“Was that a whale or a wave?”
If there’s ever a question that sums up a whale watching tour, it’s that one.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so on edge while on a boat – and I’ve been on a high speed ferry heading into a typhoon in Hong Kong.
Whilst we were in Reykjavik, my friend Helen and I decided to embrace our love of animals by heading out onto the water to see if we could fulfil one of our life ambitions of seeing whales in the wild.
A quick stroll along Reykjavik’s old harbour tells you that whale watching here is big business. Company after company line up to vie for your custom. In the end, we opted for Elding. While in hindsight I would like to think that we chose them because they boasted that ‘95% of our summer tours involve seeing a whale’ I’m thinking we probably chose them because their boat looked the sturdiest…
Hopping on board for our 5pm departure, we were each given our own bright orange jumpsuit (and complimentary sea sickness tablet, just in case) and we were off! The boat had two tiers – one inside and one outside – so we settled into our comfy seats to shelter from the wind whilst we pulled out of the harbour.
Our first stop was the tiny Akurey island, just a half-mile off of the Reykjavik coast. The uninhabited island has the largest puffin colony, and is also home to other seabirds include black guillemots, eider ducks and cormorants. We hovered around the island for a few minutes as we watched the puffins taking off and landing.
Afterwards, the boat was revved back to life, and we sped off further into the open water to an area where whales had been seen earlier that day.
The first 20 minutes or so consisted of everyone anxiously gripping onto the railings, desperately hankering for that elusive first-look at a whale. Thanks to the windy weather (we later found that out the tour after us was cancelled because of the high winds) the waves splashed around the boat, throwing us from left to right. Thank God for those sea sickness tablets.
It wasn’t long before we saw our first splash a few kilometres off in the distant. Everyone sprang to action, huddling around one side of the boat, cameras poised. The boat quickly veered off in that general direction in an attempt to get a closer look at what had caused the splash.
As we got closer, we quickly realised we were seeing something special. An excited staff member took to the microphone to explain what we were seeing: a Minke Whale repeatedly breaching the surface of the water.
The Minke Whale is the most common whale around Iceland, with the younger animals tending to be very curious and wanting to investigate the boats. Unfortunately, the beautiful creatures are also subject to whaling, with their meat being sold for tourists’ consumption in restaurants.
We watched for almost an hour as the Minke put on a spectacular performance for us, leaping out of the water, and splashing back down again. Our tour guide estimated that we must have seen the whale breaching around 30 times!
It wasn’t long before we realised the whale was getting closer. It almost felt like something out of Jaws – you never knew where the whale would surface, and how close it would be. I had visions of it completely underestimating the size of its tail and accidentally knocking over the boat and pouring as all into the water. Even worse, it could have been like the Kraken, emerging out of the water to stare down at us with its colossal eyes. (Have I been watching too much Pirates of the Caribbean? Maybe.)
After a few unnerving moments, the whale surfaced again – this time just metres away from our boat! Its belly brushed up against the surface of the water, allowing us to catch a glimpse of its glistening white belly as people ooh’d and aah’d.
The entire tour was just spectacular. Even when we weren’t seeing anything but endless waves, the nervous anticipation kept us on the edge of our seats. The chance to see these majestic creatures up close and in their natural environment is something everyone should take part in – not least because we have no idea how much longer we’ll have this opportunity.
As we made our way back to shore, we shrugged off our jumpsuits and snuggled up in blankets to keep us cosy. And the next best thing to seeing the beautiful Minke Whale up close? They even served cups of tea on board!
Elding Whale Watching tours run all year, although more frequently in the summer months. Tours cost around 8,500 ISK (£44/$75) per person.
Have you been whale watching in Iceland, or anywhere else around the world? Did you see any whales, puffins or other creatures?