Aurora Borealis, Budir, Iceland

I visited Iceland in March 2014 on a rare non-mammal holiday. Not only was the trip successful – I saw the Northern Lights for two of the three nights I was there – I was also very impressed with the country. It is scenically stunning with great food and places to stay. Plus there is something special about the people and the whole society.

That impression was confirmed when I returned for two weeks in June 2020 on a COVID escape vacation. I love Iceland.

There are a few land mammals, all of which I’d seen, and made no effort to look for. The marine mammals are more interesting with chances of several arctic seal species including Harp and Hooded Seals (both presumably more likely in winter). Iceland is also home to what is arguably Europe’s best whale watching.

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, Husavik

Humpbacks, Minkes and White-beaked Dolphins are apparently resident year round off of Reykavik. In the winter Orcas congregrate in Grundarfjörður on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. In March 2014 I saw a couple of distant animals as well as a pod of White-beaked Dolphins close to shore.

I had hoped to do an Orca trip with Laki Tours but didn’t quite have time to get to the airport afterwards. In the summer Laki Tours run trips to see Blues, Fins, Humpbacks, Minkes and Orcas, with chances too for Sei, Sperm and Pilot Whales. I’ve heard that Iceland is one of the more reliable places to look for Sei Whales worldwide.

In June 2020 Husavik offered the most scenic whale watching I have ever done. Humpbacks are the main species here, with White-beaked Dolphins fairly common though hit and miss. We missed the dolphins though they had been seen by the boat before ours. Though some websites list several other species off of Husavik, including Blue and Long-finned Pilot Whales, these all seem very rare in these waters from what our guide said. They do catch Greenland Sharks often off of here which would have been cool to see.

There is whale watching all around the island in the summer, and different species seem to favor different areas. Out of Rejkavik I was told Minke Whales and White-beaked Dolphins were guaranteed, while trips off of the Snaefellsnes peninsula ought to find Orca, at least in early July.

I asked around about Bowhead Whales but there seem to be more chance of seeing one off of Cape Cod than Iceland.

Common (Harbour) Seal and Grey Seal are fairly common. We saw a few in scattered locations. There is a tiny chance of Harp, Bearded, Ringed and Hooded Seals.

Arctic Fox, Vulpes lagopus

Arctic Foxes should be quite widespread across the island but we only saw one in 2020. I was told that the Westfjords region is the best area to look, because they aren’t hunted there. And indeed the only animal we saw was there: an habituated female, who would come to look for food around the restaurant each morning at the lovely, remote, Heydalur Hotel, my favorite hotel of the trip (and also the best food). Foxes have been denning nearby and visiting Heydalur for several years.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Community Reports

Iceland whale watching, 2023: Lars Michael Nielsen’s report of some nice cetaceans during a short trip including Orcas and White-beaked Dolphins.

Iceland, 2022: Vladimir Dinets, 11 days & 11 species including Arctic Fox, White-beaked Dolphin and Orca.

Iceland, 2020: Jon Hall, 2 weeks and four species including an Arctic Fox.

Arctic Fox at Modrudalur, 2020: Paul Carter’s brief report of 8 species including White-beaked Dolphin, Reindeer and Arctic Fox.

Iceland, 2020: Sjef Ollers, 12 days & 7 species including Arctic Fox, American Mink, plus Minke and Humpback Whales.

Iceland, 2013: Mark Hows, 10 days & 8 species including Arctic Fox, Humpback Whales and White-beaked Dolphins.

Also See

RFI: best whalewatching near Reykjavik?, June 2023

Quick Update from Iceland (September 2015)

Two questions about Iceland (August, 2015)

1 Comment

  • Miles Foster

    Thanks, Jon,

    my wife and fellow-mammal-watcher, Ingrid, is half-Icelandic so we know the country well. I agree with all you say and would also put in a word for whale-watching from Husavik with North Sailing. Arctic foxes can be hard to see as they are persecuted. Látrabjarg bird cliffs are well worth a visit too. Terrific picture of the aurora borealis by the way!

    Miles Foster

Leave a Reply