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Whale Trips: First stop – meeting sperm whales off Iceland!

I’m delighted to present a guest blog by Oliver Dirr, a German writer, tourism expert and passionate traveller!  Oliver and his wife Theresa recently – in his words – “went on a trip around the world to meet some whales and learn about whale watching. First stop: the sperm whales off Iceland.”

I’ve always been fascinated by sperm whales. When I was a child, I kept drawing them all the time. Just look at this gigantic head! Or think about that weird shape – totally unreal, like a living submarine and just remember the things sperm whales can do: dive for up to two (!) hours, entering depths of up to three (!) kilometres. Totally crazy.  During these extreme dives, sperm whales can even collapse their lungs and rely solely on the oxygen reserves in their muscles and blood. All functions shut down: the whole animal is on autopilot, in depths of several thousand metres. Incredible… insane!

Sperm whales are not only absolutely fascinating, they are great for a whale watching tour as well. There’s only a few places in the world where you can reliably encounter them and meeting them in Iceland was certainly not on our agenda. Iceland was the first part of our trip: the Whale Trip. Our plan was simple: travel west until we’re back home – and along the way, we wanted to learn about whales and whale watching.

Whale stuff is a bit complicated in Iceland. On the one hand, Iceland is one of the best countries in the world for whale watching. During summer, chances are high of meeting humpbacks and minkes. With some luck, you can encounter orcas and even blue whales.  The Icelandic whale watch industry is the fastest growing in the world.

On the other hand, Iceland is one of the few remaining countries that still hunts whales. Whaling …in the 21st century? Seriously?  Sadly it’s true: in Iceland, you can have a whale watching vessel and a whaling vessel targeting the same whale. How insane is that? And there’s way too many restaurants still offering whale meat in Iceland. The paradox is that a lot of tourists believe that Icelanders eat whale meat all the time, so they want to try it as well. But that’s far from the case and in fact, most of the whale meat is eaten by tourists. Unfortunately, too many tourists are slow to get the message, which is why you can see so many posters and stickers all over Iceland with the memorable slogan “Meet us, don’t eat us”. It’s a bold, visual attempt to increase awareness for tourists, who sometimes take a whale watching trip, yet directly afterwards go to a restaurant and eat whale meat. This happens way too often, just because of a lack of awareness of the true situation.

So, whale watching is a good idea, especially in Iceland, since the more money made by the whale watching industry, the greater the chance of bringing whaling to an end. With that in mind, we booked ourselves on to some tours out of Husavik, Akureyri, Reykjavik and Olafsvik.

Absolutely the best things happened in Olafsvik… because of the sperm whales. Olafsvik is a small village on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, which is often described as “Iceland in a nutshell”. Here, you’ll find everything Iceland has to offer: dead volcanoes, active geysers, giant glaciers, black sandy beaches, vast lava fields, stunning waterfalls and rich green hills. Geologically, Iceland is a pretty young country and it’s still in the making, everything is gurgling, bubbling, boiling. Totally unreal. Being in Iceland is like being on a different planet.

The waters off Snaefellsnes are among the best places in Iceland to meet the whales…. usually. However, after three hours of cruising around and not seeing any whales, we started to get a bit unsure about that. Originally, we came hoping to see minke whales. Fast swimmers, surfacing briefly, always zigzagging, minkes are really not the easiest whales to watch. But no whales today, nowhere, even though we had great weather conditions with a flat sea and no wind. After three or four hours of cruising around, it became clear that, today, we’d probably be out of luck. But then, on our way back home: a blow! Far away, but definitely a blow.  Closely followed by a second one and then a third. There was no doubt that these were sperm whales! Sperm whales are the only whales to have their blowhole off to the side of their head rather than central. This sideways pointing blow is what makes it so easy to spot them, even from great distances.

Another thing that makes sperm whale watching so comfortable is that following their extreme dives, sperm whales tend to rest for a long time at the surface. This gives you a lot of time to slowly and carefully approach them. These deep dives are the main reason why it’s rare to see sperm whales breach. A lot of whales love to breach, although it’s not totally clear why they do it. Maybe they breach for joy, maybe to communicate, maybe just because they can: no one knows for sure. But after battling with giant squid at depths of thousands of metres and holding your breath for hours, sperm whales might be a bit too exhausted for a breach, right?

However, the waters we were entering right now weren’t that deep. “Maybe we’re lucky”, Theresa said, “maybe we’ll see a breach? The guide told me that the waters are quite shallow here, so the whale may not be too exhausted when it surfaces. Fingers crossed!“

The sperm whales were still at the surface, resting, blowing. I would estimate they were around 700 – 800 metres away but it’s always hard to tell in the middle of a flat calm sea, with no reference point. But somewhere over there, there were three sperm whales. Our boat slowly approached, with me filming. A fluke. Another fluke. A third one. Gone. Still approaching, still filming. 400 metres .. 300 metres until we reach the spot close to where they disappeared for a dive just a moment ago. Some minutes later, now behind us: a blow, and another. Us approaching. Me filming. Then the flukes, again.  First one, second one, third one. The next dive. Us approaching. Me filming. Hands getting cold. The Icelandic summer really isn’t what I’d call a summer, especially not on a small boat out on the ocean. A good 100 metres to go. That’s where they went for the dive. Some minutes later, about 100 metres to the right, more blows. Three sperm whales, totally relaxed. Us stopping. Me filming. Me marvelling.

After a couple of minutes, the first whale prepared for the next dive. Before diving, sperm whales always roll around a bit. Being completely underwater for a short time, then surfacing again, then clearly humping, before lifting the fluke upright into the air. The more vertical the fluke, the more vertical the dive. So, the perfect moment for that perfect fluke shot is when the whale is surfacing again after rolling around. That’s the moment – that’s when you have to be focused.

Me still filming. So exciting being so close to such a giant, even though it’s only the smallest part of the whale visible at the surface. Most of the whale remains underwater: left to our imagination. Unless they breach. That’s why I’m filming. Fingers crossed. Short dive, short rest, short dive again. Best conditions for a breach. Maybe we’re lucky. And there they go again. First one: rolling, humping, fluking, gone. Me filming. Second one: rolling, humping, fluking, gone.

But me: not filming. No battery. No! Not now!! Grabbing the second battery. Empty! Not, really?! Grabbing the cell phone. Third one diving. Cell phone low, no battery, of course: way too cold here. All three gone now. No more filming today.

It’s no surprise I’m sure, for me to reveal that after that very next dive, one of the sperm whales actually breached – not just once, but three times in a row and only around 50 metres away! Three breaches, so close to our boat. And I couldn’t film any of it. Because of a low battery. Because of all that filming today. First, I’d kept filming for about three hours trying to find some minke whales. Then, I’d been filming sperm whales for about an hour, always with the hope of seeing them breach. And then, when they finally did breach, all my batteries were empty! Lesson learned. Maybe one should not film so much while doing a whale watching trip. Maybe one should just watch and marvel. And then watch more. And marvel more. A 40-ton sperm whale, up to 20 metres long, high in the air, just pure, raw power. This unreal animal, totally revealed for just a second. And then a splash, as loud as a thunder. Once. Twice. Thrice. Surreal. Fantastic.  Unforgettable! Just a tiny boat off the coast of Snaefellsnes, Iceland – the beginning of our whale trip. Stunning!

Whaletrips: Iceland from whaletrips on Vimeo.

For some breaching humpbacks in Akureyri, some just-missed blue whales in Husavik and loads of photos from beautiful Iceland, please have a look on our website


Our plan was to meet the whales for a couple of months. And meanwhile traveling west until we’re back home. Related to that trip we’ve built a website featuring our favourite whales, some of the most beautiful places to see them and telling what we’ve learned about whales and whale watching. During the next months, we’ll be happy to share more of our adventures with WDC!

About Vanessa Williams-Grey

Policy manager - Stop Whaling and Responsible Whale Watching