HÚSAVÍK is a small, likeable town of 2500 inhabitants hunkered below Húsavíkurfjall on a rare dip in the coastline, the blue-green bay out front patched by cloud shadows and a couple of islands. The ninth-century Swedish rover Garðar Svavarsson wintered here while making the first recorded circumnavigation of Iceland; the shelters he built gave Húsavík (House Bay) its name. It’s also said that two of his slaves decamped during his stay and established a farm, though later historians – looking for nobler lineages than this – tend to overlook the possibility that they were the mainland’s first permanent residents.
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The area’s economy focused on sheep farming until hit by the nationwide depression of the late nineteenth century – caused in part by the 1875 eruption of Viti in Askja – when many switched to fishing or emigrated to Canada or the US. Nowadays, Húsavík has become Iceland’s premier centre for whale watching; the town is now so dependent on this summer income that Húsavík led criticism within Iceland of the government’s decision to resume commercial whaling in late 2006.
Whale watching in Húsavík
The whale-watching industry in Húsavík started after whalers hit by a 1989 moratorium realized that there was still good money to be made by taking tourists out to find the creatures. Despite the resumption of commercial whaling in 2006, whale stocks off Húsavík remain high, and the chances of seeing some are good. Dolphins, porpoises and medium-sized minke whales are encountered most frequently, with much larger humpback whales runners-up; these are identified by lengthy flippers and their habit of “breaching” – making spectacular, crashing leaps out of the water. Similar-looking fin whales are the next most likely candidates, with rarer sightings of colossal blue whales, orca and square-headed sperm whales (for some reason, only males of the last species are seen in Iceland’s waters).
Cruises generally head directly across the bay from Húsavík – this can be rough in a northerly wind – where you’ll come across puffins and other seabirds fishing; the whales obviously move around a lot but boat crews are expert at locating them. Most of the time you’ll see little more than an animal’s back, fluke or tail breaking the surface in the middle distance, and perhaps jets of water vapour as they breathe; if you’re lucky, whales swim right under the boats, lie on their sides looking up at you, or breach. And you might, of course, see nothing at all.
Whale-watching trips run at least daily from April to August and last three hours. Húsavík’s two operators are Gentle Giants (464 1500) and North Sailing (464 2350); ticket booths are at the top of the harbour and it’s best to buy in advance. There’s little to choose between the two options: both use wooden whaling ships seating around forty people – North Sailing’s rigged sailship is the most attractive – and provide essential full waterproof gear, hot drinks and biscuits. Bring binoculars and plenty of warm clothing.