As a visitor in Iceland or an enthusiast about birds, you may wonder about the state of the puffin – how it’s faring against climate change, volatile weather conditions and human impact. This article covers some of the most important factors relating to puffin survival, including puffin hunting and changes in natural conditions. Let’s start by looking at perhaps the hottest topic: puffin hunting.

Why would you want to hunt such a cute and wonderful bird? Some of you might ask. Why not? Is what some of you might answer. It seems to be delicious and quite unique in its taste. Yes, puffins are being hunted in Iceland, and yes it is one of only two places in the world (next to the Faroer Islands), where the hunt is still legal.

puffin survival

USFWS, Atlantic puffins landing

Right now there is a lot of discussion about this practice and I will tell you what the fuss is all about. Remember that hunting puffins is basically as old as the the Icelanders themselves. They have pretty much done it since their Viking ancestors arrived on the island, because they probably knew it from other places in their territories. Hell, there is a whole festival in the Westman Islands (since 1874), where the biggest puffin colony resides, that is inseperable of the enjoyment of smoked puffins, which to this day is considered a delicacy.

And it does make sense. The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) is still the most common bird in Iceland with millions of pairs nesting on many of the steep cliffs. Take abundance and tradition and you have two very strong arguments to keep up this practice that is past on from generation to generation without much alteration or change. The technique has basically been the same all along. No guns are used. It is quite a simple technique: you attach a triangular net on an up to 4m long pole and voila- you have your háfur (Iceland) or fleyg (Faroer); the pole that is used to catch the puffins since centuries. Sounds simple, but actually requires a lot of skill to catch those puffins in their flight.

Want some proof? Even Gordon Ramsay tried it in a very controversial Youtube Video from 2008. After hours, he finally managed to catch a puffin. The first one of the season! Traditionally that one is released for good luck. With some more practice, he went on to catch two more and after the neck is broken and the chest meat is taken out, followed his Icelandic teacher in eating the raw heart of the puffin. Leaving the showman aspect of this particular hunt, we have to keep in mind that Iceland is a very scarse country, where survival has never been guaranteed. Under such harsh conditions, easily accessible animal protein was crucial for the survival of the settlers.

A skilled hunter could catch a few hundred puffins in a single day, providing enough food for himself and the community. In that fashion even in the 1970s approximately 150,000-200,000 puffins were killed in Iceland alone. Icelandic hunters have long kept track of their catches (since 140 years!). That enables scientists even today to look at the numbers of puffins and how puffin survival is affected by different factors.

Puffin survival

A puffin catcher in Suðurey, Faroe Islands (CC BY-SA 3.0)

That‘s also how we know one thing: Things have changed. The hunters were the first to recognise this, as it got harder to hunt plenty of puffins – simply because there are not so many around anymore. The hunting had to change with the dropping numbers. Over the time the hunting season has been shortened and shortened. While it was 46 days long just a couple of years ago, they cut it down to just a week in 2021. Now the hunting season in South-Iceland is only three days long. In fact, it‘s such a short season that many of the more passionate hunters that do it travel to the North, to Grímsey, where the hunting season is longer (~6 weeks). Still, hunting has decreased by 90% in comparison to the 1970s (still reaching about 15,000-20,000 birds each year). What is happening?

Puffin populations are struggling. Especially in the Westman Islands, where researcher Erpur Hansen speaks of a breeding failure since 2003. Almost no subadults are recruited into the breeding populations with the consequence of an alarming 70% decrease over the last 30 years. And it doesn‘t look much better for the rest of Europe. In total the population is calculated to be declining at a rate of 50-79% over three generations (65 years) according to new data from the IUCN. That has led the puffin to be listed as vulnerable, with some populations on the European level even as endangered (IUCN 2018). Because Iceland and Norway together hold about 80% of the total population in Europe, their status here is of the utmost importance for puffin survival overall.

puffin survival

A group of puffins protecting their burrows

But what are the factors for such a drastic decline? It surely isn‘t all to blame on a few hunters right? Indeed the problem is way more complex and has to do with all of us, not just some hunters. One of the most important factor is the warming of the climate due to human activity. The puffins’ main prey species in (the South) of Iceland is the sand eel. It thrives at a sea surface temperature of around 7,1°C, with rates of puffin survival and reproduction dropping the more temperatures vary. Just like the young herring and the capelin (other staple foods for the puffin), they are cold water fish. And they are being fed to the young puffins!

Because of the warming sea water, prey populations are dying. Or they are pushed further North, out of reach for the puffins in their breeding colonies. That is one reason why puffin survival around Grímsey is still comparably better than in the Westman Islands, where sand eels have vanished. In the absence of enough prey, the parent puffins must fly further and further away to find enough food to feed their young, very energy taxing and often not sufficient, which results in the starvation of the young.

puffin survival

A beak full of sandeel for the pufflings

As if that wasn’t already a big enough problem, overfishing is another important factor further decimating prey stocks for the puffins. Sand eel is not being eaten directly by humans, but it is further processed into fish meal and fertilizer. It’s the same for capelin. I don’t have to tell you much about herring.

So, what role does hunting play in the overall decline of the puffins? According to lead scientist Hansen, breeding puffins tend not to fly into the nets of the hunters, because they fly directly in and out of their burrows while it is the young adolescents that fly along the cliffs more aimlessly. They are the ones that are being caught by the hunters. He subsequently called for a hunting ban. Hunting seems to account for about 10% of the recent decline, because it has robbed the populations of an upcoming breeding generation while the reproduction performance of an aging population decreases more and more. Therefore, any hunting of puffins is considered ecologically unsustainable.

puffin survival

Bill Ward, Puffin meat at a restaurant in Reykjavík (CC BY 2.0)

Why this might be interesting for you? Let’s say you’d walk through Reykjavik and come across a restaurant that still serves puffin meat. Puffin „harvesting“ has for the longest time been a local activity, where the inhabitants hunt in their local, unforgiving environment for survival. But things have changed and curious tourists are creating a demand for puffin meat that wouldn‘t exist without them. I believe through the given information you are enabled to make a reasonable decision with puffin survival in mind. Although curiosity is strong in us, you just have to ask yourself, if you think that eating such a unique and wonderful bird that is in severe decline is a bright idea? If you are still not convinced, I’d love to show you the beauty of these birds on one of our Puffin Express or Puffin Express by RIB Speedboat tours here at Special Tours.

As always, thanks for reading and hopefully see you soon.

Blog by Daniel Blankenheim, Special Tours guide

 

PS: As of the 29.05.2023, there is news about hundreds of dead puffins (among other sea birds) being stranded dead in the Westman Islands. We don’t know exactly what is happening right now and are waiting for data to be released. There is reason to believe these deaths are the result of bird flu, which has wreaked havoc in several countries among different bird species in recent years. It certainly is alarming news for the puffin population in Iceland that is already struggling.

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Winter whale watching in Reykjavik can be an interesting phenomenon. Since the beginning of last December, we’ve had an interesting change in the pattern of our winter whale watching tours and we thought we’d share that with you.

Usually we sail for approximately an hour away from the Reykjavik Old Harbour before we came to a good whale watching spot in the middle of Faxaflói. These days the tours offer a fun little game for the guide: trying to spot a whale before finishing the introduction speech! And they manage to do it more often than not, due to sightings close to the Old Harbour!

We have been seeing the same animal at a distance of a few minutes sailing from the harbour, from the 4th of December and we’re very happy about it! This humpback whale has been exhibiting exciting behaviour like lobtailing, barrel rolling on the surface, flipper slapping and, to the delight of all our passengers, coming ridiculously close to our vessel to investigate us. We are not sure what whales dream about, but we can assure you that we are currently living the whale dream.

Below are a few pictures of this friendly neighbour of ours from the last few winter whale watching tours. More images from January whale watching can be found here. You can click the below images to see more amazing photos and videos on our Instagram page.

Written by Lucas Heinrich.

winter whale watching in Reykjavik

Our friendly neighbour on a beautiful winter afternoon close to Reykjavik

 

winter whale watching in Reykjavik

Our friend flaps its tail!

 

winter whale watching in Reykjavik

The friendly whale comes close to the boat

 

winter whale watching in Reykjavik

The majestic humpback’s tail pops up from the water

 

winter whale watching in Reykjavik

A beautiful creature in beautiful surroundings

The northern lights are truly a sight to behold. These otherworldly green ribbons regularly lighting up the skies of the arctic and subarctic have inspired awe for millennia. It is, then, little wonder that they top the list of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Today, we roughly understand the science behind them – including what causes them, and how to maximize our chances to see them. But throughout recorded history, auroras have inspired myth and legend in creative attempts to explain their causes and effects. Some people revered the lights, while others feared them. Some saw the lights as good omens, and others as harbingers of evil and despair. Here, we explore some of these myths and legends about northern lights.

Myths and legends about northern lights

Aurora Borealis by Frederic Edwin Church, an 1865 painting

The Sámi, the indigenous people Scandinavia, are among the cultures who had a healthy distrust of the northern lights. They believed that if northern lights came too close to Earth, they could swoop down and grab unsuspecting people – and so people hid from the lights, or tried to scare them off by clapping their hands loudly. But it was also discovered that whistling would draw the lights nearer. Sámi children would dare each other to whistle at the lights, until they came nearly close enough to grab them, and then scare them away again by clapping. So next time you’re out hunting the auroras, maybe give whistling a try!

Here in Iceland, few records of northern lights myths remain. One common belief was that northern lights could ease the pain of childbirth – however, if a pregnant woman were to gaze upon the auroras, her child would be born cross-eyed! Another belief was that auroras could be used to predict the weather – if the lights were dancing and waving in the sky, it meant a storm was coming, and people had to make preparations. Alternatively, if the lights were dancing, it meant a war was occurring somewhere in the world.

The Finnish word for northern lights – revontulet – translates directly into English as “fox fires.” This comes from an old legend of a magical Arctic fox – the “firefox” – who ran continuously across the tundra. Depending on the telling of the legend, the northern lights were caused by either its radiant fur, or the sparks that rose into the sky as it swept its tail across the landscape.

Myths and legends about northern lights

The aurora borealis lights up the sky around a cottage in Ruka, Finland

Meanwhile, Sweden was one of the places where northern lights were considered a good omen. A common belief was that the northern lights were reflections of lights off the scales of herring swimming far away in the sea – so if a fisherman saw the lights, a good catch was on the horizon.

In Denmark, legend spoke of swans who would hold competitions to see who could fly the farthest north. But swans who flew too far north might get their wings frozen. By flapping their wings, the ice crystals could be shaken loose, and reflect the sun’s light into the sky, causing the northern lights.

In Norse mythology, the northern lights were said to be reflections from the silver armour and spears of the Valkyries, the choosers of the slain. When a Viking warrior fell in battle, should he be worthy of the honour, he was escorted to Odin’s hall in Valhalla to feast with the Norse gods. The Valkyries were the female figures responsible for choosing these worthy warriors. So the night before an important battle, if a warrior looked up into the sky and witnessed the auroras, it meant the Valkyries were watching and ready to make their choices.

When watching the auroras dance on a clear night, behaving as they are breathing and have taken on a life of their own, it does not take a stretch of the imagination to see how many cultures saw them as manifestations of spirits or gods. Should you count yourself among the lucky ones to witness such a sight, then you can make your own conclusions. Come join us on one of our northern lights by boat tours – you might just witness the sight of a lifetime. (For tips on how to prepare for a northern lights hunt, click here!)

By Jonathan Rempel

Are you planning to come to Iceland and dreaming of seeing the northern lights? Then you’re probably also wondering about your chances of seeing the northern lights in Iceland. Worry not, we are here to explain.

The northern lights are an amazing natural phenomenon that has astounded humanity throughout recorded history. Only the slightest minority of people had ever heard about these celestial lights, much less seen them with their own eyes. But over the past 1-2 decades, thanks to the internet and social media, photos of the lights – or aurora borealis, as they were nicknamed by Galileo – have spread like wildfire and ignited the burning desire to venture into tiny corners of the world where the lights can be seen. One of which, of course, is Iceland.

 

chances of seeing the northern lights in Iceland

 

Northern lights are the result of the charged particles in solar wind – protons, electrons, and alpha particles – with gas molecules hundreds of kilometers up in our atmosphere. The excitement of those gas molecules causes them to produce light, which we perceive as auroras. Generally, auroras only occur within a narrow band at high latitudes, because the Earth’s magnetic field deflects the majority of the solar wind towards the north and south poles.

While it is occasionally possible for this “auroral oval” to widen, such as during strong solar storms where a significantly higher amount of solar wind is sent our way, generally one must venture far north to have a chance at witnessing the northern lights – and Iceland usually lies right within the brightest part of that auroral oval. Just check out this Aurora Forecast, with a screenshot taken right as I was writing this article:

 

chances of seeing the northern lights in Iceland

 

That means that by visiting Iceland, you are already in one of the best places in the world to spot the Northern Lights. Well done! But that isn’t always quite enough, of course. The weather has to cooperate as well. Now, you may have already heard about Iceland’s famously fickle weather – well, that applies even more so to weather in the winter, which is the only time of year the auroras are visible here. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate – which means aurora hunting requires patience, and a few tries. But overall, your chances of seeing the auroras here are good. Just don’t get lazy – during your trip to Iceland, be sure to try every single night, no matter how tired you are. And who knows? What you see might just be the experience of a lifetime.

Special Tours Wildlife Adventures was the first company in the world to offer northern lights tours by boat, an incredible experience that goes far beyond what any bus company can offer. And we are well aware of the weather – if your tour is cancelled due to cloudy conditions, we provide a backup plan to give you an enjoyable way to spend your evening, plus the option to rebook for the next evening.

Keep your eyes on the skies, and happy hunting!

By Jonathan Rempel, Head Guide

Get inspired, feel the connection!

In my opinion the will to protect anything – may it be a building, a landmark, an ecosystem or as in our case cetacean species, starts with inspiration and connection. We are much more likely to care about something that we feel connected or even emotionally attached to. One of the many ways to do so is by watching documentaries and learning about how awesome these whales and dolphins really are. The wonder of a „WOW!“ can really change lives. There is huge growing interest and a market for nature documentaries that reflect how much more we care and are interested in these beautiful places and species. This article lists several things that you can do to contribute to whale conservation.

Whale and man - Whale conservation

Join a whale watching tour

For the same reason, you might consider joining a whale watching tour. Depending on how it is done, it can be a sustainable way of environmental education and seeing cetaceans in a non-harmful way. An encounter with a cetacean in its natural habitat is one of the most awe-inspiring sights in nature. If a tour is done well, follows best practices and has an educational element it has the potential to foster an appreciation for wildlife in its natural environment and contribute to whale conservation. Moreover it raises awareness of whale and dolphin conservation needs.  You might be so inspired that you participate in environmental and conservation actions. That would be awesome!

It also benefits the local economy. The latest report of the International Fund for Animal Welfare from 2008 showed that 13 million people participated in whale watching in 119 countries and territories, generating a total expenditure of $2.1 billion. Furthermore, an estimated 3,300 operators offered whale watching trips around the world. The operators employed an estimated 13,200 people. With the exception of the COVID Pandemic years, the industry and tourist sectors have continued to grow.

Iceland has become the biggest whale watching destination in Europe. Whale watching started quite recently in 1991. 24 whale species have been seen around Iceland. With an 18.3% market share of the tourism industry, whale-watching is steadily becoming popular in Iceland. 20% of all visitors to Iceland go whale watching, that means about 364,000 people in 2019.

Whale watching boat and whale - Whale conservation

 

Start with the person in the mirror! Lifestyle changes

I‘m sorry to say this, but it could be considered quite hypocritical to go on the streets and demand more strict regulations for the protection of cetacean species (good on you for doing so though!) and at the same time continue to be part of their demise in a lot of different indirect ways. If your words and actions (or way of living) go hand in hand, you will be a believable role model for change and protection. Let’s look at a few of the things that you you can “easily“ implement in your daily life.

Plastic pollution

Plastic is a major hazard for many seabirds and all the species that live in the sea. Mass production only started in 1950s, but has reached a production of 8.3 billion metric tons. 6.3 billion metric tons have become plastic waste. If present trends continue, by 2050, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills. That amount is 35,000 times as heavy as the Empire State Building. Plastic seems to smell like food for a lot of species at sea, or- to be more precise, like algae that is breaking down naturally. This algae is what krill, a crustacean species that acts as the main prey for many species, is mainly feeding on. So animals have learned to associate the smell of large quantities of algae breaking down with the abundance of krill. Plastic debris provide the perfect platform for algae to thrive. But unfortunately instead of krill the seabirds only find the debris that they mistake for food. That is why they are eating so much of it with devastating effects on their health. With a full tummy, but without any nutrition, they are slowly starving without noticing. Not only that, but plastic also has toxic effects and entangles many animals. There are a couple of things that you can do in your everyday life to reduce the amount of plastics in the water. Every single bag makes a difference!

  1. Reduce your use of single-use plastics including water bottles. It´s time to buy a reusable one (also for your coffee) and have them with you as much as you can.
  2. Recycle properly: Just 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide today. But proper recycling is very important as it helps to keep plastics out of the ocean. Moreover it also reduces the amount of “new” plastic in circulation.
  3. Be a conscientious consumer when you‘re shopping. Choose natural fibres for your clothing, because microplastics in your synthetics get washed out and will end up in the waterways. Clothes made of cotton, wool and other natural fibers are preferable. Or/ and buy used items whenever possible. When you go shopping, you can also be packaging smart. What I mean by that is: you could rather buy the product with less packaging than another product of the same quality and similar price with a lot of unnecessary plastic packaging. The amount of plastic packaging could become a new criteria for the things you buy.
  4. Spread the Word: Stay informed on the plastic issue and help make others aware of the problem. Tell your friends and family about how they can be part of the solution and avoid unnecessary plastic.

Bird on a polluted beach - Whale conservation

 

Fish eating habits

Please be aware of your fish consumption. Eating fish means supporting the fishing industry. And you really don‘t want to do that if you care about whales and dolphins (and fish). Because entanglement in fishing gear is now the leading threat for whales and dolphins around the globe. It is estimated to cause at least 300,000 deaths per year. This by-catch has led to the almost certain demise of the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita in the Gulf of California. But even much larger species, like the false killer whale are caught and killed in nets all around the globe all year long. And if they don‘t die directly in the nets, some swim for months with gear wrapped around their bodies, entrapping them and sometimes sawing into their flesh until they die from infections or starvation. Or they can‘t make it to the surface anymore and drown. Those who escape can be left with painful injuries.

Entangled whale - Whale conservation

And please don‘t think that farmed seafood/fish is any better. Lots of pollutants, medicine being fed and spread to and by the fish, lots of inbreeding with natural fish stocks that weakens the genetic pool of the wild strains and feeding farmed fish with fish meal from wild fish are just a few of the big issues regarding this topic. There is a good overview of these issues by the WWF here:

There is also a red list published and updated by Greenpeace with fish species that you should try to avoid eating. Have a look at the guide per country by WWF below.

There are many lists by different NGO‘s about companies that do a better or worse job at supporting sustainable fishing. To find fish with the lowest impact, look out for pole and line-caught or one-by-one fishing.  Find examples here:

By eating less and being more mindful of the fish that you buy you can make a difference, because it sends a message to the fishing and retail industry to make stronger efforts to protect whales and dolphins. Some people are making a conscious decision to stop eating fish altogether. This is a personal choice, but it can be a powerful one.

 

CO2 Emissions reduction

There is a million things you could do to when it comes to your carbon footprint and thereby your influence on climate change that is impacting the smallest organisms of the ocean to the largest cetaceans. Traditional feeding grounds might shift or deplete completely because of warmer waters that some cold water fish can‘t inhibit. Opening ice means less sheltered places for species like the narwhal that their predators – the orca couldn‘t reach before. Cut the car: bikes, buses, skateboards, feet – use them! It´s good for the environment, and the more active you are yourself, also for your health.

For more information, check here:

europa.eu/youth/get-involved/sustainable-development/how-reduce-my-carbon-footprint_en

And for a full guide, refer to here:

www.nytimes.com/guides/year-of-living-better/how-to-reduce-your-carbon-footprint

A good way of general thinking is to make „Reuse, Recycle, Repair“ your official motto and guideline for all kinds of consumer choices and everyday decisions.

Keep the ocean trash free - Whale conservation

 

Get active!

Volunteering is a great opportunity to get close to your beloved whales and dolphins, while at the same time get hands on in whale conservation work. You can contribute to the conservation efforts of these magnificent creatures. You can also join activities such as identification projects to help understand their migration and distribution. There are countless providers and offers and you can easily find them online.

You can find programs here, but there are many other websites too:

Wherever you might be living, join some local clean ups if you can. There is likely some water body close to you and so any material will be transported into the ocean sooner or later. You can prevent that by helping your community to stay clean. This is one of the most direct and rewarding ways to fight (ocean) plastic pollution. You can also  go to a waterway and collect waste on your own or with friends or family. Even make a competition out of it, with the one collecting most rubbish winning a prize, if that´s something your group of people would enjoy. Just be creative about it and make it fun.

Cleaning up beaches - Whale conservation

 

Join Citizen Science Projects

Science often sounds boring or dry, but this is actually fun. You get to take all the beautiful shots of the animals – especially the flukes of humpbacks and dorsal fins of orcas and upload them, so that scientists can identify them and thereby deduce their migration routes and different kinds of behaviour that might then eventually lead to management strategies like Marine Mammal Protected Areas or legislation regarding reduced speed among others. Check these pages among others:

Donate

Lots of research is needed to understand these beautiful cetaceans. This understanding will make it easier to make good management decisions and lead to science based best practices for responsible whale watching among other activities (fishing). You could help organisations keeping their amazing work up by supporting them financially. There are also lots of programs out there to adopt whales and dolphins. It´s a wonderful way to support an individual that you are particularly interested in and observe how its doing.

You can find examples here:

 

Visit whale-friendly restaurants while in Iceland and help whale conservation

People want to try whale meat for different reasons during their stay in Iceland. It might be sheer curiosity for the taste or because it is marketed as a traditional Icelandic dish. However, this is a marketing lie: in a 2018 survey only 2% of Icelanders reported that they eat whale meat regularly, which means six times or more per year. 84% said they had never eaten it!

Tourists are now creating the highest demand for whale meat in Iceland. The meat came from minke whales- hunted right here in Faxafloi Bay. Since the COVID pandemic, the company has stopped its activity. However, one company remains that continued the hunt of the vulnerable fin whales in 2022 again.

But things are changing: between 2009 and 2017, the number of tourists who said they tried whale meat dropped by 70%. Now less than 10% of the restaurants in Reykjavik offer whale meat, while more than half signed up to be “whale friendly”. The pressure is increasing. Please only visit these ones, if you want to encourage change. You can often find them with the help of the logo: „Meet us, don‘t eat us“ as shown below.

You can also sign a petition to end whaling in Iceland here:Meet us, don't eat us! Whale conservation

Some good news at the end: the Fisheries minister said that whaling no longer seems to be a profitable activity as demand dwindles. Therefore it seems likely that whaling might be stopped in 2024, when current licenses will expire. Hurray!

 

See things in perspective

Things can look very dire in some of the documentaries and the news you can find online. Big issues like by-catch, whaling, plastic and noise pollution, entanglements and climate change: the list is endless of what is going wrong and how much cetacean species are suffering. I’m certainly not here to tell you that it´s all not so bad. What I want to point out to you is that there is another side of the coin: Things are actually getting better in many ways. Just some examples: following the whaling moratorium, the population of Western gray whales increased from 115 individuals in 2004 to 174 in 2015. The western south Atlantic humpback population, which numbered fewer than 1,000 for nearly 40 years, has recovered to close to 25,000. Also in the north Atlantic, including Icelandic waters, populations have recovered to perhaps pre-whaling levels and number over 12,000 animals. The population of bowhead whales in the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort seas has been increasing annually at over 3% since 1978 and may be approaching pre-exploitation levels. In 2011 its abundance was nearly 17,000 animals. The majestic blue whale is recovering throughout its range.

Many populations and species are slowly recovering (while others are continuing to decrease). Our perception of cetaceans has changed and we start to care more about them. Instead of hunting and killing them, we often choose to join whale watching tours in order to see them. Around 100 million people from high income countries have participated in whale watching at some time, a figure that is increasing by 10 million each year.

As an individual I often feel overwhelmed about how little influence I really have on all the pressures and systematic issues there are that are affecting cetaceans and other animals and their ecosystems around the globe. I try to take a minimalist, but optimistic approach. Everything I do or change out of love and compassion for another species is already a tiny step that wouldn’t have been made, if I didn’t care. And as awareness and respect are rising in many individuals we can really transform our lifestyles and make a difference within our lifetime. The beautiful humpback whale is already projected to make a full recovery to pre-whaling numbers by 2050 .

 

Written by Daniel Blankenheim

Beluga whale - whale conservation

Resources

Plastic pollution

  1. https://www.oceanicsociety.org/resources/7-ways-to-reduce-ocean-plastic-pollution-today/
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment
  3. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/animals-eat-ocean-plastic-because-of-smell-dms-algae-seabirds-fish
  4. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2018/05/11/can-fight-plastic-pollution/

Whaling

  1. https://www.paciorg/blog/ways-to-save-the-whales/
  2. https://www.ifaw.org/international/journal/saving-whales-iceland-ifaw-approach-jalou-langeree
  3. https://www.ifaw.is/
  4. https://www.ifaw.is/history/
  5. https://uk.whales.org/our-4-goals/stop-whaling/whaling-in-iceland/
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whaling_in_Iceland
  7. https://grapevine.is/news/2022/03/23/company-aims-to-hunt-whales-this-summer/

Whale Watching

  1. https://icewhale.is/

Whale recovery

  1. https://www.awe.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/cetacean-snapshot.pdf

Fish Eating

  1. https://uk.whales.org/our-4-goals/prevent-deaths-in-nets/

Lifestyle changes

  1. https://europa.eu/youth/get-involved/sustainable-development/how-reduce-my-carbon-footprint_en

Whale Watching Midnight Sun Tour

The 21st of June marks the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. On this day, the sunset is at midnight and it raises again less than 3 hours later, the longest day of the year. The months around it also have almost 24 hours of daylight: from mid-may to mid-august is virtually never dark! We don´t get to see the famous aurora borealis by this time of the year but we are able to do something much fun: seeing whales on the Whale Watching Midnight Sun Tour!
These tours start on the 15th of June and it goes only to the end of July so you can´t miss this chance! The trip lasts for 2 to 2,5 hours (from 9 to 11 pm) and it’s the best time to see a beautiful twilight if you want to skip a few hours of sleep. And you must be wondering if the whales aren´t sleeping this time of the day too!

 

Whale Watching Midnight Sun

In most mammals, the pineal gland is stimulated by brightness levels, so in the dark, it produces melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy and tells us the time to go to bed. However, whales are thought to lack the pineal gland or it is even non-functional in several species. In fact, it is known that whales and dolphins do sleep: they need to rest but they can not forget to breathe, which made them evolve a superpower! They will shut down half of the brain time by time in order to be aware of when they need to reoxygenate their bodies. But, as most part of them can´t stay any longer than 30 minutes under the water, they will do it several times during the whole day, and not only during the night. 

Whale Watching Midnight Sun

Another point that works in our favor, is that humpbacks and minkes, are especially here in Iceland to feed. They are migratory animals that have winter-breeding and summer-feeding grounds, sometimes separated by miles away from each other! Especially in the case of the humpbacks, they will travel to the warmer water for more than 15 thousand kilometers without feeding at all, fasting for over 6 months of the year. So here, they will be constantly looking for food, small fish just like capelin and also krill, and these ones, baby, they never sleep! The whales will be constantly looking for food and this intensive hunting will make them eat (in the case of the humpbacks) up to a ton of food each day in order to gain a big fat layer called blubber, which will be used during reproduction and lactation.

Whale Watching Midnight Sun

So if you are afraid of going to see whales sleeping during this tour (although I think this would be also very cool!) don´t worry! You gonna join a very chilled tour, usually more private, with the fewer “night owls” that don´t get tired at all or perhaps have too functional pineal glands to sleep well on these bright Icelandic nights! You´re gonna get the most beautiful scenery of the day, with a wonderful sunset light for your pictures, and records on your memory for a lifetime! So if you like to have a different experience or if you are just having some trouble sleeping in this special and unique place in the world you chose for your holidays, we and the whales are going to be waiting for you to have the experience you will never forget! I will see you later!!

– Dominique Gallo

When you’re out at sea on a whale watching tour, the best thing to do is to always be on the lookout for whales and birds – the more eyes we have around the boat, the better our chances of spotting something!  

Of course, it helps to know what you’re looking for. Whales and dolphins are marine mammals, so although they live their whole lives in the sea, they do have to come up for air. When they are at the surface is when we have a chance of seeing them: keep an eye out for the back and dorsal fin cutting through the water. If you’re lucky, you may see a breach – this is when cetaceans throw their whole bodies out of the water, which makes them difficult to miss!  

whales and birds

A humpback whale breaching. Photo from Special Tours. 

But remember, it’s not just the cetaceans themselves you should keep an eye out for. There are other important cues that can help when searching for whales at sea. The first of these is the blow – the puff of air as a whale exhales after coming back to the surface to breathe. This is especially important for larger whales, as their blow may be seen from several kilometers away! 

Seabirds are a particularly important cue for us – especially if they are feeding. Seabirds are often easier to spot as they are mostly airborne, while cetaceans are almost always in the water. This makes cetaceans much harder to spot, as they may either be completely submerged, or obscured by poor weather conditions such as waves and swell. 

Certain interactions between seabirds and cetaceans are well known, both anecdotally and in research carried out by biologists. Cetaceans and seabirds can have a very similar diet, and they are often seen feeding in the same area on the same prey. It is thought that cetaceans make prey easier to catch for seabirds by forcing it closer to the surface, within diving depth, or by herding it into large, dense aggregations. However, it is also possible that feeding seabirds could alert nearby cetaceans to a prey patch, or that they can take advantage of the hunting behaviour of seabirds. 

In this blog post, we will introduce to you some of the species of seabirds you might spot on your whale watching tour, and which cetaceans they might be hanging out with. 

Auks 

This family of birds contains puffins, guillemots, and razorbills. Auks are amazing at swimming, but not so great at flying! They can dive to considerable depths while hunting – common guillemots, for example, have been recorded going as deep as 180m. 

whales and birds

The top three auks in Iceland: common guillemot, Atlantic puffin, and razorbill. Common guillemot and razorbill from Natural England. 

About 60% of all the Atlantic puffins in the world breed in Iceland, so they are very common here in summertime. They make a great subject for photographers, with their brightly coloured beak and legs. 

If you see auks, keep an eye out for: 

Gannets 

Few seabirds are as easy to identify as the gannet. They have a white body, yellowish head, and black wingtips, and are larger than most gulls. However, the most distinctive thing about them by far is how they hunt: by folding their wings and plunging into the water from a height, snatching fish at high speeds.

whales and birds 

A gannet searching for its prey. 

Research into the hunting behaviour of gannets off the coast of South Africa found that they seem to spend more searching for dolphins or other gannets than they spend looking for their prey itself. Once one gannet finds a patch of food, others quickly join the feeding frenzy – with so many gannets diving into the water, these feeding aggregations are visible from quite some distance. 

If you see gannets, keep an eye out for: 

Gannets are known to feed alongside almost every species of cetacean in the North Atlantic, but interactions are most commonly reported with these two species. 

Shearwaters 

Manx Shearwaters are a very small species of seabird. Their main breeding colony is in Vestmannaeyjar and they can be seen all along the southwest coast of Iceland. There are two other species of shearwater which could be spotted in Iceland: the great shearwater and the sooty shearwater, both of which breed in the southern hemisphere and migrate to the northern hemisphere for the boreal summer. 

whales and birds

A Manx shearwater taking off from the sea surface. Photo from Electronic collection of Georgia birds. 

Manx shearwaters often sit in large groups on the water’s surface – a behaviour called rafting. Some rafts can be as large as several thousand birds! 

If you see shearwaters, keep an eye out for: 

Kittiwakes 

Kittiwakes are small gulls – they look similar to other types of gull, such as the herring and common gulls, but can be distinguished by their black legs and feet. They breed in colonies on cliffs which can be heard before they are seen! Kittiwakes are very noisy birds. In fact, they are named after the noise they make: a screech that sounds as if they are saying ‘kittiwake’. 

whales and birds

A kittiwake on the cliff of its breeding colony. Photo from Natural England. 

If you see kittiwakes, keep an eye out for: 

Other species 

whales and birds

Some other birds to keep an eye out for: northern fulmar, European storm petrel, great skua, and Arctic tern. Storm petrels from The Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds, Arctic tern from Eric Sonstroem. 

 

By Eilidh 

Photos by the author unless otherwise credited. 

Migration is the regular, repeated movement of an individual or group of individuals between two or more locations. Migration usually occurs over relatively long time scales – periods of weeks or months rather than hours or days. 

Among cetaceans, migration is most well known in baleen whales. Most species migrate between polar and temperate feeding areas in summer and subtropical to tropical breeding and calving areas in winter. These are large-scale, seasonal movements, that most (if not all) of a population undertakes. 

Why Do Whales Migrate

Gray whales are champion migrators, travelling up to 25,000km on their annual round trip from Mexico to Siberia. Image from the International Whaling Commission.

But why bother? These long journeys are very energetically costly, especially for pregnant females or mothers with young calves. In addition to this, while temperate and polar regions – baleen whale feeding grounds – are rich in prey, the tropics are relatively sparse and finding prey there can be difficult. At first glance, migration doesn’t appear to have much benefit to whales. 

There are four main theories that explain why baleen whales make these arduous journeys every year. 

Cold water 

One theory is that whales move away from their feeding grounds before calves are born because these cold waters would pose a risk to the young calves. However, smaller marine mammals than baleen whale calves can endure these seas year-round, so the low temperature may not present much of a risk to the relatively large calf. Perhaps a more pertinent concern would be the rough and dangerous sea conditions in temperate and polar regions over winter.  

Following food 

Although these colder regions are much richer in marine life – and therefore prey – during summer, they are ruled by the seasons. In winter, food becomes more scarce. After taking full advantage of the summer boom near the poles, the warmer, tropical seas have enough to provide for baleen whales during their ‘fasting’ season.

Escaping killers 

Killer whales, despite being cetaceans themselves, are the most significant threat to baleen whale calves. Although this apex predator is found throughout the world, killer whales are less abundant in the tropics than in temperate regions. Therefore, migrating to these relatively safe, warm waters before giving birth to their calves means that baleen whales can keep their young out of the reach of predators when they are at their most vulnerable stage. 

Ancestral heritage 

The fourth and final suggested driver of migration is that it is part of their heritage and culture – baleen whales migrate like this because their ancestors did. In the past, when colder waters were nearer to the equator than they currently are, these migrations would not have been as long. Therefore, the energetic benefit would have been much greater: a season of intensive feeding in very rich, cold water increases the whales’ energy reserves which in turn increases their chances of successful reproduction. Over time, as cold water retreated poleward and ice masses melted, these migrations became gradually longer and longer. 

Although general consensus now is that killer whale predation is probably the most important driver of migratory behaviour, any or all of these factors could be involved. 

Most of the baleen whales that we see around Iceland are migratory, visiting to feast on the rich array of plankton and fish in the waters here over summer. But not all baleen whales make the trip back south – some stay over winter without returning to the breeding grounds. This is evidence that baleen whales do not have to migrate. 

Indeed, some do not migrate at all. Notably, the bowhead whale remains in freezing Arctic waters for the whole year; although they move seasonally between different regions, this species does not undertake long journeys between distinct feeding and breeding grounds, nor do they undergo migratory fasts. At the other extreme, Bryde’s whales live in tropical regions for the whole year and do not migrate to colder feeding grounds. And, despite generally being a migratory species, the population of fin whales in the Mediterranean do not migrate either.

Although the term ‘migration’ is most associated with the great whales and their immense annual journeys, this is just one way in which cetaceans migrate. For example, killer whales in Iceland move between different regions at different times of year. This migration is not associated with distinct breeding and feeding grounds: the killer whales migrate because their prey do. Icelandic herring move between their overwintering grounds and their summer spawning grounds, and the killer whales follow them.

 

Why Do Whales Migrate

Icelandic herring shoals migrate between their overwintering grounds and their summer spawning sites. Image from Jakobsson and Stefánsson, 1999. 

Not all Icelandic killer whales are herring specialists, and not all of them have seasonal movements that are closely tied to the herring. For example, some killer whales which feed on herring in Iceland during the winter travel to the north of Scotland in summer to hunt seals there. 

Whether they are herring specialists or have a taste for seal, Icelandic killer whales follow their prey. These movements are regular, repeated, and cover long distances and time scales – in other words, a migration!  

So there are many reasons why whales and dolphins migrate, and many different ways in which they do so. From the record-breaking pilgrimage that gray whales make up and down the Pacific coast of America, to the sea ice-dictated movements of beluga whales between open sea and coastal estuaries, to the killer whales which follow their prey on their own migration. Cetaceans, it seems, are ruled by the seasons just like us. And here in Iceland we should be especially grateful for this, as it is the changing of the seasons that brings these wonderful creatures back to our shores, year after year. 

 

Written by Eilidh

Why go whale watching in Iceland? 

Iceland is a cetacean hot-spot. Twenty-three species of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been recorded in these seas – that is about one quarter of all the known species in the world! 

If you want to learn more about these many different kinds of whales, we recommend a visit to Whales of Iceland, where you can experience the true scale of these gentle giants as if you were swimming alongside them. Several of these twenty-three species are not seen very often – some are only occasional visitors to Iceland, and some are just very shy – so this is a great way to get to know them all. 

But of course, there is no better way to encounter whales and dolphins than to see them in their natural environment. 

Deciding where, when, and how to go whale watching can be tricky. There are a lot of questions involved in planning a trip – but don’t worry, because we have the answers! This guide covers everything you need to know about whales and whale watching in Iceland, including: 

 

Why are there so many whales around Iceland? 

Seasons in polar and sub-polar regions are extreme. In winter, there is very little light, which means that phytoplankton – microscopic aquatic plants that make their food from sunlight – cannot survive. Phytoplankton are the base of every food chain in the ocean. Without them, there is little food available for any marine animal. 

But in summer, days are long, with almost constant sunlight! In these conditions, phytoplankton flourish: growing into colossal phytoplankton blooms that can stretch over hundreds of miles of water. 

Whales and whale watching in Iceland

 

The swirling blue-green area in this satellite image is a phytoplankton bloom – this one stretches about 150km down the west coast of Iceland. Image from NASA. 

Very small animals called zooplankton time their life cycle so that they emerge at the peak of the phytoplankton blooms. The zooplankton rely on phytoplankton for food, but they themselves are food for many, many other animals! 

This intense seasonal ‘boom and bust’ cycle means that Icelandic seas are teeming with life during summertime, and this attracts some of the largest animals on Earth. 

 

What whales can you see around Iceland, and where is the best place to see them? 

 

Common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) 

The common minke whale is the smallest baleen whale to be found in Iceland. True to their name, they are most numerous marine mammal in Icelandic coastal waters during summer. 

Their distribution in this part of the North Atlantic has changed over the past two decades, so while they are still a common sight in nearshore waters, they are now seen less frequently off the southeast coast than before. There has also been a reported decline in sightings from whale watching vessels in Skjálfandi Bay, which is also probably linked to a change in their distribution. 

 

Best place to see them? 

Whales and whale watching in IcelandWhales and whale watching in Iceland

What to look out for: 

 

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) 

Once hunted intensively, there were very few humpbacks in Iceland up to about 1970. Happily, their recovery has been relatively rapid compared to many of the other great whales, and it is thought that the population here levelled off in around 2000. 

Humpback whales come all the way to Iceland from their breeding grounds in the warm waters of the West Indies. Although most humpbacks only come to feed here in summer, not all individuals make the return trip south – so there is a good chance you could see some humpbacks in winter too. 

 

Best place to see them? 

Whales and whale watching in IcelandWhales and whale watching in Iceland

What to look out for: 

 

White-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) 

Iceland receives several ‘visiting’ species of dolphins, such as bottlenose, common, and striped dolphins, but the white-beaked dolphin is one of the only dolphins resident in Icelandic waters for the whole year. They are also the most numerous dolphins in Iceland. 

 

Best place to see them? 

Whales and whale watching in Iceland

What to look out for: 

 

Killer whale (Orcinus orca) 

Killer whales, or orcas, are the largest member of the dolphin family. It is thought that killer whales in Iceland feed mostly on herring, but some individuals have a more varied diet and will hunt other fish and even marine mammals. 

Killer whales can be found in Iceland at any time of year. However, they have seasonal residency in different locations – which is thought to be linked to the migrations of Icelandic herring – so to see them you have to be in the right place at the right time! 

 

Best place to see them? 

Whales and whale watching in IcelandWhales and whale watching in Iceland

What to look out for: 

 

Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) 

The smallest cetacean to be found in Iceland, harbour porpoises are probably quite common – however, they are very difficult to spot! They are a shy species that typically avoid boats, and they don’t breach or bow-ride like dolphins. In grey, choppy waters they look an awful lot like waves! It takes a lot of luck and a good eye to see a harbour porpoise here. 

 

Best place to see them? 

Whales and whale watching in Iceland

What to look out for: 

 

Long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) 

Long-finned pilot whales are another large dolphin species. They feed at depths of 200m or more and are found most often in areas of deep water. Pilot whales do on occasion come into shallower water, which can lead to a mass stranding – something this species is unfortunately famous for. 

 

Best place to see them? 

Whales and whale watching in Iceland

What to look out for: 

 

Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) 

The largest animal on Earth can be seen in Icelandic waters during summer when, like the humpbacks, they come to take advantage of the massive supply of food here. Blue whales in Iceland are part of a larger population that inhabits the whole Northeast Atlantic. Some blue whales photographed off the Icelandic coast have been resighted as far away as Svalbard, the Azores, and Mauritania! 

Blue whales have not recovered quite as rapidly from commercial whaling as the other baleen whales, but sightings did increase from about 1970 until the turn of the century – particularly in the north and west. 

 

Best place to see them? 

Whales and whale watching in Iceland

What to look out for: 

 

Whale watching – by land or by sea? 

Going whale watching on a boat gives you the best chance of seeing whales. By getting out into more open water and into their environment you can get much closer to them, and experience whales and dolphins in their home. 

But it is also possible to see whales from land, if you get lucky! 

The team at Whale Wise have created a series on the best spots in Iceland to see whales from land – check it out on their Facebook or Instagram! These locations have been identified as particularly good whale watching sites based on a combination of researchers’ experiences in the field and local knowledge. 

Whales and whale watching in Iceland

Here are some parts of Iceland where you can see whales from land. If you’re in these regions, be sure to keep one eye on the sea – you never know what will pop up! Image from Whale Wise. 

The Iceland Whale Sightings Facebook group is another great resource for whale watchers and budding citizen scientists; check for any recent sightings in your area of Iceland, and share your own encounters! 

Finally, remember: nature is unpredictable, and wildlife is, well, wild! Even in a cetacean hot-spot like Iceland you can never be completely sure that whales will show up when you need them to. But by following the advice in this guide, you can maximise your chances of a successful whale-watching trip – whether it’s by land or by sea. 

 

Good luck, and happy whale watching!

Author: Eilidh O.

Fagradalsfjall is a mountain located in the Geldingadalir valley on the Reykjanes Peninsula in the south of Iceland.

It is classified as a tuya, which is a steep volcano that is flattened on the top, formed when lava erupts under a glacier or ice sheet. Fagradalsfjall has been dormant for roughly 6,000 years, but is now active again as a shield volcano eruption. The Reykjanes peninsula is part of a volcanic system. The last eruption on the peninsula was roughly 800 years ago when an eruption event occurred in the 13th century. This eruption at Valahnúkur lasted from 1210-1240. The current eruption event is not the formation of a new volcano, but instead fissure eruptions and large amounts of lava flow escaping from beneath the earth. This area has over 50,000 earthquakes in the weeks before the eruption began on March 19th, 2021. The eruption is being called Geldingadalsgos (Geldingadalur eruption).

As of April 14th, eight additional fissures have opened around the original eruption site.

The original fissure eruption was between 500-700 meters long. It began to build up and break down spatter cones, which are mounds of cooled lava. The fifth and sixth fissures opened on April 13th, and two additional fissures were reported on the 14th. The lava continues to build spatter cones and lava flows continued into the Geldingadalir and Meradalir valleys. All of the openings appear to be along the same volcanic fissure and appear to have no impact on the lava flow. Additional fissures are expected to open and visitors are advised to take care. Scientists at the University of Iceland published data on April 12th that indicates that the lava covers a surface area of roughly 0.75 km/2. The lava output is estimated to be around 5-8 m3/s. The lava emerging from the eruption is believed to come from a magma reservoir in the mantle, roughly 17-20 km below the crust. The eruption site has released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen fluoride. This gas pollution has been heavy around the eruption site during some days, causing the authorities to temporarily close for public safety.

The eruption site is proving to be a popular attraction for locals and tourists alike.

From the beginning of the eruption to April 13th the Icelandic Tourist Board reported that some 41,923 people had visited the eruption site. Videos and photos have been posted of people playing volleyball, cooking hot dogs and roasting marshmallows, and having picnics. There have also been proposals and even a wedding at the site! There are some potential dangers of high levels of gas pollution. Otherwise, Fagradalsfjall poses no immediate danger to surrounding areas as the eruption site is not near any roads or inhabited places. This is also a different type of eruption than Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which released huge amounts of ash into the air causing massive flight interruptions across Europe. There is a small chance that the eruption could reach the roads if the lava flow continues at the same speed for the next several weeks.

You may not have heard of Fagradalsfjall before, but it is a place of significance in several ways.

Fagradalsfjall was the site of a plane crash on May 3rd, 1943. The crash killed fourteen people, including Lieutenant General Frank Maxwell Andrews. Andrews was a senior officer of the U.S. Army and one of the founders of the U.S. Air Force. The site was also the location for the famous Icelandic artist Björk‘s music video Black Lake, released in 2015. Fagradalsfjall is also suspected to be a significant archaeological site of a potential pre-Christian burial. Ísólfur at Ísólfsskáli, an early settler of Iceland, is said to have been buried there according to a place name register. An archaeologist was on site to attempt to determine if this area was actually a grave, but unfortunately was unable to confirm before the lava covered it.

Our head guide, Jonathan, visited the eruption site at the end of March. You can see his video here!

The Volcanic Eruption at Fagradalsfjall

Fagradalsfjall Volcanic Eruption – mbl.is/Kristinn Magnússon

 

The Volcanic Eruption at Fagradalsfjall

Lava at Fagradalsfjall – mbl.is/Kristinn Magnússon