If you’re driving around Ring Road, when you’re up north you’ll pass very close to the town of Hvammstangi. There aren’t a ton of things to see around this part of Iceland, so the wooden sign in the shape of a seal might catch your attention. (I don’t think I took a picture of the sign, but you can see it here!)
That sign advertises the Icelandic Seal Center, which is a museum and research center. The museum is nice (and it’s just down the street from a grocery store, which can be few and far between in this part of the country!) More on the museum later. At the museum you can purchase tickets for a seal watching boat ride. That gets you a roughly 90 minute boat ride out to some places where seals like to lounge about.
There’s the boat you’ll be on; it sits about a 1 minute walk from the museum. Our first interaction with the guide, and possibly yours as well, will be the guide trying to talk you out of the tour. It can be a rough ride based on the weather and wind; full refunds are offered freely if you don’t think you’re up for it. I liked this– they definitely don’t want you to have a bad experience!
We went for it, and the ride out was indeed rough; the front of the boat bobbed up and down dramatically. But we didn’t feel seasick, and no one else on the boat seemed to have any problems either. I think there’s a time factor at play here. It’s maybe a 25 minute ride each way, and maybe 10 minutes of that was rough and … undulating. That wasn’t enough time for us to feel sick.
You’ll get a waterproof orange coat to wear. This added a layer of warmth as well, but you’ll still want some additional warm layers. And a hat and gloves aren’t a bad idea either, though we had a beautiful warm(ish) day.
We went to two different spots to see seals, though I assume this can vary by where the seals are at any point in time. The first stop had tons of seals; maybe 30 or 40. You’re not getting super close, but you can definitely recognize these as seals; the view without binoculars will look something like this:
It doesn’t look like a bad life, huh?
The boat was calm while we were stopped or moving slowly in this area. Then we headed a few minutes over to a different spot, where we got closer:
That picture is zoomed in, but I had to show how amazingly comfortable that seal looks draped over his rock. This should be in a commercial for something. Mattresses?
The guide provides binoculars that let you see the seals much better. We tended to go back and forth between using the binoculars and just looking at the seals directly. Well, and taking pictures too.
After spending time at both seal watching spots we started the journey back home. The guide broke out the snacks on the way back: Hot chocolate and two types of pastries. One was a “cinnamon snail” (Kanilsnúðar, I think) which is like a cinnamon roll cookie, but with no icing. The other was a small fried donut. Both were very good, and both were homemade by the captain’s wife! These were definitely a step up from the packaged pastries I’ve eaten on whale watching trips.
The guide was excellent. He answered questions, and explained the different types of seals in Iceland and what the life of a seal is like. He even looked up the English name for a bird we asked about. I’ve mentioned lots of little touches: binoculars, a good guide, homemade pastries. All of this added up to an enjoyable outing.
The tour costs 8500 ISK for adults, 4500 ISK for kids 7-15, and is free for 6 and under. You also receive admission to the Icelandic Seal Center included in those prices. The museum would otherwise cost 1100 ISK for adults and 750 ISK for kids 12-16. The museum is small, but nice. Don’t miss the movie to your right as you walk in; it’s a half hour of seal education. And there are some nice displays as well as research papers to peruse.
Boat tours run from May 15th through September 30th; check their web site for more information. Oh, and here’s the separate web site for the museum, which is open year-round. Boat tours leave at 10 AM, 1 PM, and 4 PM. Note that the museum closes at 4 PM in the summer, so you’ll have to see the museum before your 4:00 tour.
The guide told me that tours almost never sell out. So you can safely head up to Hvammstangi and decide if you want to take the boat ride based on weather and ocean conditions.
The seal watching boat tour was a nice outing. It’s cheaper than whale watching, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see seals. And there’s less “driving time” compared to whale watching, where the boat may head out at full speed for an hour to find the whales.
Hvammstangi is also home to the Kidka Wool Factory Outlet, which usually offers small scraps of wool for free, along with larger very inexpensive wool scraps. (They offer a lot more wool products too, but the free and cheap stuff was unique!) This isn’t a must do in Iceland, but it’s an enjoyable, memorable, and educational trip. At least in nice weather.