Whale Watching in Iceland, June 2003

After last weeks cultural detour to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, this weekend we travel way north in search of the largest animal that ever roamed the earth - the leviathan of the seas - the blue whale!

Sometimes it's hard not to sound like a travel channel voiceover.

But I actually did travel to Iceland and out to the Atlantic ocean just to see a Blue Whale. I wanted to see really big animals and there's no point in stopping at "very large" if you can go right to "the biggest ones ever" and that was about the only way to do it.

Route of Iceland trip

In retrospect it seems much more planned than it actually was.

When I was in Iceland back in the year 2000 I noticed that there was a company that offered "Big Whale Watching Tours". It looked interesting, but it wasn't even close to where I was going and I only learned about it two days before I was about to leave, so I didn't go on one of their tours. I had been on other whale watching tours over the years, and on those tours I've seen mostly minke whales and orcas and the idea of seeing a really big whale intrigued me. So I kept that "Big Whale Watching" in mind, but that was about it.

Now the right time of year to watch big whales near Iceland is mid-June to mid-July, where there's a sighting rate of more than 90%, which drops rapidly to less than 50% in the two weeks before and after that, so there's only a very small time slot for doing such a trip. But for 2003 I hadn't planned any summer vacation (my main vacation this year will be towards the end of the year), so I thought about doing a short whale watching trip this summer. In addition, Icelandair offers a nice fly&drive package that combines a return flight to Iceland with a three-day car rental at a very reasonable price, especially given the very high car rental costs that usually exist in Iceland. But I didn't make any specific plans. About early May I took a quick look at their offers and noticed that the reasonable prices were only valid in winter and that they didn't have that offer at all during the time where I wanted to go. So I decided to forget about it.

So in mid-June I stood around a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon and somehow decided: "So what?" It's always main season in Iceland in around the time for whale watching and there'll never be any cheap options to go there, so I might as well get back to the original idea which came down to "I've nothing else planned this summer" and do it this year. So on Monday I mailed to the company offering the tour and asked whether there was a free space on Saturday two weeks later, on Tuesday I got an affirmative answer, so I booked the flights, the car and the hotels the same afternoon and went to a meeting in Bilbao the next day. So while the basic idea had been around for some time, the actual plan to do it was made less than two weeks before actually going to Iceland.

So the following Friday I was off to Iceland, arrived in Keflavík, got my rented car and drove off towards Ólafsvík, where the whale watching tour starts. (While being once again amazed about the relaxed way some things are handled there. The rental company I used doesn't have a counter at the airport, so they drive your car to the airport, wait for you in the arrival hall and do all the required paperwork at the car. Since my flight back was rather early next Monday, I asked about how to return the car and was told just to park the car at the airport, put the key in the glove compartment, leave the car unlocked and they would pick it up later. I wonder at how many airports you can just park an unlocked, freshly fuelled car with the keys and all papers in the glove department and nobody worries about it...)

I arrived in Ólafsvík, the weather was bad, it was windy, it was rainy and during dinner it turned out that there were no sightings of big whales on that days tour, that the weather was rough out at sea and that half of the passengers got seasick. So I was quite optimistic. (Which is not as silly as it sounds. Given the weather patterns in Iceland, bad weather almost guarantees that it'll be sunny the next day, otherwise the weather would be much to constant. And since only one-in-ten groups doesn't see a big whale, the bad one was out of the way, so it was virtually certain that we'd see a big one! [Which is, of course, complete nonsense. If the events are independent, their not-seeing a big whale has no influence on our chances of seeing a whale. And if the events are connected, the chances get even worse, because the reasons why they didn't see a big whale [like: there's no whale around at that time of year, since the migration starts late] might keep me from seeing a big whale as well. But if there's no choice to be made anyway, why not be optimistic?)

Next morning the weather looked like this:

Blue skies over Ólafsvík

At least as far as that was concerned, I was correct in my assumption.

The ship used for whale watching is a large catamaran, which is reasonably fast and can go farther out at seas than most smaller whale watching ships, thus increasing the chance of seeing blue whales. (The pictures of the ship were taken on the following day, hence the return of the cloudy weather...)

Whale watching ship Whale watching ship Whale watching ship

The first whale spotted on the tour was a minke whale. I could have predicted that...
That's mostly because minke whales seem to be common as muck. Seeing a minke whale on a whale watching tour is somewhat akin to seeing a cat in a greek seaside village. A pleasant encounter and nice to look at, but not entirely unexpected. Minke whales are also easy to watch. They tend to keep close to the shore or in bays, which are easy to reach even with small whale watching boats and usually have calm waters, they usually submerge only for a short time (about a minute or so) and are thus easy to keep track of, they have a small fin on their back, they also arc their backs when they dive, so they can be easily spotted against the water and they also tend to swim rather leisurely, so if someone spots a whale and points in the right direction, you have a reasonable chance to turn your head and still see the whale (unlike a blue whale, which is gone surprisingly quickly).

After having moved past the 'default whale' we went further along the coast and spotted a group of orcas quite close to the shore. (I you take a look at the top of the page, you can see where the track goes close to the western tip of the peninsula.)

Orcas near Iceland Orcas near Iceland Orca Orca Orcas close to coast Orcas and Snæfellsjökull
Two orcas fairly close Orca near shore Orca Orca Orca Short orca video, 5.5 MB, 30 sec

From there on it was out to the open sea. There is an 'underwater canyon' starting about 50 miles off the coast, where the water is much deeper and where there's a higher chance of spotting big whales, and that was where we were heading. (The weather remained calm and although a few people still got seasick, it was a fairly smooth ride.) On the way out we spotted a pair of white-beaked dolphins. (It's hard to distinguish them from the orcas on the picture, but the differences were quite obvious when seen.)

White-beaked dolphin

Further out, we just missed a humpback whale. The lookouts on board (who were incredibly good at spotting whales and anticipating their behaviour) spotted the distinct spout of a humpback whale. Unfortunately it just went on a deep dive and even though we spent half an hour in that area, we didn't spot it again. (The chances were against spotting the same whale anyhow, since humpbacks often dive for up to 45 minutes and can cover quite some distance in that time, but they also travel in groups sometimes, and there was hope that other ones were around. Seems like they weren't.)

A while later this was seen at the horizon:

Blue whale spout

The typical spout of a blue whale. So it looked like we would be seeing the world largest animal after all. The next twelve minutes were rather intense. Blue whales tend to dive rather regularly for 12-14 minutes, so the question was: Would we spot the whale when it resurfaced a dozen minutes later or would we lose it like the humpback whale?

We got lucky.

Blue whale Blue whale Blue whale Blue whale

The whale wasn't disturbed by the boat and moved like clockwork. A twelve minute dive (between twelve and thirteen-and-a-half minutes, actually), then a high spout, three short appearances and then down for another deep dive and re-appearing about a mile further on. We followed the whale for more than one-and-a-half hours. In between a sei whale also made an appearance close to the ship.

Sei whale Sei whale Sei whale Sei whale, still under water

After that short intermezzo we continued following the blue whale. The mood on board was almost reverend. During the time where the whale was diving, almost nobody said a word, and when the announcement came "Twelve minutes", everybody started scanning the ocean surface (somewhat reminding me of the Cylons from the old Battlestar Galactica series), until the fountain from the whale's blow hole was spotted and a flurry of activity started for less than a minute, with the ship starting up, trying to point in the right direction, and everyone looking and pointing cameras in the direction of the whale before it went down again. It's difficult to explain that excitement. On pictures a blue whale looks rather uninteresting, since it's quite flat on the upper side and there's not much actually sticking out of the water. And a blue whale is just visible for a short moment, so when you point the camera at it, it's probably already gone. (Which brings me to the only useful hint about whale photography: Point the camera at the water somewhere. Press the button when a whale appears there. If the whale appears anywhere else, enjoy it and don't bother with the camera.) But despite the fact that it looks dull on pictures (which also lack any sense of scale), and that you already know the main thing about blue whales - they're big -, it still a vast difference between knowing that whales are big and having the equivalent of a large bus suddenly rise from the depths. And there's also the 'once in a lifetime' feeling. Though it's possible, it's quite unlikely that you will ever see a blue whale on any other whale watching tour again, and it's also one of the animals that you won't see in a zoo or aquarium. So for almost everyone on board, this is it and that shows. There was only one obvious reaction when the whale showed up after the third or fourth time and was a bit behind the ship ("Whale at 5 o'clock position.") and someone shouted "There! There! There it is!" and after the whale was gone again, everyone looked at him as if he had shouted during a church service or in a library. He also immediately excused himself for being emotional because this was probably his only chance in his life to see a blue whale and he got carried away. It's somewhat difficult to convey the mood on board, it's just one of those "you had to be there to appreciate it" things. But after wondering whether it would be a good idea to fly to Iceland and spend the weekend there, just for the chance to see a blue whale, it just made it all worth it.

And from a dramaturgical standpoint it couldn't have been better. Waiting twelve minutes between the sightings somehow felt right. If it would have been just a minute or two, it would have seemed 'too easy' after all that effort to get there and after a quarter of an hour, the suspense would probably have given way to restlessness. But as it was, it just conveyed the feeling of something special. Also, the weather had been ok all through the day, but after following the whale for an hour, the clouds moved in for good. Then the whale made one appearance reasonably close to the boat and also left a clearly visible fluke print. With bad wetter approaching and that one good sighting, it was somehow clear that the show was over. Time to go home.

Fluke print

We also were on that trip for about six hours by then, about 60 miles from Ólafsvík and more than two hours to go at full speed and the only thing left to do was going back. Most people went under deck, and sat or lay down somewhere, tired, but happy. Only a couple of people stayed outside. I was quite surprised at how comfortable I was feeling. The temperature was about 12°C and the ship was travelling at 25 knots or so, so it was a fair bit of wind, so I had expected to go under deck more often, maybe be out for half an hour and then go in for five minute to warm up a bit, but found that, except for a bit of lunch, I was outside four more than six hours and still felt ok. So I decided to just stay outside for the rest of the trip as well, and since, on the way back, the bow of the ship was quite deserted, so I stood went there, took out my MP3 player, listened to some loud music over the headphone (which I didn't dare to do with people around), put on some sunglasses (not against the sun, but against the wind), and stood there at the bow, looking out at the sea amd enjoying the ride, even when it started to rain during the last hour or so. I also saw two more minke whales in passing (which probably nobody else saw, except for the lookouts, who just seemed to see everything that happened on the water), and also a pair of dolphins (which probably were the same we did spot going out).

Then, about eight-and-a-half hours after we left Ólafsvík, we returned to the harbour through the black waves. (While the deep sea was looking quite green while the sun was shining [which doesn't come out well on the pictures], with some very light green looking stripes in between, making the ocean look, like a large slice of jade, once the clouds came in, it seemed like crossing a sea of ink - reminding me of some watery equivalent of Mordor.) So I finally returned to my hotel room, wet, tired, but very happy. (And, as I noticed the following days, quite sunburned. After being in Bilbao for four days a week earlier, with blue skies and temperatures at 40°C, walking around quite a bit and not getting sunburned, it was a but unexpected to get sunburned after a day at 12°C.)

Back at the hotel

A technically interesting thing about the hotel was the elevator. The corridor in the upper floors were at a 90° angle to the lobby on the ground floor, so the elevator had two doors at a right angle to each other, and while elevators with a front and a back door are reasonably common, I had never seen one with a side door before. (Talking to another traveller about that, he mentioned that the elevator surprised him too, especially since he was leaning against the 'side wall' of the elevator when it opened and he fell out into the corridor...)

Hotel elevator

[Note: for no specific reason, except for the fact that it somehow fits here, I'm going to drop out of 'travelogue mode' and switch to 'essay mode', which basically means I'll be rambling about a couple of topics without any particular structure. The travel report about the 'Iceland weekend' continues where the italics end.]

I know that I run into then risk of promoting stereotypes here, and since I didn't talk to many people on board or make any statistical analysis, the observation may more be a projection of what I expected to see than actually verifiable, but still: About two thirds of the people on the trip were from the UK and about a third from Germany, and most of the Germans had 'special clothing', with GoreTex jackets, Polartec fleeces, lightweight windbreaker pants to be worn over multi-pocketed expedition pants, while the travellers from the UK mostly had generic 'gardening gear', e.g. jeans or corduroy trousers, a warm sweater and a nylon or fleece jacket. And didn't seem to be any more uncomfortable in that. Which, while totally unfair and inappropriate, reminded me of a line I've recently read in a book about early British explorers on the other side of the world: "These old Brits had conquered the world using Bad Boy scout equipment." (Yes, a cliché and unfairly degrading, but that was just the line that popped up in my head. I apologize.)

Me, I was wearing my usual stuff - jeans, sweatshirt and black leather jacket, based on the theory that jeans, a t-shirt, a sweatshirt and a leather jacket is the perfect equipment for any trip I'm willing to make. But that's probably just a personal preference. And a good reason to quote another line from the previously mentioned book ('Antarctica' by Kim Stanley Robinson, which is a work of fiction, but as far as the references to historical events are concerned, well researched and probably accurate), about one of the early arctic explorers, who braved serious weather conditions, including a snow storm in the arctic winter at temperatures below -50°C: "And back at Cape Evans he had given a lecture explaining how perfect their Boy Scout equipment was, so perfect that it could not be possibly improved upon in any regard; this from a man wearing a canvas jacket and a hat rather than a parka." (And I admit that most of the stuff above is mainly there for giving me a chance to quote that line.)

Another thing I like about that book is a remark made about Shackleton. I had seen the IMAX feature about his expedition at the London IMAX a few years ago and it had all those remarks about how dangerous it all was and how the environment was harsh and unforgiving and how slim their chances of survival were at all that, and I was sitting there and thinking, "Yes, sure, but look at your own pictures - it's being harsh and dangerous in Antarctica! Why would they want to leave? They've got icebergs and everything!", which even to me seemed a questionable view, but it was my first and direct reaction. So I was rather glad have a character in the book reminiscence about Shackleton and the fact that his transantarctic expedition had no real point and was just a made up goal after the pole had been reached and that it was mostly just an excuse to go down to Antarctica again. And that his men later attested that Shackleton's men attested that he was calm, even jovial, with unfailing good spirits. And continues that "We need not wonder at Shackleton's ability to keep his high spirits during this time. Marooned though they were, he was just where he wanted to be." And I thought that, unlike the dramatic narrative of the IMAX movie, at least someone had gotten the point (or at least the same one I got).

But nothing of this has anything to do with whales or Iceland, so back from the unexpected book review to the travel report.

On Sunday I had nothing much to do. If I hadn't seen a blue whale on Saturday, I would have tried to somehow get on Sunday's tour for a second chance. But since everything worked out perfectly on the first try, an attempt to repeat that would probably have been disappointing. So I only went to the harbour to take a couple of pictures of the ship leaving and then went on some sightseeing around the Snæfellsbær peninsula. The weather didn't look very promising when the ship left (see the pictures at the beginning of this page), but at least on the coast it cleared up soon and it turned into a nice morning.

I didn't have any specific plans, so I just decided to drive around Snæfellsbær and see what's on the way. The first stop was just somewhere along the coast, with some rocky cliffs.

Cliffs on Snæfellsbær coast Whale watching ship seen from cliffs on Snæfellsbær coast Me and the cliffs on Snæfellsbær coast

At that point the street around the peninsula turned from a paved road in to a gravel road with a washboard surface. I disliked those streets the first time I was in Iceland (and back than I had a 4x4 car), and I wasn't fond of such roads this time. So the trip around the peninsula was much more leisurely than I had anticipated, but since I had nothing to do anyway and the weather was still fine, I didn't car. The next place I went was Saxhól, a dark hill made from tuff, which is a good viewpoint.

Road (barely) View from Saxhól

From there it was on to a small group of craters with the odd name of Hólahóar. One of the craters is on of the (probably very few) drive-in craters. It has an opening on one side, so you can drive into it and enter something looking like a large amphitheatre. And since you can see the incoming road for quite some distance from within the crater, you can stand in the crater and act silly by reciting nonsense to a non-existing audience in the secure knowledge that you're the only one around for miles and nobody will see you making a fool of yourself.

Hólahóar crater field Berudalur crater in Hólahóar crater field Berudalur crater in Hólahóar crater field Lavafield Lavafield with fog in the bright sun

Onwards to Djúpalónssandur, a dark beach, with bright red kelp and green, algae covered stones to give it some colour. There were quite a few interesting and quirky things on that beach, from interesting lava formations, the rusty remains of (probably) some ship wreck, little rows of pebbles that had been washed into cracks between the rocks and looked like a string of pearls, to vampire zombie fish from the deep. Or something looking like that. It seems like some fishing boats process their fish by cutting their heads off and throwing them overboard. A large number of those fish heads in various states of decay had been deposited on the bay by the tides. (And from the prominent teeth it was pretty obvious that these were predatory fishes.) Some of those heads had landed in such a way that they seemed come up right through the ground, reminding me more than a little of the stereotypical scene in zombie films where someone walks across a graveyard and suddenly a partly rotten hand shoots out of the ground, trying to grab someone - just with fishes instead of zombies.

Just to make the area even more interesting, there are also two small ponds and a historic shelter hut next to the beach.

Djúpalónssandur Red kelp Green algae covered rocks Pebble patterns Rusty remains Kelp and fish heads
Zombie fish Pond Shelter Gatklettur rock 'Striking cobra' rock formation

So far the coast had been the dividing line for the weather. Seaside it was blue and sunny, but inland there were low clouds. Now the weather started to change. While the shifting weather conditions moved the clouds a bit and allowed some quick glimpses of Snæfellsjökull, it quickly turned cloudy all around. And the road didn't improve - by now there weren't even wooden poles at the roadside.

Glimpse of Snæfellsjökull Glimpse of Snæfellsjökull Not much of a road Road to the skies

But fortunately that only lasted for a couple of miles and then it was back to paved roads again. A quick stop at the statue commemorating Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir [btw, one thing that's great about doing a website about stuff in Iceland is that you learn a large number of new HTML entities...], the first white woman to bear a child in America around the year 1000 or so. (And I wonder whether the complicated travel routes around Greenland are based on any kind of historical account, or whether that are just some artists' fanciful doodles.)

Memorial for Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir Travels of Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir

By then it was already early afternoon and it had started to drizzle, and I was back on a 'real' road, so it was time to leave Snæfellsbær and make my way south to Keflavík.

Drizzle Rain

When I reached Keflavík, the rain had stopped, but the weather wasn't good enough to make a trip around the Reykjanes peninsula worthwhile, so I just walked around Keflavík for a while. Not much to see, but they have a web cafe with the name "Icelan", which I liked. They also have a place with a rather unlikely gastronomic combination...

Paddy's - an odd combination

Next morning I had a rather early flight back home, and that ended the blue whale watching weekend in Iceland.

Þotuhreiður sculpture at Keflavík airport Þotuhreiður sculpture at Keflavík airport Regnbogi sculpture at Keflavík airport

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