26 Feb Whaletrip: Iceland
First stop of our whaletrip: 10 days of whale watching in Iceland. The highlights!
Iceland is full of great things to do and see. These are the 10 highlights of our whale watching trip during summer.
Two weeks in Iceland, first stop of our round the world trip to see the whales. Besides geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields, waterfalls and black beaches we were lucky to see a lot of whales. Iceland really is a great place for whale watching.
#1 The breaching sperm whales around Olafsvik (sorry, no photos)
If you hope to see sperm whales, Norway, the Azores or New Zealand will probably be your first choice. But seeing them in Iceland is not very likely. So we were pretty surprised to meet them on our very first tour around Olafsvik: three sperm whales, constantly diving for only a short time and then calmly resting at the surface for a while. At least for me, sperm whales are the most fascinating and most impressive of all whales (Theresa is more into orcas, though) and I’ve already written down most of my excitement here.
But we were not only lucky to meet them, we were even extra lucky to see them breach. A lot of whales love to breach. Sperm whales don’t. After their extreme dives they’re normally not in the mood to breach, but just totally exhausted. But in this area the waters seemed to be a bit shallow, at least the sperm whales weren’t diving for such a long time. So obviously they still had some energy left when surfacing.
But with the special luck of seeing them breach came the very special bad luck of not having any battery left. Not in the camera, not in the telephone, nowhere. So, no photos of a breaching sperm whale. Instead, some flukes! Lovely as well!
#2 The black beaches of Vik and the goblins of Reynisdrangar
You always have to keep an eye on the weather in Iceland. Especially in summer. Well possible to wake up with bright sunshine, then get some snow in the afternoon before being hit by a storm in the evening. And never forget to bring your rain gear. Especially when you plan to visit the beautiful and world known black beaches of Vik and Reynisfjara at the southern coast: this is one of the rainiest areas in Iceland. Maybe that’s why the grass seems to be even greener here than anywhere else in Iceland. Together with those black sandy lava beaches that’s such a stunning view.
Starting in Vik you’ll need three to four hours to cross the local mountain of Reynisfjall (looks much steeper than it is). From above you’ll have a great view on both black beaches and as well on the three rocky needles of Reynisdrangar. The legend says that those rocks once were three goblins trying to tow a wrecked ship but then being surprised by the morning sun that immediately turned them into stones. However, maybe that’s not exactly how these rocky needles once were created, but Iceland is full of myths like this. Lovely!
#3 The best birds in the world: the puffins of Durholaey
When you walk along the black beach of Reynisdrangar to it’s very end (or just take the car to Durholaey), you’re likely to see some puffins. Puffins are the best birds in the world. They’re clumsy and they’re eager, and while being clumsy and eager, they try hard to appear as relaxed and unimpressed as possible. Such a fantastic combination. We met them several times before and it’s always great fun to watch them just being puffins. I could even watch them for hours without one second being bored. I might post a full article on puffins soon. Or maybe I should rather go for a complete website only focused on puffins. We’ll see.
However, not funny at all: Arctic terns. Don’t mess with them. If you ever see some sitting around at the beach: go somewhere else. Any detour is worth it. Arctic terns like to nest on the beach. And nesting arctic terns are no fun at all. I mean it. They may look small, they may look insignificant, but they are truly brave and resolute. And if you’re getting to close to their nest: they’ll attack. Immediately, with full force. A funny thing to read, but not a funny thing to witness. Things are getting worse if you come across, not knowing where the nest is. Then you go astray, trying to counter their attacks while maybe getting even closer to their nest and therefore being attacked even harder. That’s what happened to us, not just once. Nothing to laugh about.
#4 When the sun's (not) going down in Husavik
There are many great places for whale watching in Iceland, such as Reykjavik and Olafsvik in the western part or Akureyri and Husavik in the north. Husavik is the farthest north, that’s why you have the longest days there. And it’s really stunning to go out in an old wooden boat at ten o’clock in the evening, still enjoying the full sun. During summer, a lot of humpbacks and minke whales stay around Skjalfandi Bay, in early and late summer you have even good chances of seeing blue whales here.
Sadly, we missed the blues by a week. A few days after we’d left Husavik we saw a posting on Facebook saying that a group of blue whales recently came to Husavik. And they stayed there for about ten days. Bad luck. Instead, we met an ever breaching humpback in Akureyri. This guy was so motivated, breaching and breaching and breaching. And even though I really got his rhythm after some sequences, I was not able at all to get at least one sharp and proper photo. There’s so much more to learn.
#5 Meet Kirkjufell, the most photographed mountain of all Iceland (and its parking lot)
It’s always a bit strange to get to those places you know only by photo. The Kirkjufell mountain on Snaefellsnes Peninsula is one of those places. The most photographed mountain in Iceland. The most popular and familiar picture is probably the one taken by Art Wolfe, who had Kirkjufell on the cover of his book “Eden”. Since that book, everybody wants to visit Kirkjufell. Me, too.
And with nothing but those pictures in mind, reality sometimes is a bit underwhelming. Not the mountain, of course, the mountain is as overwhelming as expected. But the things around. The main road, just in front of the mountain. The parking lot, a highly frequented drop-off-zone for busloads of tourists. Or the well-kept path to the little waterfall that allows you to take the classic shot of the mountain plus the waterfall, without getting your shoes too dirty. Those things.
That’s how it is with the places you know only by photos. Probably you’ll have to deal with it. Just think those main roads and parking lots away. And only remember the picture.
#6 Colored streets. Brightly colored streets. Why not?
You have the ring road in Iceland. You have the gravel roads. And you have the F-roads. That’s pretty much it. Except those colored roads, somewhere on Snaefellsnes Peninsula: a red one, a blue one, a green one. Just because. We have no clue why these roads are colored, and besides being colored they felt like absolutely regular roads while driving them. But they got me excited for at least five seconds and one photo each. Colored roads! Why not?
#7 Endless lava fields, extinct volcanoes, everything's bubbling and boiling
Most people visiting Iceland are taking the ring road. The ring road goes all around Iceland, passing most of the main tourist attractions. Easy to do in about ten days. If you’re looking for a bigger adventure, just get a proper 4WD, take one of those F-roads to the inland and keep on following the mud. What’s always being missed out: Snaefellsnes.
Snaefellsnes is a small peninsula in the northwest of Reykjavik, often called “Iceland in a nutshell”, as you’ll find everything making Iceland such a beautiful and special place within a very small range here: volcanoes, geysers, lava fields, black beaches. So, if you don’t have the time for the whole ring road: visit Snaefellsnes.
Geologically Iceland is a pretty young piece of land, all still in the making, all bubbling and boiling. Snaefellsnes offers endless lava fields for endless hikes. For example, it takes you two to three hours to get to a tiny little orange lighthouse at the western tip of the peninsula. From there you’ll have a great view over the ocean, and if you bring you binoculars you might see some whales, too (we didn’t!). Or maybe hike the other direction towards Saxholl, an extinct and very photogenic volcano where you can even hike up to the crater (it’s only about ten million stairs to get there, easy!).
We did both hikes, and I can really recommend them. However, Theresa urged me to mention that taking the car to the tiny little orange lighthouse would be the much better option. But the Saxholl is highly recommended by her, too.
#8 Iceland, home of the whale museums and whale exhibitions
It’s always hard to imagine how big a whale really is. You have books, you have the internet, yes, and you have reality. But meeting a whale somewhere out on the ocean still doesn’t solve this, as you only see a small part of the whale, most of the animal remains unrevealed, being all left to your imagination. Until you enter a whale museum or a whale exhibition where you can see those full sized models and skeletons. So huge!
The whale museum in Husavik presents a complete skeleton of a blue whale. When you’re entering the room you run right into this gigantic jaws, a mouth so big you could park a middle class car in there. And when you walk along this skeleton, from mouth to fluke, the full 25 to 30 meters, and just count the seconds, you start to get a feeling of how long and big and huge this animal really is. Impressive. And all those other things you’ll see and hear and learn there. So much worth the time. If you’re interested in whales you definitely should visit a whale museum once.
The whale exhibition in Reykjavik has a different approach: They don’t have skeletons there but full sized and colored models. And those models are so big that we found ourselves debating and debating if those models really are the accurate size or, however, maybe are a bit oversized. Can a regular gray whale / blue whale / humpback / orca really be THAT big? Thanks to the great audio guide coming with the app you can use during your visit we’ve learned that those models really are of the accurate size. Again, impressive. And still hard to believe, though.
#9 Meet us don't eat us: street art in Reykjavik
Maybe it’s mindlessness and no bad intent at all but there seem to be a lot of people who first go on a whale watching trip and then directly enter a restaurant serving whale meat. How strange is that? Iceland is one of the remaining countries still hunting whales. Because there are still some people around who like to eat it. And those are mainly tourists. Tourists who think that Icelanders are eating whale meat all the time. This makes them want to try it as well. But that’s such a total mislead: eating whale meat is mostly a tourist thing. To stop this Reykjavik is full of stickers and posters with the plain and simple slogan “Meet us, don’t eat us” – hopefully this works as a constant reminder, especially for mindless tourists. We’ve even found some restaurants offering puffin meat. Puffins! The best birds in the world! Who would eat puffins! And why do people always have to eat whatever comes their way? More stickers for Iceland, please!
#10 So sweet: postcards and bags with whales and puffins
While traveling I always tend to buy some postcards. Sometimes it’s other things, but mostly it’s postcards. They don’t require much space, neither underway, nor back at home, and they are the perfect souvenir of a great trip as you can only get them there. I usually don’t send them anywhere, I just keep them for myself. And every once and a while, when cleaning up at home I may find them and think of a great trip again.
But most of the time this postcard shopping thing is making me pretty sad. In most countries they don’t seem to put any effort in it. They just use these good old 80s style designs with those prehistoric motives and really don’t care at all. But then go to Iceland! Imagine how happy I was finding these sweet and pretty fresh designs made by the talented illustrator Ninna Thoransdottir! So beautiful! There were a lot of different motives available. I decided to go with the whale (obviously!), the puffins (obviously!) and a geyser. And Theresa made sure she got herself this beautiful whale bag. You never know!
About our whaletrip: Last summer we went on a longer trip that brought us to Iceland, Greenland, Quebec, British Columbia, New Zealand and Australia. Four months around the world, all about whales and whale watching. During the next couple of weeks we’ll tell the stories of this trip right here on this website. Piece by piece. And then, hopefully, start our next adventure.