Attractions Iceland Iceland Reykjavik Nature & Wildlife

Whale watching or whale eating in Iceland?

Written by Kirstie Pelling
Special Tours Iceland Whale Watching

Whale watching is big business in Iceland

Whale watching or whale eating in Iceland?

While in Reykjavik we had the privilege of joining a Special Tours Whale Watching trip. Whale watching is said to be a ‘must do’ tourist activity in Iceland, but then so too is sampling whale cuisine, which of course requires whale hunting, a long standing if controversial part of Icelandic culture. As a tourist there’s no question of hunting but you are likely to be confronted with choices about whether to watch, eat, or both, as we found out.

We call them stinky minkes

“You’ll know a minke whale from it’s exceedingly bad breath,” says Magnus Axelsson, the crew member in charge of keeping us all informed about the wildlife. His hands are so cold he is holding his microphone in a knitted sock.

Reykjavik from the Sea

Leaving Reykjavik in search of whales.. these days it’s for watching not hunting

Almost everyone on the tour stands at the front of the boat, sniffing for mammal halitosis. I’m hedging my bets and hanging about in the middle of the cruiser, squinting into the distance. Meanwhile Stuart has his camera trained on the sea at the rear of the boat. As far as I’m concerned he’s backing the wrong horse. If a whale does appear on demand, it’s going to be on that choppy royal blue horizon, with the glaciers as a cinematic backdrop, and fifty eager whale spotters waiting to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’

Humpback Whale

I thought this was what we’d see.. if we were lucky

Nature sighting guaranteed

But what do I know about the habits of humpbacks? A few seconds later saltwater is trumpeted into the air, not more than ten metres away from the back of the boat. I gasp and Stuart nearly drops his camera. At the front of the boat Magnus is still urging people to watch out; he hasn’t noticed the burst of activity behind him. But when that curved body rises out of the water, no one is in any doubt that a humpback whale has chosen to swim in our wake. The crowd rushes towards Stuart and the back of the boat as the whale slices back into the depths. We wait in anticipation for its dark tail to burst out of the ocean.

Humpback Whale

So you can imagine my surprise when this humpback whale turns up 10 metres away

In the past seeing a humpback was a rare treat for tourists, although whale sightings in general are so common in this part of Iceland that many operators claim an average 95% sighting success rate, verifiable by records kept by the boat captains in special whale sighting logbooks. Magnus tells me that one humpback in the bay was pretty much the norm for many years; with a huge number of tourist boats trying to get a glimpse. But he thinks that there are now up to nine humpbacks in Faxafloi Bay, although he’s not sure why they have come.

Whatever the reason, the tourists are happy. Despite the area being populated by a range of puffins, dolphins, minke whales and shy harbour porpoise, the humpback is always the star. “The minke whales are faster and show themselves more. You can chase them around for an hour,” says Magnus. “But the humpback is much more spectacular. It moves so slowly it almost stops.”

Some whale watching tours in Iceland claim a 90% sighting success rate

I didn’t think it would be addictive

Whale watching is even more rewarding than I anticipated. The scene for a relaxing Saturday morning is set by the chillingly crisp air, and the wind and sunshine in my face as the boat powers out into the bay away from Reykjavik harbour. As we race towards open sea, there is a palpable sense of excitement. Even the toddlers on the boat seem to embrace the thrill of the chase as they bounce around the wooden seats that still have a thin layer of ice from the cold night. But when we reach a place where the whales are commonly seen, a silence falls amongst the spectators. We are all trying to be the one who spots the prize. Our eyes sting in the sunshine as we focus on ever moving water. Then comes the yell, and the microphone confirms success. Suddenly we are all racing down the boat, pulling up short as we catch out first glimpse. I am overwhelmed by grace and power, following its arc with my eyes. And then almost immediately I am overwhelmed with disappointment that it’s gone. But then the engine starts and we are off trying to track it. Sightings are addictive. Once is never enough.

In town whale is also on the menu

When our feet are firmly back in Reykjavik, we are buzzing and the city is too. It’s the weekend and locals as well as tourists are out in full force; shopping, eating lunch in the sunshine and sightseeing. I came off the boat hungry, the sea air whipping up an appetite. But as we wander around the town, I notice the signs outside the restaurants as though for the first time and feel sick to the stomach. Suddenly the menu’s I have been wandering past all week have an impact. Whale in delicate celeriac jus. Huge whale steaks, accompanied by fries and salad. Tapas dishes of whale and puffin.

Whale Menu in Reykjavik

Back on the high street the tourist menus seem shocking now

Having just spent the morning with a humpback, this is so wrong. And it’s the very tourists who are watching the whales in the daytime that are eating them at night. According to the local paper The Reykjavik Grapevine, whale watching is the most popular tourist activity in Reykjavik. Yet 19% of tourists say that by the time they step on a boat they have already tasted whale flesh. They watch a minke glide through the bay and then they devour one with chips.

Whale Menu in ReykjavikThe whaling issue has rumbled on here for many years. In 1989 the practice was halted in Iceland for almost a quarter of a century and since it resumed the debate has been a roller coaster ride affected by politics, economics, and social pressures. Although those in favour of whaling may justify the practice in terms of its cultural or historic importance to the country, others point out that killing big whales on a commercial basis only started in Iceland around the middle of the last century. In addition to this, according to a Gallup poll, less than 5% of Icelanders eat whale meat regularly, and far more money enters the economy from people  watching the whale wildlife than people eating it.

Yet over the last two years, restaurant after restaurant in the city has started to offer whale on the menu. And it’s the tourists that are consuming it along with the local beer. As I stand in front of a fish restaurant offering minke and puffin, I think about that spout of water shooting into the cloudless sky, the long curved back slicing through the waves, and the flash of tail before it silently retreats into the icy depths. And then I think about a whale being cruelly harpooned, taking more than an hour to die before being shoved onto a boat, its blood draining away into that cold, unforgiving water.

And I’m not hungry any more.

What do you think about whaling? Watch them or eat them?

The whale tail disappears under.. to live another day?


This post is part of our 2012 Iceland Season.  We visited Reykjavik in April for the Children’s Culture Festival, then spent a summer exploring the wilder parts of the country expedition style by car and bike.  We’re grateful to Visit ReykjavikIcelandair and Icelandair Hotels, Reykjavik Excursions and The Blue Lagoon for their support in helping bring you this season of posts from the Reykjavik Children’s Culture Festival. 

Read more from our Icelandic Spring 2012 Reykjavik Children’s Festival season:


About the author

Kirstie Pelling

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.


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