It was a cold, crisp November day. The sea was mostly still and, even rarer for Iceland in autumn, the sky almost completely blue. Hallgrímskirkja, lording over Reykjavík city, became smaller while the mountains, still largely bereft of snow, grew larger still. The white dome of Snæfellsjökull glacier, the entrance to the centre of the Earth if Jules Verne is to be believed, was sitting as tranquil as a spaceship coming in peace on the far peninsula that bears its name. Even without whales it would be a nice day out but whales are what we have come to see.
Thar she blows!
It takes about an hour to sail from Reykjavik harbour to the usual stomping grounds. The joy of the hunt is half the thrill. There is no guarantee that whales will be spotted but the odds are good. And sure enough, an hour in the first burst of water can be seen erupting, indicating the presence of the giants of the sea. It takes all the self-control one can muster to not shout out “Thar she blows!”
Seagulls roam but puffin hide
One of the best indicators that whales might be in the vicinity is the presence of schools of fish, and these can be identified by scores of birds flying overhead, seagulls mainly. Sadly, puffins are farther out to sea this time of year but the first appearance of a humpback tailfin jutting out of the drink makes the tour live up to its name. Humpbacks are considerably larger than the more numerous minke whales, although dwarfed by the only occasionally sighted blue whale.
Telling the time by tailfins
Humpbacks are in season now, although, of course, we are not here to hunt but to observe. The ship draws closer and the engines are shut off. The guide calls out times of day so that landlubbers know where to look. “Four o clock” sends us racing to one side of the boat, “ten o’ clock” to the other. A particular highlight is a humpback rolling over like a dog.
Whale enthusiasts work the bar
It’s not seen as polite to disturb any particular group of whales for more than half an hour, but there are plenty more fish (and mammals) in the sea. The guides, who take turns pointing out whales and manning the bar so you can ask your barman any question about the life aquatic, know individual whales by their looks and personalities. For us layfolk it’s all we can do to distinguish species, and as well as the lumbering humpbacks.Sprightly white-beaked dolphins put on a show, jumping up from the sea for all to see. This is close to heaven for whale enthusiasts, and birders can also get their kicks from passing fowl whose kind may be known to them but not me.
What time was it?
After about an hour out the ship turns around and the glacier recedes in the distance, Hallgrímskirkja starts growing taller again, a beacon to home. This writer wishes he could refrain from pronouncing a whale of a time being had by all, but sadly lacks the restraint.