Things to Do

Whale Watching in Iceland– Tips and Tricks for Families

We spent nearly 3 months in Iceland; when I ask the kids what their favorite thing was, the answer is immediate. “Whale watching!” Well, that’s the answer from some of them; some of them didn’t go. They were too worried about getting seasick on the 4 hour ride. But the rest of us tried 3 different trips; here are the tips and tricks we have learned. Knowing what I know now, I think everyone in our family could have enjoyed whale watching!

north sailing boat world better

Check the weather

Many of the bad reviews you’ll find online involve rough seas. I can’t imagine many worse things on a vacation than a sick kid stuck on a 3 or 4 hour boat ride. One way to help your chances is to check the wind forecast. The Icelandic Meteorological Office provides forecasts for the next 6 days. (It’s easy to remember the web site: en.vedur.is. “Vedur” is pronouned “vethir”, which sounds a whole lot like weather. Oh, and it also means weather.)

Let’s say you’re looking to head out from Húsavík . Check the North East station to see a map like this:

husavik good weather

The forecast for wind in Húsavík on this particular Wednesday afternoon is 1 meter per second. A meter per second is just over 2 miles per hour. That’s a nice calm time to go whale watching. But let’s say you were looking at a tour leaving from Reykjavik the same week. Here’s the weather:

Faxifloi moderate

(The weather links above will take you to the current forecast.)

Reykjavik is the point in the middle toward the bottom– the temperature forecast is 15 Celcius, and the wind forecast is 8 meters per second. That’s 17 miles per hour. I personally wouldn’t go if the wind is 5 m/s or higher, but I admit that’s somewhat arbitrary.

The good news is that I’m not totally out of the range of what’s reasonable.  The forecast above is for August 16, 2016, at 2:00 PM. Elding, the biggest boat tour company in Reykjavik, happened to offer a whale watching tour at that exact time. Here is their report about that trip:

“We sailed out in the bay, facing also some rocky waves. The conditions were not perfect to spot the wildlife. Still we counted with the bravery of our passengers who decided to stand in the outside part of the upper deck, challenging a sea that, unfortunately, kept going worse.”

To be clear, this isn’t anything against Elding– I love that they have a detailed description of every single trip they take. And they cancelled their 7 PM tour on the same day, and gave free vouchers to everyone on the 2 PM tour to come back a different day. The lesson here isn’t that Elding did anything wrong– but when I’m traveling with kids, I feel like I’m responsible for ensuring a smoother ride.

So my advice here is to not book ahead of time– wait until a day or two before your trip, and see what the weather looks like. You may get sold out, but see our tip about finding less crowded trips for why that’s okay.

Consider the time of year

You’ll have a better chance of success in the summer time. Nearly all whale watching your companies offer a guarantee regardless of the time of year. Here’s what North Sailing says: “In the unlikely event that you don’t see whales on your trip, we’ll offer you another trip, free of charge.”

Because of these guarantees, the companies keep excellent data on whether each trip spotted a whale or not. North success rates are strikingly different in the summer vs. the winter:

Average sightings success 2014: Summer 97% — Winter 60%

Yes, if you don’t see a whale, you get a second trip for free. But it’s rare that you would have the time (or energy) for another trip during your vacation. You also don’t want to be on a trip with just a single whale over 3 or 4 hours; a summer trip is more likely to result in multiple sightings.

Find less crowded whale watching trips

For almost every other part of your trip (airfare, hotels, car rental, etc.) we recommend booking ahead. But for whale watching, I think waiting is better. First, as we just covered, you can keep an eye on the weather. But also, I don’t think a sold-out whale watching trip is much fun. The boats can hold 60 or 70 people, and all of those people might be running to one side of the boat to see the whale that someone just spotted. There can be some jostling as people scramble, and it just won’t be much fun with kids (or without, honestly).

In general, tours in the late afternoon seem to have fewer people on them. The big tour group companies tend to book tours that last from, say, 9 AM until 7 PM. For example, here’s a big bus tour on Grayline: Whale Watching and Golden Circle afternoon. They do a 9 AM whale watching trip; a whale watching trip that starts at 5 PM wouldn’t fit in their schedule.

With some companies, their reservation system allows you to see exactly how many people are booked on a given trip. First, you need to figure out the baseline– the maximum number of people who they can take on a boat. You can’t do this with North Sailing, so let’s try it with Gentle Giants in Húsavík. Pick a couple of days a few months out, and see what the maximum number of tickets available to book is on any tour. I got 60:

gentle giants spaces left

(Don’t buy 60 tickets!) Then, switch back to the day you are looking at. If you can buy 47 tickets, then they’ve sold 13 tickets so far. If you can only buy 5 or 10, you may want to pass on that trip. Of course, they still may sell a lot of tickets at the last minute, but this will increase your odds of a less crowded trip.

In Reykjavik, this trick works with Reykjavik Sailors (max of 70 people). It may also work with Special Tours, but it seems like you can book for nearly 200 people? I’m not sure what’s happening there, but you may want to make sure there are a huge number of tickets remaining with them.

Consider Húsavík for whale watching

Húsavík is in the far north of Iceland, about a 6 hour drive from Reykjavik. I don’t think it makes sense to head out there just for the whale watching; you’ll most likely see whales from Reykjavik too. But if you are going to be up north, we recommend North Sailing in Húsavík. [Disclosure: North Sailing is a sponsor of the web site, but all opinions are our own.] Here are a few reasons why:

  • The guides we had were far and away the best we had on any boat ride. They were girls from Scotland, and they were always accessible and had great interactions with the kids.
  • This is luck of the draw, but we saw more whales than we knew what to do with. If there are only a few sightings on a trip, it’s a lot more stressful to make sure your kids are able to see them for those few moments.
  • North Sailing is Carbon Free. This is good for the environment, of course, but it can also make for a quieter ride. Their newest boat has an electric motor. If you want to try the new quiet electric boat Andvari , you can e-mail them (info@northsailing.is) and ask when it is sailing.

blowhole better

Check the whale watching diaries

Two of the Reykjavik whale watching companies publish daily posts with updates about their whale watching trips. Here you can find out about both the weather conditions as well as the types and quantity of whales they are seeing. In general, the different whale watching companies share information, and so most trips see nearly the same whales. So check out the Special Tours Diary and/or the Elding diary

For Húsavík, North Sailing has a diary, but it’s not updated quite as frequently.

If you’re on the fence about whether to try whale watching, you can see if it seems like they are spotting a lot of whales. If they are giving a lot of refunds, and it’s not just the weather, there may not be too many whales in the area right then.

Think about the type of whale watching boat.

You have a few options for the type of boat you’ll be in. In Húsavík, you’re likely to be in a traditional oak fishing boat, like this one from North Sailing:

north sailing whale watching oak boat

In Reykjavik, you’ll probably be on a more traditional fishing boat, like this boat from Reykjavik Sailors:

whale watching boat

A couple of companies also offer much smaller, and much faster RIB boats. RIB stands for “Rigid Inflatable Boat.” This isn’t a whale watching boat, but here’s what the RIB boats look like:

RIB boat ribsafari westman islands

RIB boats have some potential advantages:

  • They are faster. It may take regular boats an hour (each way) to get out to the whales. The RIB boat gets you there and back much faster.
  • You may see more stuff. Tour operators can add in quick detours to see puffins, which might take too much time in a regular boat.
  • You may be less likely to get seasick. The trip is shorter, and the faster boat can cut through the waves a little more.
  • You can get closer to the whales. The fast, maneuverable boats can move as soon as there is a whale sighting; a good captain can estimate the place where the whale might surface next.

Of course, there are some downsides:

  • They are more expensive. The price for adults is nearly twice as much in a RIB boat.
  • The RIB boats are not recommended for kids under 7 years.
  • The RIB boats might be less safe. This is anecdotal, but there have been some recent issues with the RIB boats. Two people broke their backs on a RIB boat.  Now, this wasn’t a whale watching trip; it was more of an adventure ride. But a whale watching company was fined for having too many people on the RIB boats. It’s tough to tell if there’s an issue here or not.

Bring medicine / sea bands

The first trip we took, we loaded up with both Dramamine and Sea Bands. As we did more boat rides, and learned to pick the calmest days, we realized we didn’t need anything at all. Still, the medicine did seem to make a difference, so you may consider having some on hand.

Many of the tour companies will provide you with anti-nausea medicine, but I’m happier to have my own. Children’s Dramamine is inexpensive, chewable, and half of the adult dose. (Read the label to make sure– typically the children’s dose is 25mg and the adult dose is 50mg.) So that one children’s package could cover your whole family– 1 per child, and 1 or 2 per adult.

We also purchased Sea Bands, which are wristbands that put pressure on an accupressure point on your wrist. Here is the kid’s size; bigger kids or adults will want the adult size. Remember, though, that you want these to be fairly tight to make sure it’s putting pressure on the right spot.

You may not need any of these, but it might provide some comfort to kids who are afraid of getting sick. Or you could also learn the spot where the Sea Bands put pressure, and teach the kids to put pressure on that spot with the fingers of their other hand.

Bring the right clothes

Most of the time, if you’re going to be outside in Iceland for several hours, you want to wear lots of layers. Our kids might wear 4 layers (wool base layer, shirt, sweater, fleece) to keep warm and keep the wind out. But most whale watching trips give you very warm overalls to wear. And my kids ended up being too hot if they wore the overalls with more than 2 layers. Here’s a picture of one kid with the overalls and one who was too hot in them:

north sailing boat overalls

The hard part is that, if it’s warm enough, they may not break out the overalls, so ironically you may need more layers in warm weather than cold weather. (You can bring a bag or backpack on board to store any layers that you or the kids end up shedding.) And in either case, you may want a hat or gloves, since the overalls don’t help those parts of your body to stay warm.

Iceland Whale Watching Recommendations

North Sailing in Húsavík is our top pick; we had a great tour with them. The tour guides on the boat were fantastic. And their customer service is excellent– I get prompt responses to all of my e-mails. See our write-up of that trip: North Sailing whale watching trip.

To be fair, all of the tour groups will do a good job. All of them get good ratings overall; complaints mainly relate to rough seas or crowded boats. The cheapest option in Reykjavik is with a new company, Reykjavik Sailors. For a little bit less money than the other tour companies (if you pre-pay), you get a whale watching trip PLUS free admission to the Whales of Iceland museum. See our write-ups here: Reykjavik Sailors whale watching, Whales of Iceland.

But you really can’t go wrong with any tour from any city. Just check the weather, try to find a less crowded trip, and go find some whales!


Thanks for looking at our live updates. For help with planning your Iceland vacation, check out our main page: www.icelandwithkids.com. Or see other live updates here. Thanks for reading!

Or, take a minute to sign up for our e-mail list. We'll send rare e-mails with curated content about traveling to Iceland. And, you'll get a chance to receive a preview copy of our book! We will not share your information.

                           

You can also join us in our new forum, and ask us any questions you may have!

This post contains a smattering of affiliate links; we only link to products we recommend. (And, in this post, to products we purchased ourselves!) We hope you think that’s a fair trade-off. Thanks!

Whale Watching in Iceland– Tips and Tricks for Families was last modified: July 15th, 2017 by Eric