at least, try to schedule your drinking within the timeframe. 

Don’t get us wrong; drinking too much will still cost you during your happy hour, but it may lessen the dent in your wallet. Ultimately, it comes down to how much fun you’re having, and how much money you’re willing to sacrifice for it. 

Skip taking an Airport taxi

Taxis at the airport
Photo: Golli. Taxis at Keflavík International Airport

Upon landing in Iceland, visitors will normally take a shuttle bus from Keflavík International Airport to their accommodation in the city. 

These handy shuttle services are operated by respected companies like Grey Line and Reykjavík Excursions, the latter of which runs the FlyBus. It is possible to book tickets for the shuttles in advance, at the airport itself, and sometimes during your flight. 

However, be aware that taxi cabs also hang around outside the terminal.

Somewhat akin to scavenging ravens, these privateers prey upon unsuspecting tourists who might have thought Keflavík was closer to the hotels, hostels, and AirBnB’s prevalent across Reykjavík. Of course, one shouldn’t blame the drivers, who themselves are only making the most of a ready-made opportunity – just don’t let yourself be that opportunity. Save yourself your trauma! 

While accepting their service is well within your rights, the cost of this forty-minute ride is sure to hammer your wallet, which is completely unnecessary straight after arriving in the country. You may as well invite yourself to your own mugging. So, do yourself a favour and prepare other, more financially savvy travel plans. 

Avoid buying pretend Icelandic Sweaters

icewear in vík

The famed woollen sweaters – Lopapeysas – worn by rural Icelanders have become iconic urban fashion wear over recent years. Never one to miss a trend, tourists are often eager to snag one during a trip. 

If you were to form a mental picture of your typical Icelandic fisherman or farmer, they would be wearing an Icelandic sweater everytime. 

Now, this article – or, this writer, at least – would never go as far as to say Icelandic sweaters are cool, but popular they are. That much cannot be denied. 

Some more forgiving people might say that it’s understandable why this clothing item has become synonymous with Iceland’s culture. The Lopapeysa is hand-knitted from new wool sourced from local sheep, then fashioned with cool patterned designs. 

Golli. Hjörleifur Stefánsson, farmer in Kvíaholt, and his sheep

While it might not be as trendy, as say, crocs, it is synonymous with an Icelanders’ perception of how people should dress in the 21st Century. Typically, you’ll find plenty of tour guides wearing them while taking visitors on exciting outdoor excursions across the country.   

Many shops across Reykjavík sell these iconic sweaters, but always make sure to buy them from reputable sellers. With the influx of souvenir stores across Iceland’s towns, some places might sell cheaper knock-offs that fail to fully capture just why the lopapeysa is so perfectly suited for winter wanderers. 

So, always check the label, and even go as far to inquire with staff should you suspect the quality is inauthentic. If you’re looking for places where you can leave doubt at the door, stop by such shops as the Nordic Store and the Handknitting Association of Iceland

Understand what defines a Volcano Tour… 

Meradalir eruption, August 2022
Photo: Golli. Meradalir eruption, August 2022

Iceland is an incredibly volcanic country.  It is sat atop an enormous magma plume that rests between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. 

By now, this fact is so well known that it almost defies belief someone would have the gall to patronise their readers so much. And yet… 

Lava fields spill out across a landscape carved with rocky fissures. A landscape dotted with ancient tunnels once filled with flowing magma. Wherever you look, the results of a prior eruption are apparent. 

Unsurprisingly, many activities are sold as Volcano Tours, dedicated to exposing guests to the volatile geological forces that have come to define this island. 

However, given that there have been many active volcanic eruptions over recent years, some visitors might expect that all of these so-called Volcano Tours will take them to a mountain currently blasting lava into the air. 

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One could not be blamed for getting confused. Volcano Tours might cover anything from experiencing a hollowed out lava tunnel to hiking over ancient lava fields. 

Still, some Volcano Tours will take you directly to an active eruption – granted that an eruption is actually happening and it is safe to approach! 

Ultimately, volcanoes are temperamental natural forces. So, these tours tend to be opportunistic, and only available during certain episodes of increased volcanic activity. 

The moment a volcano becomes active, expect a variety of helicopter, hiking, and Super Jeep tours to become on offer. Observing a volcano is a rare occurrence, so these tours are competitive in terms of seats available. 

There is no need to buy bottled water in Iceland

Goðafoss Waterfall, Iceland
Photo: Golli. Goðafoss Waterfall in Iceland.

This tourist trap is self-explanatory! Iceland has, arguably, the cleanest water you’re ever likely to find. It originates from the island’s pristine glaciers, travelling by way of lava-fields, where it filters naturally among the volcanic rock.

By the time it’s pouring out of your kitchen tap, Icelandic water is at its purest and most refreshing! You can theoretically drink from streams and freshwater rivers in Iceland without worrying about how safe it is. 

Still, you’ll find many places across the country still attempting to sell you bottled water. Sometimes, it will be under the guise of ease of accessibility, other times because sordid claims are made that particular brands are, somehow, even cleaner than what appears naturally.

Don’t buy into it – you’re far better off purchasing a dedicated water bottle, filling it up as necessary for free. 

Be realistic about how much you’ll see on your trip 

South Coast travellers
Photo: Golli. The South is one of Iceland’s most stunning regions.

Iceland is a big country. With the sheer amount and variety of natural and cultural attractions on offer, remain realistic. There is no chance you can experience everything without staying for a couple of months, or more.

It is much better to pick which attractions you want to see, then work them within your time frame.

For example, the popular Golden Circle sightseeing route can be experienced in a single day and is comprised of three major attractions – Gullfoss Waterfall, Þingvellir National Park, and Geysir Geothermal Area. It makes for a great choice regardless of whether you have two days in the country, or two weeks. 

Looking at the aurora borealis in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Travellers observing the Northern Lights in Iceland

If you are interested in visiting the North, the Westfjords, or the East, it will require more time and pre-planning. Almost all visitors start their journey in Reykjavík, which is in the southwest of the country. Therefore, it is important to stay aware of how much is possible with the time you’ve allotted yourself. 

One way to simplify this process is by purchasing a multi-day bus or SuperJeep tour. These excursions take guests to a handful of each region’s main visitor’s sites. They also provide an itinerary listing what attractions you’ll visit each day, and how long you spend at each. 

You can browse some of the various multi-day tours on offer before cementing your own schedule. 

In Summary 

Visitors at Gullfoss waterfall
Photo: Golli. Gullfoss waterfall in the wintertime.

For the simple fact that there are not many tourist traps listed in this article, rest easy. You must realise that, by and large, experiencing an Icelandic holiday comes with very little you should worry about.

All in all, Icelanders and Icelandic companies have a visitor’s best interests at heart. It is the best way to make sure this genial Nordic island maintains its reputation as an unforgettable holiday destination.

Still, wherever you choose to visit on Earth, there are little nuances that it’s wise to stay aware of! 

So, when you’re planning your trip to Iceland, just remember to tread lightly in certain places. Be it on the ice, or when navigating purchases and the logistics of your time here. 

First Ever Scheduled Flights from Iceland to Africa

iceland budget airline play

The airline PLAY has added two new destinations to their scheduled flights, Madeira in Portugal and Marrakesh in Morocco. The latter will be the first ever destination in Africa for scheduled flights to and from Iceland, Viðskiptablaðið reports.

The first flight to Madeira will be on October 15 this year and scheduled flights will take place once a week on Tuesdays. Flights to Marrakesh will begin on October 17, scheduled twice a week for Thursdays and Sundays.

Sunny destinations

“We continue to increase our options of destinations for Icelanders looking to bask in the sun and our schedule for Southern Europe is one of the most varied ever offered in Iceland,” said Birgir Jónsson, CEO of PLAY. “We have eight destinations in Spain and now three in Portugal. What’s more, we’ve added the enchanting city of Marrakesh to our schedule and I have full faith that Icelanders will welcome these first ever scheduled flights between Iceland and Africa.”

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.

Deep North Episode 60: Boom Town

iceland immigration

If you’re looking for a community in Iceland that has been profoundly changed by tourism, there is hardly a better place to look than Vík, the urban centre of the Mýrdalshreppur municipality. Over the past eight years or so, building after building has sprung up in the town: a two-storey Icewear store opened in 2017, a 72-room hotel in 2018. Since 2015, the municipality’s population has nearly doubled, from 480 to 877. Ten years ago, there may have been one or two places in town for a traveller to sit down for dinner. Now there are enough restaurants for Tripadvisor to compile the top ten.

And along with the tour boom, the community in Vík has grown in recent years as well. Here’s how this South Iceland community is making the best of it. Read the story here.

16% Year-On-Year Growth in Overnight Tourism Stays for 2023

Tourists walk carefully during extreme weather in Reykjavík

In 2023, overnight stays in Iceland increased by 16% year-on-year, with Icelanders accounting for 22% of these stays. Looking ahead, 2024 is forecasted to be a record-breaking year for tourism, potentially surpassing the previous peak in 2018.

Icelanders accounted for 22% of overnight stays

According to initial figures for overnight stays in 2023, there were nearly 10 million overnight stays at all types of registered accommodations, compared to 8.5 million in 2022, representing a 16% increase year-on-year, Statistics Iceland reports

Overnight stays by Icelanders accounted for about 22% of all stays, or approximately 2.1 million, which is a 9% increase from the previous year. Overnight stays by foreign tourists were about 78% of all stays, or around 7.8 million compared to 6.6 million the year before.

In 2023, there were about 6.6 million overnight stays in hotels and guesthouses, and 3.4 million in other types of registered accommodations (apartment rentals, holiday homes, campgrounds, etc.). The total number of hotel stays was about 5.3 million, a 12% increase from the previous year. As noted by Statistics Iceland, all regions of the country saw an increase in overnight hotel stays.

Moderate increase expected in 2024

In a letter published on December 31, 2023, Bjarnheiður Hallsdóttir, Chairperson of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association (SAF), noted that forecasts predict a moderate increase in tourists in 2024. If these predictions hold, 2024 will set a new record in tourism in Iceland, exceeding the previous record from 2018.

“The year that has just concluded was predominantly positive for the Icelandic tourism industry. It seemed poised to become the first year since 2018 without major disruptions to the sector’s operations, a much-needed respite after the challenges of the preceding years. However, towards the year’s end, seismic events in Reykjanes cast a shadow over this progress. As a result, demand fell, and tourism companies in the vicinity of the seismic activity had to temporarily shut down.”

Play Introduces “Stopover” Option

iceland budget airline play

The airline Play announced today that passengers on their connecting flights to and from Iceland can stop over in Iceland without an additional fee. This applies to passengers travelling between North America and Europe and they can now book a “stopover” for up to ten days using Play’s website interface, Viðskiptablaðið reports.

“Play is focused on offering competitive prices for its markets and with this service, travellers will be able to visit two countries without paying extra, using the airline’s online booking platform,” Play’s press release read.

Competing with Icelandair’s “stopover”

Icelandair, Iceland’s other international passenger airline, has offered the “stopover” option for a number of years. In their case, passengers travelling across the Atlantic can stay in Iceland for up to seven nights without an additional fee.

“This increases our offerings and will be a valuable tool in the competition for customers in our markets,” said Birgir Jónsson, CEO of Play, about the company’s new product. “It’s an unequivocal benefit for passengers to choose Play if they want to travel across the Atlantic and are intrigued by the attractiveness of Iceland. This new service on our website will simplify the process of booking a stay in our beautiful country and will increase our airline’s esteem abroad even more.”

In the United States, Play flies to Baltimore, Boston, New York and Washington DC, but also offers flights to Toronto in Canada. In Europe, the airline has over 30 destinations.

Reykjavík to Address Short-Term Rental Market Disruption

iceland refugees

The number of apartments available for short-term rental in Reykjavík has risen sharply in recent years, paralleling the increased flow of foreign tourists into the country. Many such apartments are owned and operated by companies rather than individuals. Due to a regulatory change from 2018, companies do not have to register such units as commercial properties, allowing them to evade higher property taxes and making them harder for municipalities to track. RÚV reported first.

Short-term rentals occupy entire buildings

Kristrún Frostadóttir, chairperson of the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin), voiced her concerns about the impact of short-term rentals during a question period in Parliament last week. She pointed out that many apartment buildings that had been zoned as residential were largely, or entirely, occupied by short-term rentals. This has a negative impact on the real estate market, according to Kristrún. The MP also pointed out the difficulties municipalities face due to these apartments not being registered as commercial properties.

As noted by RÚV, the regulation was altered during Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir’s tenure as Minister of Tourism. Speaking before Parliament yesterday, Þórdís stated that she had considered updating the regulation but stressed the need for municipal responsibility.

“Given the recent media reports, it’s apparent that the situation is not ideal. I urge the honourable member of Parliament to consult with her peers at Reykjavík City Council about managing Airbnb activities in the capital,” Þórdís stated.

Reykjavík seeks regulatory amendment

Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson described the 2018 regulatory change as problematic. He stated that it made it more difficult to track short-term rentals and enforced regulations, “especially our ban on year-round short-term rentals in residential areas. We advocate for reverting this legislation and maintain that local authorities should oversee this sector, currently managed by the district commissioner,” Dagur told RÚV.

Dagur also mentioned his intention, on behalf of the city, to formally request Tourism Minister Lilja Alfreðsdóttir to amend the regulation. “Addressing such issues, where regulations lead to unintended consequences, is a crucial collaborative effort,” he added.