Whales from (Ice)land: a rough guide

Over the last two weeks, we’ve posted on social media about our favourite land-based whale-watching sites in Iceland. We wanted to condense these into a single blog post for anyone interested in the magic of watching whales from land!

During the 2021 Iceland field season, much of our research was done from land, at different spots around the North coast. This may seem less exciting than encountering whales up-close on the water, but land-based whale-watching has given us so many special sightings and experiences. It’s a very different and often slower way of appreciating whales and surrounding nature. At the same time, we’ve had moments of pure exhilaration watching whales from land.

It’s not just us – locals, tourists and researchers watch whales from land all around Iceland – and the world! It’s accessible, cheap and often gives you a better vantage point. Boat-based whale-watching has a really important part to play (we also love doing it!) – we just think watching from land is under-appreciated.

So, we’re sharing some of the best land-based whale-watching spots around Iceland (to our knowledge), from our own experience as well as sightings shared by others on the ‘Iceland Whale Sightings‘ FB page. The list will not be exhaustive!

This was inspired by Babsi Neubarth, who in 2021 took the first early steps towards planning an Icelandic ‘whale trail’, helping people find the best spots to watch whales from land and educating them along the way. Some really cool whale trails already exist around the world, for example the Hebridean Whale Trail in Scotland.

For each location, we’ll explain what you might see, the best time of year and especially why this location might be such a good spot. Is it close to a deep-water channel, at the confluence of oceanic currents or near large rivers? What might cetaceans be feeding on? Where are the best vantage points? If you’re not in Iceland, maybe you can apply this info to your part of the world to seek out new spots for whale-watching.

For each location, we’ll provide a map, then some information, then photos/videos. Enjoy!

Vestmannaeyjar

Situated off the wild south coast of Iceland, the Westmann Islands are an absolute gem for land-based whale-watching and natural beauty. Thanks to Rodrigo Martinez Catalan for providing the info and photos/videos for this guide.

As with most places, you never know what you’ll see – Westmann is unpredictable and exciting. From Rodrigo’s data base of sightings, the main species to see are humpbacks (34%), orcas (22%) and minkes (19%). You may also see white-beaked dolphins or even fin and pilot whales! The best times are January-March (humpbacks) and July-August (all species).  

Here are four of the best sites on Heimaey (the main island):

  1. Stórhöfði, at the southern tip: excellent views to the south and you may catch the Icelandic Orcas team doing land-based research!
  2. A beautiful spot where rescued pufflings (baby puffins) are released back into the wild! A nice wall to sit on and beautiful views of the Elephant Rock
  3. Urðaviti lighthouse: a great place to watch boats entering the harbour, the islands of Elliðaey and Bjarnarey … and whales!
  4. A dog park with a lovely east-facing bench.

The ferry to the islands is also a great chance to see cetaceans.

If you look at the bathymetry (underwater topography), deeper waters and the continental shelf edge lie to the east. This might be why fin whales are seen off the east of Heimaey.

The islands aren’t just special for the species you can see, but also the behaviours. Cool observations include dolphin megapods interacting with humpbacks, orcas and humpbacks feeding in the same area, and if you’re super lucky, pilot whales chasing orcas! Check out Icelandic Orcas for more info and Hvalir við Vestmannaeyjar / Whales of Vestmannaeyjar for sightings!

Snæfellsnes

Snæfellsnes is a stunning peninsula jutting out from the west of Iceland. Rugged and dramatic, the end is guarded by a small glacier. The underwater topography is just as exciting, with a deep channel coming close to the northwest of Snæfellsnes and providing good feeding conditions for cetaceans.

The area is actually already known for whale-watching. Spring is the best time and boat trips regularly see orcas, sperm and pilot whales. You may also see minkes, humpbacks and the very occasional blue. In the past, the northern coast has seen large numbers of orca in response to huge herring aggregations.

From land, we know of one good spot – thanks to Sara Rodríguez Ramallo for the info and photos. The picturesque village of Arnarstapi, in the south, has several cliff-top viewing points, which can be a good place to spot orcas and humpbacks in spring – the photos in this post were taken from here by Sara. There are also plenty of other viewing points along the south coast which may be good. We don’t have much information so we’d love to hear what you see!

Ísafjarðardjúp

This is an absolute stunner. Found in the depths of Iceland’s Westfjords, Ísafjarðardjúp is a large system of deep fjords, with a glacier to the north, incredible scenery and loads of whales.

We hadn’t really heard much about Ísa before – it isn’t a classic whale-watching hotspot in Iceland – but last summer we saw a few posts about large numbers of humpbacks feeding in the middle of the fjord. At the time we wanted to collect as many blow samples as possible, so we decided to check it out. And thank goodness we did.

Ísa has a road around most of its southern end, providing many viewpoints at the fjord. Most of our sightings came from point 1 (map) and, at one point in early August, we estimated there were 25+ whales in a very small area north of the island of Vigur. This is one of the deepest parts of the fjord and the whales indeed seemed to be deep feeding – diving for 5-10 minutes, then spending long periods at the surface.

We mostly saw humpbacks further out in the fjord – their booming blows heard for miles – but we also had some surprise encounters. Check out the video of a big humpback at night, super close to the coast. The video doesn’t include our screaming … we also saw some minkes and porpoise. We had some calm weather, beautiful light and just magical experiences.

We visited in August, but the action didn’t stop then. Large numbers of humpbacks were reported into September and October. Point 2 (map) seemed to be a good viewpoint at that time of year. Points 1 and 2 are also near fantastic cafes (you can watch whales from the window!)

A quick word of caution: most of our info is based on only a few months of sightings. We know humpbacks are seen every year, but we’re not sure how consistent timings are. As always, sightings aren’t guaranteed!

Steingrímsfjörður

After the 2021 field season, Steingrímsfjörður holds a special place in ours hearts. A beautiful, secluded fjord in the eastern Westfjords, it’s where we’ve had some of our best land-based sightings and we think it’s one of the most reliable sites for whale-watching in Iceland.

Once again, the fjord is characterised by an area of deep water, this time near the mouth, and connected to other areas of deep water in Húnaflói, the larger bay that leads to Steingríms. In summer and autumn especially, the area is full of small, schooling fish, providing excellent and reliable feeding conditions for whales.

Humpbacks are easily the most commonly sighted species in the fjord. They are frequently seen between July and November, with peak season August-October. Our friend Judith Scott guides on whale-watching trips in the fjord and has noticed that whales increasingly move into deeper waters as the season progresses. Up to 30-50 whales have been seen in the bay at once – a phenomenal number for such a small area. You can see whales from any part of the fjord, made accessible by good roads, but sites 1 and 2 are closer to deep water and probably the most reliable.

We’ve also seen some fantastic behaviours. In one of our highlights of the season, we watched two lunge-feeding humpbacks in ridiculously shallow water (maybe 5 m or less even) from a golf course (site 3). On another occasion, we watched a whale breaching for over an hour near the village of Drangsnes (site 1).

However, Steingrímsfjörður isn’t just about humpbacks. We were incredibly fortunate to see two fin whales (!!) very far into the fjord (site 4) in August, and Judith has reported seeing several fins in early spring. White-beaked dolphins, porpoise and minkes are frequently seen. Orcas, sperm whales and pilot whales are seen occasionally – we missed an incredible sighting of 7 sperm whales interacting with pilot whales by a few hours!

Reykjarfjörður

This one is an absolute hidden gem. Reykjarfjörður is a small fjord in the eastern Westfjords. Being near the end of the northward road, not many tourists venture this road but we cannot recommend it highly enough. We really fell in love with the area. Dramatic, primeval and beautiful … and a great place to watch whales! Like most hotspots, it’s not entirely surprising – deep waters snaking deep inland, in an area known for good fishing.

To be honest, we don’t know a huge amount about Reykjarfjörður – we first heard of its existence in September 2021 when our friend Judith Scott reported seeing several humpbacks in the fjord. We visited a few days later and we were not disappointed.

We had the most success at site 1 (see map). We saw at least 7 humpbacks, including a few within 1 km of our viewing point. The highlight was a lunge-feeding whale within 200 m of shore – it had really severe propellor scars but its body condition seemed OK otherwise. We also saw some white-beaked dolphins! We also visited site 2 a couple of times. From here (next to the village Gjögur), we saw 2-3 humpbacks close to shore.

Having only been twice, we know next to nothing about whale occurrence in the fjord. After chatting with locals at Hótel Djúpavík  – which is the most amazing place with fantastic dogs – it seemed that these sightings weren’t unusual. In fact, humpbacks may frequently travel deep into the fjord, close to Djúpavík, in summer (which seems to be peak season).

Being a hidden gem, it’s also unpredictable – you may see everything, nothing, or something in between. Like most places in Iceland – and around coasts worldwide – this is part of the thrill of land-based whale-watching. You literally never know what you’ll see. So if you’re ever by the coast, keep your eyes peeled and share your excitement with others.

Eyjafjörður

Next we have a classic area for whale-watching in Iceland. Eyjafjörður is a stunning, dramatic fjord in the north of the country, snaking its way inland. In summer, bathed by the midnight sun, the light and mountain shadow makes it a magical place.

It’s a pretty deep fjord, 100+ m for most of its length and more than 200 m at the mouth. Small schooling fish abound in the fjord for most of the year, providing – you guessed it – fantastic feeding condition for whales.

The top species in Eyjafjörður is the humpback – we’ve seen 20+ from land at times, swimming in groups of up to 7 animals. The best time season seems to change each year – in 2021, autumn was the best time. In previous years, the peak was in summer.

You may also see porpoise, white-beaked dolphins and minkes. If you’re super lucky, you may see a blue or orcas further out. Last year, in a historic sighting, a pod of bottlenose dolphins was seen deep into the fjord. This is totally unheard of in North Iceland.

Being a narrow fjord, with whales often distributed throughout it, you can spot whales from almost anywhere. Being so close to Akureyri, with good paved roads around much of its coast, it’s really accessible. We recommend two spots in particular

  1. Hjalteyri is a gorgeous little village jutting out into the fjord. We’ve had the most success watching humpbacks from here, and they can come really close to land.
  2. In 2021, we had success watching humpbacks from Hauganes.

Skjálfandi Bay

Skjálfandi is world-renowned for its whale-watching. A beautiful open bay in the far north of the country, Skjálfandi has incredible cetacean diversity. It’s no surprise given its composition: the bay is at the confluence of three oceanic currents, with a deep channel in the northwest (+ a small underwater hill in the centre) and high freshwater input, providing nutrients. These create suitable conditions for krill and fish (= whale prey) to proliferate.

Skjálfandi and Húsavík (the only town in the area) are well-known for boat-based whale-watching, and this is how most visitors enjoy the cetaceans of the bay. However, Skjálfandi can also provide some fantastic land-based sightings. We have seen humpbacks, minkes, orcas, white-beaked dolphins, porpoise and even blue whales just from land! Being an open bay, cetaceans may not always be near land, so binoculars are definitely recommended.

We’ve watched whales from two spots around the bay and highly recommend both (see map).

Site 1 is next to Húsavík lighthouse and provides an incredible view of the bay and mountains. We’ve seen all of the aforementioned species from here, and it’s especially good for seeing dolphins. On a clear summer’s evening, you can watch the sun touch the horizon to the north and it give you a sense of peace. Next to the lighthouse is GeoSea, a geothermal spa with the same view of the bay. It’s a short walk from town, or can you park right there.

Site 2 is a bit more difficult to reach. The western side of the bay has no roads, so you need to walk through the mountains to reach it. Once there, however, you’ll likely have this stunning place all to yourself. The cliffs and slopes are dotted with wild camping spots, and you can stay in the old house of Naustavík. Since humpbacks are generally found further west in the bay, you’re arguably closer to the action here. We’ve spent several nights camping out west for research and saw humpbacks, minkes, dolphins and porpoise. It’s also good for seals!

Langanes

Langanes is a remote peninsula in northeast Iceland. If you’re looking for adventurous, thrilling and secluded whale-watching, look no further.

First, there isn’t much info about whale-watching at Langanes. We’ve been twice and heard of a few other cetacean reports, but that’s about it to our knowledge. We do know that Langanes is unpredictable (whales and weather), but the rewards can be great.

The best place to watch whales is probably the very tip of the peninsula, at Fontur lighthouse (site 1), home to towering cliffs packed with seabirds (puffin, razorbill, guillemot, gannet, fulmar, kittiwake). Be warned: the road to Fontur is long and very rough – take care and make sure your car is suitable.

At this headland, a great confluence of ocean currents takes place, with the frigid East Iceland Current speeding southwards and mixing with the Icelandic Coastal Current. This makes the area very productive, with high zooplankton concentrations, providing great feeding conditions for whales.

We’ve visited Langanes twice. In June/July 2019, we heard reports of dozens of humpbacks south of the tip – we weren’t disappointed. It was quiet at first, until a group of surface-feeding humpbacks made their way towards the coast. Accompanied by 1000s of kittiwakes and white-beaked dolphins, they came to within 200 m of the cliffs. Dramatic and exhilarating – we’ve included a drone video (flown for research) to try and show this.

July 2021 was a quite different. We saw a few humpbacks, but they didn’t come close or stay long. We saw several minkes, loads of jumping dolphins and some harbour porpoise. There were large groups of feeding birds everywhere, highlighting the abundance of food. Calmer but still beautiful.

Beyond these anecdotes, Icelandic government surveys in the area have previously revealed extremely high densities of humpback whales. Bakkaflói, the bay you can see south of Langanes, is known by fishers as a hotspot for humpbacks. We have barely scratched the surface of this place, so who knows what you might see next.

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