Whaletrip – Iceland in Winter - Winter whale watching in Iceland: meeting the orcas and sperm whales off the coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

ORCAS IN THE SNOW

Storm, ice and orcas: a winter trip to the north-western coast of Iceland.

ORCAS IN THE SNOW

Storm, ice and orcas: a winter trip to Iceland.

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The crackling of the snow and the breath of the whale: nothing more to hear in this picture.

Whaletrip ICELAND

The golden arctic light, a glassy sea, and thick, soft snowflakes gently crackling into the ocean. Around the boat: orcas everywhere, for hours.

They swim close to the boat, we can hear them breathing calmly and evenly. Some have newborns with them, you can easily recognize them by their orange coloration – the skin is still so thin that the blood shines through the white spots.

On board: amazement, felicity, happiness. Whale researcher Richard Sears calls such days »gift days«, magical days, like a blessing. If you are lucky, you may experience two or three of them a year. Luck, which we seem to have in abundance on this winterly trip.

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The golden arctic light, a glassy sea, an orca close to the boat – »gift days« are especially beautiful in Iceland.

Iceland SNAEFELLSNES

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the northwest of Iceland is one of the best areas in Europe for watching orcas. Usually they are seen here from November, often well into the summer.

As everywhere in the Atlantic, the orcas follow the herring, in large numbers it migrates through the Atlantic, on largely unexplored routes. We know quite well how to fish herring from the sea and process it into fillets. What the herring does, however, when it is not trying to avoid the fishermen’s nets, is still largely unknown.

Most of the time of the year it stays somewhere on the open sea, far away from the coasts. Then in winter it is drawn to spawn in the shallower and protected coastal waters – but where exactly it then appears is still a big mystery every year.

At Snaefellsnes you can experience everything Iceland has to offer – in winter, for example, raging storms, icy roads, snowy lava fields and a really amazing light.

Especially the coasts of Norway and Iceland are very popular with herring. As the Norwegian fjords extend far into the country and are protected from wind and weather by huge mountain ranges, the whale watching tourism here has virtually exploded: For a few years already, some operators consider it a good idea to offer snorkeling with orcas and humpback whales. And unfortunately far too many people accept this offer.

I have never been attracted to the water, snorkeling with whales has never appealed to me. I have respect for them and find it impressive enough to watch them from the boat. And I believe that the answer to the question whether one should swim with whales also describes quite well one’s own relationship to nature: Do we know where our place is? Mine is in the boat.

What you need to know before you go to Iceland in winter: You will always need some days in reserve here. There are only a few places where you are so exposed to nature as here.

In Iceland, the situation is completely different: the fjords are wider, deeper, more exposed, the water is churned up and darkened by winds and currents. Nobody can dive here. In Norway you can make some plans even in the harder winters. In Iceland, however, plans make no sense at all. There are only a few places where you are so exposed to nature as here.

Especially in winter you often can’t even think about a boat trip here. Therefore you always need a few days in reserve. This is what you should have in mind before you travel to Iceland in winter.

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Bigger than Theresa: The dorsal fin of a male orca can be up to two meters long.

Iceland ORCAS

»There! Back there!! Orcas!! At eleven o'clock! There was a dorsal fin, just for a moment, but I'm sure!« I turn around, excitedly waving my arms and trying to attract Gisli's attention.

Gisli Olafsson is the captain of our boat, he has been sailing these waters for years, formerly as a fisherman, now as a whale watching captain, his company Laki Tours is the only operator on the peninsula. Gisli knows his business here, and he certainly lives it.

Calming and kind (and also a little amused) he nods to me: Yes, orcas, two groups. Gisli has already seen them, long before me, for about twenty minutes he has been heading the boat in their direction. With a resting pulse of about thirty, he sits there at his wheel, and his gaze says nothing more than: »No worries, my boy, everything will be fine.«

I lean back and wait. Our boat bravely fights its way through the waves, it has freshened up since yesterday, no more golden arctic lights, no more trickling snow, no glassy sea, instead the wind now blows ice-cold around our noses. We are getting closer. Where are the orcas? It is not easy to follow them. At least when you’re not Gisli.

The dorsal fin of a male orca alone can be bigger than Theresa. Out on the water sometimes the proportions are a bit missing.

Then, all of a sudden, a fin. Like a giant sword it cuts through the water. When on a boat, you have no idea how big such an orca fin really is:

In Grundarfjordur there is a sculpture by the Icelandic artist Unnsteinn Gudmundsson, a full-grown orca bull called »Thunderstorm«, which you can also regularly see in real life here. The fin alone is bigger than Theresa, you can see that on one of the photos above. Outside on the water sometimes the proportions are a bit missing.

Then a second fin, right next to the first one. A third one, a fourth one, another one and another one. And just a moment later there are black dorsal fins all around the boat. Some upright like a sword, some curved like a sickle, others wavy like corrugated iron.

Orcas off the coast of Snaefellsnes. In the background the lighthouse of Öndverdarnes. Sometimes you can even see the orcas from there. But from the boat you are a little bit closer.

It’s always the same with orcas: First you don’t see anything for a long time; then, suddenly, there is a short black flash somewhere and the worried question whether you have seen it right; then comes the long waiting and searching; finally, there is a second flash, a third – and only within seconds the sea is full of whales and you wonder where they all suddenly came from.

We accompany them for a while, the boat is peacefully chugging along. Around us the waves, the screams of the seagulls and the blow of the orcas. In the background, the Snaefellsjökull, an ice-covered volcano, which served as an entrance in Jules Verne’s »Journey to the Center of the Earth«. In front of it the small lighthouse of Öndverdarnes shining in bright orange.

A few years ago in summer I had persuaded Theresa to go there for a hike: I had read that with a little luck you can see the orcas just from the lighthouse. And orca hikes are obviously Theresa’s favorite hikes. It was hot that day, burning hot, dust-dry and incredibly windy. The trail through the lava fields seemed endless. And when we arrived at the lighthouse: not a single orca far and wide!

Theresa was a little upset that day. But here and today from the water her mood is excellent.

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I BELIEVE that on this photo you can see »Raggedy« (SN074, left) and »Hiccup« (SN127, back right). However, the actually best visible orca in the middle is and is not in the catalog. Can that be?

Iceland ORCA GUARDIANS

Always on board: Marie Mrusczok and Karl O'Neill from the »Orca Guardians Iceland«. Both work as guides for Gisli and besides they do research on the orcas off Snaefellsnes. Because so far, no one else has done that here.

Sometime in the 1970s, the Canadian researcher Michael Bigg noticed in the north of Vancouver Island, Canada, that although orcas all look incredibly similar, they still differ from each other in the smallest details.

The dorsal fin, for example: In female orcas, it is rather small and usually strongly curved. In male orcas, on the other hand, it can grow up to two meters long, sitting upright on the back like a mighty sword.

Bigg had noticed that the dorsal fin differs not only between female and male orcas, but also – though minimally – within the sexes. Between all these rounded and pointed fins, Michael Bigg actually saw differences.

Same with the patterns: Orcas are colored black and white, and especially the gray and white stripes and spots (called saddle patch) underneath the fin can be seen very well when they surface. At first glance they all look very much the same for almost everyone – but not for Michael Bigg.

Female and male orcas can be easily distinguished by their dorsal fins. But keeping track within the sexes is a completely different matter.

All he needed now was time to examine the differences in detail. So Michael Bigg started to take pictures of dorsal fins and saddle patches, compare photos, name individual animals and put them into catalogs. The photo identification was born.

To this day, photo IDs have remained the most important and safest method to clearly name individual whales and thus get an overview of how many whales there are in a certain area at a certain time.

When Marie came to Snaefellsnes a few years ago, she noticed that although orcas can be seen here almost all year round, no one had ever bothered to identify, count and catalog them from photos.

So she founded the »Orca Guardians Iceland« and started with it. As a guide on board of Laki Tours she is out on the water every day, something most researchers can only dream of. And Gisli is happy too: »Marie is an outstanding spotter, everyone envies me for her.«

So far, Marie and her companions have identified about 600 different orcas off Snaefellsnes. Marie takes over 40.000 (!) photos per season.

Since 2016 the »Orca Guardians« have already identified 380 orcas off Snaefellsnes, the catalog can be downloaded for free from the website. A second part is currently in progress, probably with over 600 identified individuals.

Most Icelandic orcas are regularly seen in these waters, many of them are also sighted off the Shetlands, where Hugh Harrop is working on a catalog, too. Through this work we know of over 30 orcas that commute between Iceland and Scotland.

Marie tells us that a few weeks before we arrived, an Icelandic orca called »SN113« or »Riptide« was sighted on the coast off Beirut (!) – that’s a good 8,000 kilometers away and the longest known migration ever measured by an orca.

A discovery that would never have been possible without photo identification and the tedious work of cataloguing.

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The mighty fluke of a sperm whale. Literally everything about this animal is enormous.

Iceland SPERM WHALES

What the orcas are to Theresa, the sperm whales are to me. Good to know that you can regularly meet both of them around Snaefellsnes. There are not many places in the world where you can do that.

With Theresa it was always and above all about orcas. Of course she was always happy about other whales when we met them, but I have never heard her say that we really need to go somewhere where you can see sperm whales, for example. She only says such things with orcas.

I think the reason for this enthusiasm is »Free Willy«, this film has really triggered something in a lot of people, with Marie from Orca Guardians it was the same, she told us about it. But especially the recent orca research has shown quite well that there are some good reasons to feel connected to orcas even without this movie:

Orcas are intelligent, empathic and social, they establish dialects and cultures, have memories and personalities; they live in stable family groups and look after each other for a lifetime; they make plans, act strategically, feel anger, sadness, pain, gratitude, loyalty – and probably even love.

We may be separated by many tons of weight, we may live in opposing habitats and look a little different – and still there are remarkably many points of reference between orca and man. For the American author David Neiwert in his book »Of Orcas and Men« they are even something like »the people of the seas«.

I am fascinated by the differences, the mysteries and secrets. And here the sperm whale truly is the super whale - with the sperm whale you will easily win any animal trumps card game.

Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the differences, the unknown, the unexplored, the secrets and mysteries of whales – and especially by the sperm whale’s unbelievable abilities, which is why you will hear me say way more often that we absolutely have to go somewhere where we can see sperm whales.

The sperm whale is the super whale, with him you will easily win every animal trumps card game: He is the largest predator on the planet, with the largest teeth, the largest head, the largest brain; a sperm whale can dive several kilometers and hold his breath literally for hours.

Sometimes the sperm whale’s lungs may collapse during the long dives, but that does not matter, because he prefers to rely on the oxygen in his muscles anyway. We humans would love to know how this works, heart attacks could be much less deadly that way.

In the Whale Museum in Reykjavik there is a life-size model of a sperm whale. At first you would not believe that it is life-size, because a sperm whale really cannot be that big. But it is. And every single tooth is as big as a fist. At least if you have a big fist.

But sperm whales are not only very impressive, they also very social, gregarious, good-natured and peaceful. Maybe a little bit like cows, only much, much bigger and in the water. A combination that has fascinated me right from the start.

If Herman Melville and Jules Verne had ever wanted to meet, then maybe here: In the foreground the whale from »Moby Dick«, in the background the mountain from »Journey to the Center of the Earth«.

On each of our tours we not only encounter orcas, but also sperm whales. And there are not many places in the world where you can do that – the reason for this are the special conditions off Snaefellsnes:

Actually, the sea here is not that deep, just a few hundred meters, sperm whales usually will only laugh about that. Not far from the coast, however, the seabed suddenly drops very quickly from just 50 to 350 meters.

This trench works like a gigantic pump, it produces an enormous uplift and transports huge amounts of nutrients from the depth to the surface. And that pleases not only the seabirds and sea life – but also the whale watchers.

You can see the trench well from the boat, the water changes color, currents meet at different depths, the sea is rough and turbulent, and seagulls, fulmars, and gannets are buzzing around all over the place to help themselves from the rich fish buffet.

And as we have already learned on many previous tours: Where the birds are, the whales are often not far away. As a whale watcher it is always a good idea to keep an eye on the birds.

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»Roulettes« calf with one of its aunties (PRESUMABLY »Lady de Winter«). It has not yet completely figured out the exact diving rhythm of the other family members.

Iceland MATCHING

We meet with Marie and Karl to have a look at the orca catalog together. And I am prepared: From our first tours I have collected about twenty photos, which should be suitable for a matching. At least I hope so.

A few years ago I had done surprisingly well in blue whale matching on the Azores with Richard Sears. So the plan for today is to confirm this success with the orcas.

Marie explains to us that for the identification we always need photos from both sides of the whale. Especially the long dorsal fins of the male orcas can be very wavy and curved, so they sometimes look completely different from the left side than from the right.

With that, almost all my photos fail right at the beginning. With blue whales it is easy to photograph them from several sides: They are usually on their own and not the fastest swimmers. It is therefore not too difficult to keep an eye on a single animal over a longer period of time.

But with orcas it’s completely different: They usually travel in groups and are quite fast swimmers. Without practice it is hardly possible to follow a single animal until you have photographed it from several sides. And if you then also meet a second group, as we did, it quickly becomes completely confusing.

Marie explains that many of my photos show the dorsal fin quite beautifully, but that the underlying saddle patches are hardly visible - not the best thing for photo ID's.

Marie also explains that although many of my photos show the dorsal fin quite beautifully, the saddle patches with the grey and white patterns are hardly visible. But to be able to identify individual orcas, we would need not only the dorsal fin from both sides, but also the patterns.

I made the same mistake back then with the blue whales: because the pattern thing seemed a bit too complicated at first sight, I concentrated on the fins. With fins alone, however, you will not get far in whale research, and this probably applies nowhere as much as with the orcas.

Of the twenty photos I brought along for identification today, according to Marie’s explanations only a few usable photos remain, and even those sometimes only by chance:

One of the orca groups had a calf with them, which I photographed several times from different angles. Although the photos of the calf are not suitable for identification (I had mostly tried to photograph the face, but not the fin or even the pattern), many of the pictures of the calf showed his mother quite well.

Fins, fins, fins: Only exactly one of these images is really suitable for individual identification – and that is the last one that VERY LIKELY shows »Meteor« (SN048).

I flip through the catalog. After a while everything becomes blurred into a black and white mess full of bent, curved, waved and tilted fins. Nevertheless, I find the mother again at some point: her name is »Roulette« and she has a rather pointed fin with a sweeping arch pattern, from which a small white tip is attached at the bottom.

Since orca families usually stick together for a lifetime, it becomes easier to identify the other family members after the first match. Since my photos are not sufficient for this, Marie simply shows us directly in the catalog which animals also belong to the family. She recognizes »her« orcas almost at first sight.

Meanwhile, Theresa approaches the topic of »matching« a little differently: When she first browsed through the catalog, she noticed an orca with a particularly wildly shaped fin – its name is »Kinky«, and Theresa’s plan is now to look for »Kinky« on our next tours.

I’m not sure if this is really the best approach, but on the other hand: What do I know about orca research?

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Impressive: the huge dorsal fin of a nearby orca.

Iceland STORM

Since one week we are stuck in snow, outside a heavy storm is raging, so powerful that even the locals call it »nasty«. Nothing to do here, winter has taken control.

In the village the snow is meters high, outside the whipping winds polish a thick layer of ice on the unprotected roads. At sea, the wildly roaring waves roll in, not even the fishermen are out, and for Icelandic fishermen that really means something.

It is uncertain whether we will be able to go out again in the next few days. In former times this would have frustrated me a lot: Out there the orcas, »Roulette«, her calf, maybe even »Kinky« and »Thunderstorm«, every new day another possible »gift day«, and us in here, locked up for days, exposed to the icy moods of nature, without any influence and with absolutely nothing to do.

Theresa says that it would be absolutely fine if we would not be able to do any more tours here: »It couldn't get any better anyway.« And I think she's right.

But to my surprise I am completely calm. Theresa says that this winter trip was perhaps our best idea ever. And yes, in her opinion it would even be absolutely okay if we would not be able to do any more tours here until our departure. »It couldn’t get any better anyway,« she says, and I think she’s right.

In a few days the storm should be over.

P.S.: If you also want to observe the orcas off Snaefellsnes, especially in winter, you should definitely bring a little time with you, preferably two or three nights, in order to have a good chance of at least one boat tour due to the rough weather. If you want to do several tours, it is best to stay for a week. Since the Laki Café and Guesthouse is a great place to eat and stay overnight and Snaefellsnes has everything that Iceland has to offer, it’s also a great place to stay for a longer period of time. Many thanks to Gisli for a fantastic time in Iceland!

P.P.S.: Many thanks also to Marie and Karl for all the interesting explanations! If you want to support the non-profit work of the Orca Guardians, you can do so by making a donation: With the adoption of an orca you will not only get regular information about »your« and the other Icelandic orcas, but also great pictures in high quality, which you can have printed as postcards or posters.

P.P.P.S.: Marie and Karl also filled out our questionnaire, telling us, among other things, what was the best thing that ever happened to them on a whale trip and what you should definitely pay attention to when planning your own whale trip. Click here for the questionnaire with Marie and here for Karls answers.

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