Whales of Langanes

Wild, remote and relatively untouched – the northeast of Iceland might be a secret, important feeding ground for humpback whales

Langanes peninsula is located in the northeast of Iceland and is characterised by green meadows, hills and cliffs. Very few people live in the area, mostly in small villages and farms. The waters around Langanes are mostly crossed by small fishing boats, without many tourist or large commercial vessels. It is calm and remote, not yet a tourist destination.

However, it might be a hotspot for whales.

Fishers have reported large numbers of humpback whales around Langanes, especially in the summer months, and locals have also seen whales from the cliffs. We personally visited Langanes in 2019 and saw about 10 humpbacks south of the peninsula.

This makes sense since these waters seem to be an ideal feeding ground. Two major oceanic currents converge off the peninsula, capelin is known to be abundant and there are no major interruptions by human activity.

Despite this, the region is very understudied. Apart from capelin surveys, the local ecosystem has not been systematically described. Our knowledge of whales in the area is mostly anecdotal. We hope to address this knowledge gap by focusing our research on a small bay called Finnafjord, on the south side of Langanes. Specifically, we have planned two projects:

  1. Blow sampling.
    The remoteness of Langanes makes it an ideal negative control for whale research. In other words, by studying whales in Langanes and areas of higher human activity, we can then compare the two data sets and deduce the influence of specific human activities on whale populations. Therefore, we will assess the potential impacts of vessel traffic on humpback whales by collecting blow (exhaled breath) samples from two control sites (Langanes and Steingrímsfjörður) and two test sites (Skjálfandi Bay and Eyjafjörður) in 2021. In each sample, we will measure the concentration of steroid hormones, including cortisol, the main stress-related hormone in mammals. By comparing cortisol levels between sites, we can tentatively infer the potential influence of vessel traffic on physiological stress.
  2. Soundscape analysis.
    We hope to deploy two bottom-moored hydrophones in Finnafjord for several months. This will allow us to create a baseline understanding of the ecosystem. We will analyse the soundscape to see the different impacts of

    • physical sounds (wind, rain, earthquakes, etc.)
    • biological sounds (whales, fish, etc.)
    • anthropogenic impact (small coastal boats, large vessels offshore, etc.).

    Additionally, we will use the recordings to confirm the use of Finnafjord by humpback whales as a habitat and possible feeding ground.

We are especially interested because of a planned port installation in Finnafjord. In the next years, new northern ship routes will open due to a warming climate and melting Arctic. As a result, the bay will be developed to accommodate future ship traffic in the region. Both the construction of the port and its operation will lead to major changes in the ecosystem of the bay. To monitor this impact, it is essential to collect baseline data from a relatively untouched Finnafjord prior to construction.