Written by the Warrior
According to the Lonely Planet on Iceland, my personal travel bible, there are 11 species of whales that “summer” each year in Húsavík, a small port town in North Iceland.
While you can go whale watching in many parts of Iceland, Húsavík is the undisputed capital of whale watching in Iceland. Between the months of June and August each year, the chances of actually seeing one on a whale watching tour is nearly 100%!
I have attempted to go whale watching in many parts of the world, and have generally gone away empty handed. While I totally get that the ocean is a big place, but, like, I paid $. And I know that I have a 100% chance of seeing them in an aquarium, but there is something very special about seeing them in the wild, in their own natural environment.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, with the advances in technologies such as motor powered vessels and a soaring demand for whale products, the whaling industry became lucrative business.
So much so that, world wide, whales were hunted to near extinction.
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission imposed a moratorium to stop the hunting of all medium and large sized whales for profit, in order to give whale populations around the world a chance to recover.
To the condemnation of the international community, Iceland resumed commercial whaling in 2006 of minke whales and fin whales. This decision was particularly controversial, given that fin whales, the second largest whales in the world, are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. Moreover, Icelanders don’t actually eat whale meat. They are served as novelty meat to curious tourist or exported to Japan.
So, long story short, I felt that by supporting the whale watching industry, I do my small bit in protecting them. Besides, the success rate of seeing them in the waters of Skjálfandi was simply too good to pass up.
Húsavík is a very very small town, so we had no trouble finding the wharf and the three whale watching outfits.
The really helpful dude at the Tourist Information/Whale Museum told me that there was not much difference between the outfits in terms of price, quality of service, sailing time or equipment. So we ended up choosing Norðursigling (North Sailing), simply because we managed to make it to their last morning sailing at 1:30pm. For some reason, between the three outfits, there is a sailing every 30 minutes, until 1:30pm, and then not again until 4pm.
Norðursigling uses restored traditional schooners for their tours.
And after decking out in truly sexy over coats that they provided, we began our hour long journey across the Bay.
During this time, we were briefed with safety instructions, the protocol of using the analogue clock positions to call out whales positions – if anyone saw one, what to look for, and the standard line that I have heard all too often “this is not a zoo, there is no guarantee that we will see a whale, blah blah blah.”
It was also during this time, the Dragon and the Tiger Princess took turns to pester me every 5 minutes with “where’s whale?”, “I wanna see a whale”.
After a while, I began to get super annoyed, and quite frankly, a little bit panicked. My success rate of actually seeing a whale on a whale watching tour has been pretty dismal to date. What if we become an anomaly even here in Husavik? Even more distressingly, like, I paid $ for this tour.
It was at this time, I saw the sails of 4 boats in the distance. I thought to myself, this is a pretty good sign. If they are there, then there must be something there to see.
Then I saw mists rising from the ocean, and suddenly someone shouted “Whale, 2 o’clock!”, someone else shouted “Whale, 9 o’clock!”
Then complete chaos, as voices begin shouting, “7 o’clock!”; “12 o’clock!”; “6 o’clock!”…
Finally our guide came on the radio to say “Ladies and gentleman, I believe we are swarmed.”
And we were. For the next hour, more than 20 different humpback whales surrounded us, doing their thing, feeding, swimming and diving around us.
Many came so close that I would have been able to see their tattoos – if they had them.
On the hour long journey back to the wharf, over hot chocolate and stale cinnamon buns, the crew (who does the tours day in and day out) told me that, since humpback whales are generally solitary, even they have very rarely witnessed such a spectacle. For them, even more rarely, was the lovely sunny day we were having.
Just like that, North Iceland cemented its very special place, in my heart.
Before heading out of town, we checked out the Húsavík Whale Museum, housed in the former town whaling station. Hard proof that it’s never too late to change one’s way.
I do not consider myself a museum buff, but I highly recommend a visit to this museum. It is incredibly well done and superbly interesting.
I must note that the whale bones on display were not killed by humans. They died either by beaching or unfortunately by accidentally drowning in fishing nets.
So, the debate on whaling rages on in Iceland. Those who support it sees it as a way to preserve Iceland’s heritage and tradition, as well as what is seen as a way to preserve fish stocks. Those who support whale watching believe in the notion that a live whale in the wild is much more valuable to Iceland than on someone’s dinner plate.
Personally, I am cautiously optimistic about the future of these magnificent marine mammals.
Most European ports deny entry of Icelandic whaling vessels, making it harder and harder for business. And in fact, Hvalur, Iceland’s only fin whaling company, has announced in 2016 that they will stop hunting the endangered fin whales (for now anyways) due to a lack of demand in Japan. Inside Iceland, there has been educational campaigns to encourage tourists to boycott restaurants that serve whale meat.
I think Morgan Freeman narrated/said it best in the IMAX film Born to be Wild, “The animals in this story are like us, in so many ways. They want to grow up free, and raise their families in a world that’s safe. And if we let them disappear from this earth, then a part of us would disappear too.”
If a small port town in North Iceland can go from having a whale slaughterhouse to having a whale museum, surely, we can all do our small bit to making sure that, everyone, including the whales, can have a whale of a time.
(My short video of our epic encounter)