From Iceland — Watching Whales in Action

Watching Whales in Action

Published June 16, 2006

“Did you see any whales?” was the first question I was asked as I returned to the Grapevine office after a whale-watching boat trip in Faxaflói bay. The answer was yes, I sure did. My boat trip out on the ocean scouting for whales was a success, something I didn’t dare to hope for three hours earlier.
Whale watching has in recent years gained worldwide popularity; Iceland, being no exception, offers scheduled whale-watching tours daily throughout the summer months. The industry gets bigger every year as people are become more curious about these great leviathans, wanting to spend their time and money watching them wild in the ocean and capturing the memory on camera. The area off the coast of Reykjavík is ideally suited for whale observation and with whales being plentiful in the ocean around the capital, you can almost guarantee coming across a few.
My first encounter with this largest animal living on the planet was seeing its meat cut to pieces and piled up in a fish market in Tokyo years ago, and I must say I was therefore excited for a more pleasant acquaintance. I booked a cruise with Elding, a family-owned company now in its sixth year running, and met the captain down at the dock, ready to head out on sea with a varied group of enthusiastic tourists.
Look, 6 O’Clock!
Sightings vary each tour depending on the weather, time and sea conditions so no trip will ever be the same as the last one. This time around the sea was a little choppy, making it harder to distinguish between waves and a whale’s back, our guide explained to us as we set off from the old Reykjavík harbour heading out to the Faxaflói bay.
While we sailed from the harbour, enjoying our scenic view over Reykjavík’s coastline, our tour guide explained the safety regulations, emphasising the need to hold on tight when looking over the edge of the boat.
It took us some time to get to the whale-watching grounds. After about 40 minutes of sailing, our guide informed us that now we would start to search for the whales. “If we see a bunch of birds grouped together, it means we’re getting warm,” he continued. Everyone on the boat started staring out at the surface. As the guide kept on informing us about these amazing animals. We learned, among other things that the population in Faxaflói bay is far from being homogeneous. A typical tour may encounter minke whales, dolphins, harbour porpoises, humpback whales and even killer whales.
“I thought I saw a minke whale at 12 o’clock!” our guide yelled out and pointed to a spot about 20 metres from our boat. I just saw the big black ocean though. Rushing to the viewing platform, scanning more carefully and listening to all the yelling and excited screaming coming from other passengers, some with binoculars, almost all with cameras, I still didn’t see anything exciting. I was getting a little frustrated when suddenly a black clump rose up and down only metres away from me, disappearing as quickly as it had appeared. Aiming at the spot where the last one was seen a group of whales consecutively surfaced and as our boat came closer, it was as if we had found ourselves in a minke whale party, surrounded by these giant mammals. Our guide tried his best to keep up with them, yelling out different numbers, (guiding us with the hands of a watch, 12 o’clock being in front of the boat, 6 o’clock the back). Almost wringing my neck trying not to miss anything in the meantime, I was really starting to have some fun. Although there were no eye-to-eye connections or tail slapping as I had imagined before the trip, the impression was like nothing else and the group was just as pleased as I, even the little ones, strapped in their life jackets.
We spent an hour just staring out at the sea, almost harassing the ones we spotted and hoping to see others appear. This time we only saw the minke whale, the most common of the species, loads of sea birds, including puffins and the gannet, often called the queen of the Atlantic Ocean. The next tour might be lucky enough to see some other species.
The fact that I didn’t see a humpback really didn’t matter to me at this point because my up-close encounter with the minke whales in their natural habitat, seeing them alive and feasting out in the nature, was truly an unforgettable experience. I found it fascinating to imagine that these mammals have lived and bred in the ocean for millions of years, adjusting to the water in such a remarkable way. As those thoughts rushed through my head, I eased my stomach and warmed up my body with a cup of whale punch (hot chocolate with a splash of rum) offered at the small shop inside the boat and relaxed as we headed back to the shore. With a quick stop at the puffin island Akurey, we returned from the marine wildlife half an hour later. An interesting voyage had come to an end and my feet were on solid ground again.
Tour provided by Elding.

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