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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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Iceland 2013: Saga #11 Winter whale watching-a crazy idea or simply brilliant after all!

This blog entry will be a two-parter and is written by our good friends and colleagues at Elding Whale Watching in Reykjavik. (www.elding.is). Here, María Björk Gunnarsdóttir, introduces us to Iceland’s winter whale watching opportunities. Nowadays a lot of emphasis is being put on promoting Iceland as a whole year destination. Marketing the winters is now the main focus due to the summer months already attracting more than enough tourists each year. The winter weather however can be troublesome due to its unpredictability which is ever more interchangeable during this season. This has given a perplexed feeling to Icelanders about increasing tourism during this time of year. A few years ago whale watching was one activity that no one could even imagine being run in winter, come to think of it, in the mid 90s whale watching in general sounded like an absurd idea to most Icelanders. The most vocal claims were simply that there weren’t any whales around in winter and comments about weather often followed. The team at Elding Whale Watching Reykjavik, with a crazy idea in their mind, proved them wrong already in 2008. Their winter tours have provided both an exciting and adventurous experience for their guests and now winter whale watching is one of the best examples of winter tourism in Iceland. This is how the Elding team looks at the difference between whale watching in summer and winter. The first point we would like to make is quite obvious – the weather! In general it is much colder and windier and we have unfortunately more cancellations in wintertime. Of course we do our best to make tours as comfortable and enjoyable for our guests as possible. In wintertime most of our guests stay in the heated indoor saloon on the way out to the whale watching grounds and on the way back to port. They also make good use of our warm overalls when outside watching the whales. Despite the cold, most of the tours we do are absolutely amazing and the low-lying winter sun and snow-capped mountains truly make it special.

It is not only the weather that makes these winter tours different but the cetacean species differ as well. Iceland being mainly feeding grounds there comes a time each autumn when the migrating whales leave us for the warmer waters in the south. The species that are most common in the wintertime are those feeding on the herring, which is more abundant at this time as the Norwegian stocks come together with the Icelandic stocks. Thus, the main species we see from largest to smallest are; the humpback whale, orca, white-beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises. Occasionally, other species are sighted as well such as; minke, blue, and fin whales which are either staying behind or on their way south. Running the winter tours we soon discovered that being resourceful was more important than ever before. This means that we needed to keep all options open and if the weather wasn’t favourable from Reykjavík we had another boat located in a harbour on the Reykjanes peninsula. We have therefore come to good terms with the harbour masters in Hafnarfjörður, Keflavík, Sandgerði and Grindavík. Operating from these optional areas we’ve also made good contact amongst the local fishermen who know the area better than anyone. Reykjavík Old harbour is still the heart of our business, but in winter we often transport our passengers to and from these other harbours via bus at no extra cost. As a result we spend less time sailing, more time with the whales and in better conditions.

Tips for enjoying the winter whale watching tours: Dress warmly, dress warmly, dress warmly… Hats, gloves and scarves are essential along with a warm sweater. Non-skid shoes and warm socks are also advisable and don’t be shy to put on the warm overalls provided on board. This may not be the most fashionable outfit but keeping in mind that the weather conditions along the coast are often windy with slightly colder temperatures out on the water you’ll soon discover why we encourage guests to wear them. Do your research, the whales move freely and some days are definitely better than others. Elding writes a blog “Whale Diary” with daily updates on sightings. Check out the weather forecast, be flexible and take the crews advice on when is the best day to go whale watching. Bring a camera along with a plastic bag to cover it in case it rains and a pair of binoculars. Sunglasses come in handy on bright sunny winter days as the sun is quite low on the horizon Be open and make the most out this interesting adventure, even if you don’t manage to experience on first attempt what you had hoped for. On non-sighting and poor sighting tours Elding offers complimentary tickets for guests to come again. Elding’s winter whale watching video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGSSV9GKTok&feature=share&list=UURK1u1Z4OlJuuyIeCpqDOIw