When I first arrived in Iceland, some 19 years ago, whale watching opportunities were limited. This was despite Iceland being one of the best places on the planet to admire these gentle giants of the ocean.. There were nowhere near the number of whale watching tour companies as there are today and those that were around only operated during the summer months – that is to say, from the end April until the end of September.
And there was good reason for this.
Not that many tourists came to Iceland during the winter months back in those days, so crewing a boat for such small pickings made no commercial sense.
There were other reasons too as companies took advantage of the ‘quiet season’ to put the boats into drydock for maintenance. In fact the first whale watching trips of the summer season used to make the national news. The news heralding the grand arrival of the summer tourist season.
It was never really about the whales not being there. The whales were always there … that wasn’t the point. The point was that the tourists weren’t there.
But now that has changed.
Iceland has seen a massive increase in tourism following (and perhaps ironically, thanks to) the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. The eruption, and ensuing flight chaos, put Iceland firmly on the visual global map; a lot of it no doubt down to the breathtakingly beautiful images and videos that accompanied the news frenzy. Iceland and the unpronounceable volcano were everywhere.
Today, since ‘the’ eruption of 2010, the number of foreign tourists to Iceland has more than doubled.
With, perhaps surprisingly, winter seeing the greatest increase in those visitor numbers.
Most notably in the northern port town of Akureyri – found nestled at the end of Iceland’s longest fjord, Eyjarfjörður. Akureyri has always been popular with Icelanders during the winter months. There is good skiing in the nearby mountains and the town is known for its lively, winter ‘cultural vibe‘ It is also very well connected to all major towns in Iceland via a scheduled bus network and domestic air service.
Akureyri’s increase in tourism has also prompted new interest and growth in local tourist attractions and activities – such as the ever popular whale watching.
Following the opening of several new whale watching companies, Akureyri now rates as one of the top places in Iceland to spot whales – summer and winter. Humpbacks in particular seem to favour the sheltered waters of the fjord and are often seen performing their spectacular acrobatics right in front of delighted tourists and their smart phones.
At the last count there were four whale watching companies in operation from the Port of Akureyri and the Ejyafjörður surroundings; with winter bringing the additional opportunity for evening tours to spot the swirling Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights overhead!
The whale watching boats are moored within a comfortable walking distance from Akureyri’s main cruise berth, Oddeyrarbryggja – and an added bonus for summer cruise passengers is that there is no lengthy transfer involved. But please do allow for a 15 to 20 minute walk. Perhaps a little longer if you intend to walk at a more leisurely pace and stop to take photographs of the birdlife and views along the way.
Insiders Tip: To get the most out of this amazing experience (because it is amazing… believe me.) Please dress very warmly for whale watching. It gets cold out on the north Atlantic. Even during the bright days of summer and despite the warm overalls provided by the whale watching companies. Hat, gloves, warm, waterproof outer garment. Oh, and warm socks with rubber soled boots. And what about hand warmers? And a camera… you get the picture!