The fact that in Icelandic the word for beached whale is the same as that for jackpot or windfall may give you some clue as to how these seaborne beasts are seen by the locals. Yes, you may well find whale on the menu in Iceland’s restaurants – but thanks to a temporary moratorium on whaling back in the enlightened nineties, whalers were forced to seek alternative sources of income and at that point the whale-watching industry was born.
Sadly the moratorium was lifted in 2006, but stocks remain high – and consequently so do sightings. Head out to sea and across Skjálfandi Bay from Húsavík on the island’s north coast and thanks to experienced local guides who know every inch of this blustery bay, your opportunities of seeing at least one gentle giant are good.
Unlike many other countries, Iceland plays host to numerous different species of whale, which makes scanning the waterline that much more interesting. The species you’re most likely to see is the (relatively) small minke whale, which favours shallow waters near the coast and is very inquisitive, often bringing its head out of the water to watch the boat. The massive blue whale (the largest animal on Earth), vast fin whale (the second largest), square-headed sperm whale and the killer whale are also often sighted, but the biggest creature you’ll probably spot is the humpback. Humpback whales are famous for their entertaining behaviour and lively acrobatics, and this is the species most likely to breach, leaping out of the water to expose its whole body, often up to seventeen metres in length.
As if that wasn’t quite enough marine life for one trip, there are also dolphins, puffins and other seabirds in this lively bay – more than enough to keep those binoculars busy, and to put a big salty smile on your face as you return to shore for dinner. Just remember to order carefully if you’ve fallen in love with these graceful creatures.
Húsavík’s two main whale-watching operators are Gentle Giants (www.gentlegiants.is) and North Sailing Húsavík (www.northsailing.is). Both operate daily from May to September and trips last around three hours. Temperatures rarely creep above 10°C even in summer, so wrap up warm.