Quark Expeditions guests get a whale-sighting surprise on a Zodiac cruise. Photo: Acacia Johnson
A pod of whales suddenly appears when you've been fervently waiting to see just one. That excitement bursting inside you when you witness for the very first time a humpback whale breaching—leaping out of the Arctic water, twisting onto its back, then dramatically and repeatedly slapping the surface of the water with its tail and fins.
Or, the rare vision only a few truly lucky whale watchers get to behold, the sight of a narwhal, which according to marine biologist and polar expedition guide Nick Engelmann, is one of the most elusive of all whale species.
These are the moments we dream of when anticipating whale watching in the northern hemisphere, be it in Iceland, Greenland, the Canadian High Arctic or the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago.
Whale watching in Iceland and the north Atlantic ocean is an unforgettable experience, and with the right planning, these whale watching moments are all possible in the Arctic.
When is the best time to visit Iceland for whale watching, as well as Greenland?
So you're ready to set out on a Iceland whale watching trip, but you don't know when to go. The best time for whale watching in Iceland and Greenland is from April to late September-early October, with the summer months of June, July and August recognized as the peak whale watching season.
However, whale watching experiences in Iceland and Greenland can differ.
First, ask yourself how long your whale watching tour will be
Many visitors to Iceland book a three-hour or even a full-day whale watching tour that leaves from Reykjavik or Húsavík (the whale watching capital of Iceland). These types of whale watching excursions are convenient but whales don’t necessarily appear on demand according to a traveler’s schedule.
Some years ago I booked a half-day whale watching tour while in Reykjavik but we saw no whales on my whale watching excursion. Our only glimpse of a whale was in the form of a sonar image on a screen down below deck.
Now, puffins – we saw plenty of those. But I had my heart set on whales. That doesn’t mean, of course, that all whale loving travelers will have the same experience on half-day tours.
Humpback whales are frequently sighted on multi-day polar expeditions in the Arctic. Photo: Sam Edmonds
What is the best way to go whale watching in Iceland?
The best way to see whales in this northern part of the world is to join a multi-day Arctic expedition which increases your chances of seeing whales—as well as other wildlife—with the benefit of polar experts onboard your vessel who know where to look, who are familiar with feeding grounds and habits and know from experience when is the best time for whale watching in Iceland, Greenland or other Arctic regions.
Where should I go on my whale watching tour?
Remote Greenland, like the Norwegian Arctic, gets far fewer visitors and ocean traffic than Iceland, thus potentially offering significantly more whale watching opportunities in the deep seldom-visited fjords and undisturbed waterways.
Many scientists believe that the fewer people there are in a region, the greater your chances of seeing majestic wildlife of any kind..
Experienced expedition teams know to keep watch for whales, as well as for seals, polar bears, white beaked dolphins, arctic terns, and other local wildlife, which converge along the ice edges.
The melting ice opens up passageways for whales to swim toward the estuaries and bays for food and mating. Such whale watching opportunities in wilderness settings aren’t readily available during half-day whale watching tours from a busy, populated city center.
How to visit Iceland and see whales on the same trip
If you are keen to see Iceland—as well as experience incredible whale watching—consider one of Quark Expeditions’ multi-day itineraries that start or end in Iceland but also journey to destinations such as Greenland where whales often congregate in larger numbers.
Two voyages to consider: Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland and East Greenland and Three Arctic Islands: Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen. Both of these voyages take place in September and October.
Include activities other than whale watching on your whale watching tour
As a longtime traveler, I realize many of my most memorable travel experiences have been those that weren’t originally on my bucket list.
For instance, when setting out to determine the best time to visit Iceland for whale watching, ask yourself: what else is there in that part of the world that’s not currently on my radar? Perhaps you'd like to see the northern lights on a winter whale watching tour, or witness the midnight sun in the summer?
Maybe you're up for some puffin watching on Iceland's Puffin Island? It's always nice to plan your whale watching tours around other things to do in the area.
Traveling with an open mind is rewarding. Travel-planning with an open mind can be even more rewarding!
What kinds of whales to see in Iceland and Greenland?
Humpback whales at Ilulissat Icefjord off the west coast of Greenland. Photo: Sam Edmonds
The whale species that are sometimes seen in the waters around Iceland include Blue whales, Fin whales, Sperm whales, Minke and Humpback whales. You may also find Pilot whales, Harbour porpoises, and Orca whales (also called Killer whales), which are technically dolphins. It's very rare to spot a Blue whale, as they're much less common than humpback whales, but an Iceland whale watching tour might be your best shot at seeing these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.
Greenland is home to about 15 whale species, three of which stay throughout the entire year and don’t migrate: Beluga whales, narwhal, and Bowhead whales.
West Greenland is a good spot to see Narwhals but only in the northern part that is closer to Canada. That's why many like to sign up for Best of the Western Arctic: Canada and Greenland.
The main species spotted in Greenland include bowhead whales, which grow up to 18 metres in length and sometimes weigh up to 100 tons. According to polar wildlife experts, bowhead whales usually spend the spring, particularly April, around Disko Island before moving to other Arctic regions.
Similar in length but weighing much less are humpback whales, which are known to be surprisingly curious about expedition ships, swimming close enough for onboard guests to take excellent photographs.
Humpbacks are typically seen on the west coast of Greenland, near places like Nuuk and Ilulissat.
One of the smaller whale species is the minke whale which, at 10 metres in length, is still impressive to see. Minke whales can be spotted from May to October in the fjords and coastal areas of South and West Greenland, especially near Disko Bay.
Then there is the elusive narwhal which is noticeable for the long tooth on its nose. The narwhal spends its entire life in the Arctic waters of Canada, Russia, Norway and Greenland.
Beluga whales, the ones that always seem to be “smiling at the camera” because of their flexible head, usually stay in groups of five to ten and are commonly seen in the Greenlandic waters between Maniitsoq and Disco Bay, and in the vicinity of Qaanaaq and Upernavik.
The fin whale is quite a sight. It can grow as long as 27 metres and weigh as much as 100 tons. Fin whales are frequently spotted near Uummannaq but also in the waters around Qaqortoq and in Disco Bay.
Whale Watching Iceland: Final Thoughts
When deciding the best time to visit Iceland on a whale watching tour, as well as exploring other northern regions where you can see whales, it’s always advisable to start with tour operators with a proven track record in polar travel. It’d be a pity to travel all the way to the far north and only see puffins!