Not all whale watching tours are created equal. Discover the best places for whale watching and which companies to trust.
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve loved marine mammals, especially whales. My bedroom walls were covered in whale posters and my bookshelf was filled with whale books. At the young age of 10, I went snorkelling with bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Sorrento in Melbourne with Moonraker. I still remember when my heart skipped a beat as I watched a mother and calf swim directly underneath me, they were so close that I could’ve touched them. This experience only spurred on my passion. Seeing a whale in the open ocean became my ultimate dream.
It wasn’t until my trip to Reykjavik, Iceland that this dream came true. In the summer of 2014, I saw the Minke Whale feeding off the coast! Minke Whales are usually solitary animals, sometimes seen in pairs or small pods and can be very elusive and hard to follow especially when feeding, and on this occasion, it was no different. While whales are known to be inquisitive and approach passing boats, I only experienced one close encounter during my two whale watching trips.
From a distance, it’s hard to gauge the size of a Minke whale when it surfaces as it happens so quickly. The inconspicuous blow appears at the same time as the head before revealing a small dorsal fin, then sinking below the surface again. Minke whales range between 7-10 metres in length and don’t raise their tails as they dive, (unlike Humpback and Sperm Whales) so it’s hard to appreciate their size. However, during my brief close encounter, I was able to glimpse its enormity as it surfaced to reveal its wide body right in front of our boat.
Whaling in Iceland
The Minke whale is one of the most common species still hunted in substantial numbers. They are hunted and slaughtered in Icelandic waters with a staggering 34-40% of their meat being eaten by visiting tourists who often have no idea that their actions are supporting the commercial whaling industry. I can’t help but feel that Minke’s in this area have become more timid and cautious around boats when I see whale watching boats leave from the same port as the whaling ships. These two very different industries operate only a few kilometres apart!
What’s worse is that some whale watching operators also support the slaughter. At the end of a tour, guides inform passengers where they can eat whale meat claiming it to be a traditional Icelandic dish. It’s worth mentioning that only 1.7% of Icelandic people regularly eat whale meat, that’s just 5,567 people!
Maria Bjork Gunnarsdottir, Marketing Manager at Elding Whale Watching argues that:
Commercial whaling in Iceland by Icelanders started in the nineteen-hundreds, so it’s not a historical part. There isn’t a market for whale meat in Iceland, it is being presented to tourists as a traditional food but it is not that traditional. I think they have just learnt that Icelandic people are not going to eat it so they have to promote it to other people.
While I was in Reykjavik I went on two tours with Elding and I can’t recommend them enough. The crew were all very passionate about the protection of whales and provided very insightful information about them and the whaling industry during the tour. Elding also conduct responsible whale watching which means they maintain a safe distance from the whales at all times. They don’t hunt them down as they move or invade their space. Instead, they will find the best spot to from which to appreciate the whales, turn off the engine and allow the whale to approach the boat in their own time. If you’re visiting Iceland during the winter months, you can keep warm with the warm overalls provided. Elding participate and support marine biologists research on wildlife in the area, so you’ll mostly likely catch scientists and photographers on board taking photos to track the whales.
If you’re visiting Iceland, be sure to steer clear of these restaurants who sell meat . Instead, look out for the whale friendly logo displayed in restaurant windows or on their menu. Click here for a list of whale friendly restaurants.
Whaling in Norway
Norway hunts minke whale’s under an ‘objection’ to the IWC’s moratorium on commercial whaling. Despite declining sales, government subsidies continue to keep a small number of fishermen hunting in the summer. Norway has aggressively fought to retain its right to hunt whales despite it being unnecessary, uneconomical and unquestionably cruel.
I don’t mean to rant about the whaling industry, it’s something I could talk about all day. I just feel that it’s important to be aware how you can easily and unintentionally support the whalers when visiting popular whale watching tour destinations such as Iceland and Norway where commercial whale still occurs.
Let’s move on to something more cheerful.
Whale Watching in Tromsø
If you’re heading to Tromsø, which lies above the Arctic Circle in Norway, then you’re in for a real treat. This was my first opportunity seeing two very different whale species, with very different hunting tactics, hunt herring fish. Kvaløya, a neighbouring island to Tromsø, meaning Whale Island is where you’ll find the acrobatic Humpback Whale and the wolf of the sea, Orca or Killer Whale. During winter, the herring enter the stunning fjords which entices these two species of whale to hunt in these waters. On each of my three whale watching tours I was enthralled by watching how both species work in unison to catch their prey.
Bubble Net Feeding Humpback Whale
The feeding strategy of the Humpback whale is by far the most interesting. Humpbacks perform what is referred to as Bubble Net Feeding. The whales dive below their prey, approximately 50 meters, and then slowly begin a spiral dance towards the surface, blowing bubbles in a circular motion. If you’re close enough you will actually see a circle of bubbles form as the whales move in this spiral formation. The purpose of the bubbles is to force the prey towards the surface near the centre of this circle. Next, you’ll see an explosion of air as the whales break the surface in the centre of this circle of bubbles, their mouths gaping wide open. Humpback whales have 14 to 35 throat grooves that run from chin to navel that facilitate the throat to expand. This expansion allows for large volumes of water and food into the mouth. As the mouth closes the whale will press down with its tongue forcing all water out through baleen plates. These baleen plates hang in rows from each side of the upper jaw. Baleen is made of a similar protein to the human fingernail; they are very strong and flexible.
Humpback whales eat up to 1,400 kg of food a day, so this process is repeated countless times during daylight hours so you’re sure to catch them during a tour.
After each round of feeding you may hear short grunts from above the surface, which to me sound either like burps or grunts of satisfaction. It’s truly spectacular!
Carousel Feeding Orcas
Orcas or Killer Whale, are easily identified by their striking tall black dorsal fin. Males have a significantly taller and straight dorsal fin reaching up to 2 metres, while females and immature orcas have a much shorter and curved dorsal fin.
Orcas are divided into three ecotypes based on their diet, which affects the wear on their teeth. Resident orcas live in cohesive family groups and eat mostly fish and squid; their teeth have the least wear. Transient orcas, which roam coastlines in small pods, eat mostly marine mammals; their teeth show large chips and cracks from biting into bone. Offshore orcas travel far out to sea and favour sharks; whose rough skin eventually files down their teeth almost to the gum line.
When hunting, Norwegian Killer Whales, which can be considered as resident orcas, have developed specific techniques to efficiently catch their prey which isn’t too dissimilar to that of the humpbacks. In the highly cooperative ‘Carousel feeding’ technique, the killer whales herd the herring in a tight ball towards the surface. After conducting various tail slaps underwater, the whales feed on the debilitated herring.
Recommended Tour Companies
To catch these majestic mammals in action I recommend taking a tour with any of these companies. All options include the use of warm suits.
Happy Whale Watching!
Over to you!
Have you been whale watching? What are your thoughts on the commercial whaling industry?
Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.
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