The Whales of Húsavík

With the help of Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir, marine biologist, we investigated the whales of Húsavík and what's gone into making this town the whale-watching capital of Iceland.

Húsavík sits on a super-scenic mountain-backed bay known as Skjálfandi, often translated into English as 'Shaky Bay'. The name is apt, since little earthquakes occur very frequently in the bay, usually without being noticed. These tremors occur because the bay sits atop a wrench fault in the Earth's crust.

Skjálfandi’s bowl-shaped topography and fresh water flowing in from two river estuaries means that there is a great deal of nutrients collecting in the bay. The nutrient deposits accumulate during the winter months, and when early summer arrives – with its long sunlit days – the cool waters of Skjálfandi bay come alive with plankton blooms. These rich deposits act like a beacon, kick-starting each year’s feeding season. This is when the whales start appearing in greater numbers.

The first to arrive are humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata). The humpback whale is known for its curious nature, equanimity and spectacular surface displays, whereas the minke whale is famous for its elegant features: a streamlined and slender black body and white-striped pectoral fin.

Several minke and humpback whales stay in the bay throughout the year, but most migrate south during winter, returning again and again. The enormous blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), undoubtedly the most exciting sight in Skjálfandi, usually starts coming in mid-June and stays until the middle of July.

Other summer sightings in Skjálfandi include the orca, also known as the killer whale (Orcinus orca; some come to the bay to feed on fish, others come to hunt mammals), northern bottlenose whales (Hyperoodon ampullatus; a mysterious, deep-diving beaked whale), fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus), sei whales (Balaenoptera borealis), pilot whales (Globicephala melas) and sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus).