We knew that it was getting serious when they brought out the waterproof boiler suits. It was 8:50 PM, and we were standing at the Elding pier in Akureyri, the largest town in Northern Iceland, preparing to join an express whale watching tour. Our goal was to see the majestic humpback whale, and perhaps a dolphin or two, and we would travel on a specially modified RIB boat to do so. Hence, we were kitted out with what felt like enough gear to go to the moon, with goggles, gloves and lifejackets atop waterproof overalls.
Suitably armoured, we stepped into the little motorboat. Though Akureyri sits on the coast, it is nestled deep inside one of Iceland’s longest fjords. To get to the whales, we had to travel to the end of the fjord. Before long, we were going nearly full speed, bouncing over the surface of the water while Akureyri rapidly disappeared behind us. The fjord was lit by the evening sun, still high in the sky but just beginning to descend, and the views were phenomenal. For nearly an hour we sped along. The noise of the speedboat made talking effectively impossible, but the beauty of the landscape was so striking that it didn’t matter. We were all utterly captivated.
As we approached the end of the fjord, the water became choppier and the wind stronger. I started to regret not grabbing a woolen hat before we departed—it was so chilly it felt like my ears were about to snap off. At that very moment our guide gave a shout and gestured. Up ahead there was motion in the water. And then, almost like an illustration in their perfect form, several dolphins began to leap out of the sea.
As we approached them, the water began to fill with silvery streaks as they sped along, comfortably matching the reduced speed of our boat. Our guide explained that, when they leapt out of the sea, they would smack the water with their tails, thus stunning other fish and making them easier prey. But it was clear from whale watching that there was also a keen sense of play here, especially amongst the younger dolphins in the pod. It was truly infectious, and we could have spent much longer enjoying their company.
Like nothing else
But we had bigger goals yet, so we moved on from the cavorting cetaceans and sped on, out into the open ocean, where the water was rougher still. The boat was gently brought to a halt and as the sound of the engine faded, the roar of the sea rushed in to take its place. I suddenly felt very small.
We scanned the seas, looking for signs of whales: either a blast of vapour from their blowholes or, if we were lucky, a whale actually breaching. Now that the engine was off, the boat was being rocked sharply amongst the breaking crests of the waves, I began to wonder whether we would see a whale even if one surfaced. But then there was a great spray of water in the distance, bigger than any of the waves, and, thrillingly, a massive, dark shape that leapt clean into the air and came down with a great splash. I needn’t have worried about spotting it amongst the waves—a breaching humpback whale is unmistakable. The thrill of the chase set upon us, and we sped in the direction of the spray, bouncing across the choppy waves.
We slowed down as we approached where the whale had breached, desperately scanning the water for another glimpse. Before long, there was another blast of air and suddenly it was there, a deep dark shape briefly skimming the surface of the sea. It dived below the surface and, with a splash, its impossibly large tail was raised high above the water, beautifully speckled with unique white spots. And then it was gone as the humpback, so our guide explained, potentially as far as sixty metres into the chilly depths.
We remained watching for a glorious forty minutes or so. While the humpbacks can stay under for as long as half an hour, they more commonly surface again after ten or fifteen minutes and usually in a similar place to where they dived. But we were lucky that evening because there were as many as three humpbacks around. We kept our eyes peeled for spray and then sped in that direction, normally arriving just in time to see those glorious tail fins breach the surface; the setting sun glimmering on their shining surface.
A Warm Welcome
We could have spent hours there. But, as the sun began to set in earnest it was time to turn back. Still one last moment of excitement awaited us. As we approached Akureyri, now gently illuminated at dusk, our boat took a sudden turn straight towards a waterfall pouring into the fjord. At first, I wondered if it was some cruel prank. But then, as we approached, we felt the heat and realised that the water vapour was actually steam.
The cascade was gushing hot water, and as we moved closer we were splashed with warmth. The deluge, our guide explained, wasn’t totally natural, but the water itself was geothermally heated and had merely been re-routed by construction work. It was, like the whole of our whale watching trip, a piece of quintessentially Icelandic magic.
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!