Reykjavik: Whale Watching

I woke up feeling nervous and excited, so I guess it was just nervous excitement. Oh my God, I’ve been dreaming about doing this and now the day has arrived! Out on a boat! In open waters! With WHALES swimming around there somewhere! How will I even deal? Will I get sick on board? When was the last time I’d been on a boat other than on a river? Will I be cold? Are those overalls they say you get uncomfortable? Will I be able to hold my camera steady? How will I FEEL if I see a whale? How close will it get? Perhaps I will just sit down on the floor of the boat and cry?

My practical inner voice overrules all these questions and barks to put on some warm tights. A little while later I’m standing outside my hotel. It’s an 8:15 AM pick-up and a quick drive to the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. It’s entirely possible to get there on your own, but since it’s only my second full day here and I’m not yet well versed in local buses, I booked a shuttle. Once at the harbour, all my nerves immediately quiet down. The water is calm, the air smells of seawater, everything is clean and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I’m also not cold, so I’m definitely dressed right! It’s immediately obvious that you can take your pick of whale watching excursions and companies, all of their small ticket houses lining one side, colorful posters, fantastic promises and Whale, hello there! included. My boat is easy to spot.

In no time at all I board the boat, and I see that our passenger crowd is split mainly in two groups: a laughing, chattering gathering of middle-aged Chinese women who exhibit levels of selfie taking obsession I have never seen before, everywhere on the boat, and a few quiet Japanese couples who carefully snap their own selfies, before sitting down and calmly waiting until we disembark. In addition, there’s a smattering of British and German tourists who stick to their own little groups. One poor English guy promptly gets grabbed by one of the Chinese ladies for a selfie and receives no answer to his “Why me?”, except giggles and imperious pointing. We’re going to be a merry party.

The overalls are hanging on the lower deck, lined up by size.

Step one, check the pockets of the suit you picked aren’t torn. Step two, check that all the zippers work. Step 3, read the instructions on how to put on the overalls. Unzip the front and leg zippers, undo the velcro cuffs, take your shoes off, and then one by one, obviously starting with the legs, stick all your limbs in. Whether you take off your coat is up to you, my suit fit comfortably over everything I was already wearing. But, caution! It might be hard to slide your shoes back on and especially to tie them up if you’re wearing sneakers or lace-up ones when you’re all…puffy.

We set sail and it’s wonderful as the boat gets further and further away from the city. Our guide; Diana, reveals that there are sea sickness pills on board, but I didn’t know that they take half an hour to work, so bummer for whoever didn’t think to take one at the beginning of the trip. By the way, there are clearly labeled SICK BAGS all over the boat, and the instructions for the overalls included a request to give it to the crew member “if vomited on” by the point of return. I don’t want to be that person. However, Diana assures us that shouldn’t be a problem as conditions are good. Also, in the 18 years of the company history no one has fallen overboard. I’m feeling fine. Oh, to be at sea.

South Iceland and the waters around Reykjavik are home to porpoises, dolphins, orcas and whales. All of these together are referred to as cetaceans when talking about sightings, so thanks to Diana, who explains this, I learn a new word. Other tips on identifying the possible proximity of a whale: water blowing up (guessed) and a certain smell – fish breath!

About an hour in to our trip we have our very first sighting of a group of white-beaked dolphins at a distance from the boat, but still close enough to see one of them jump out of the water in that fast, graceful arc before it dives again. A collective, quiet “Wow” escapes us and everyone falls silent, now in full-on sighting mode. For picture taking or filming it’s advised to hold on to something with one hand and hold the camera or your phone with the other. Preferably not extending your arm too far out beyond the railing, but that might just be me. The dolphins pop up from time to time as we sail along.

We spot some peaceful porpoises during the next half hour as well – you could say they are the smaller, plumper cousins of the dolphins, and they are adorable, although in length they can reach two meters, which is bigger than my tall dad.

We’re very far out at sea now, and I can’t see Reykjavik’s shoreline anymore. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, Diana is quiet for a while, but I notice the boat is gradually slowing down. Two other small whale watching boats, with passengers wearing life vests and sitting much closer to the water than we are, are sailing at a distance alongside us, and they do the same. Eventually we stop completely. The only sounds I hear now  is the lapping of the water and the occasional seagull. Of course, the shadows playing on the water between tiny waves make you jump a few times. And then…

Diana reports the first whale sighting, and I see it, a long, streamlined dark back just grazing the silvery surface, moving along parallel to the boat, followed by another! The excitement in Diana’s voice can be heard as she explains that is the minke whale, and it’s not often you see more than one at the same time. The two whales follow each other, then disappear beneath the surface and appear again a few minutes later. This YouTube clip gives a good view of what they look like:

I don’t cry, because I simply can’t. The first moment it was clear that something so much larger than any of us, yet so graceful, so quiet, was swimming out there, I became speechless. Seeing a whale strips you of whatever you might have imagined the encounter to be like beforehand and leaves a humbling sense of respect. We were just visitors in this environment that didn’t belong to us, among these beautiful, breath-taking creatures who are still being hunted (don’t support, 100%).

Diana sensibly reminded us during the tour that as with all wildlife, we had to be patient and there is never a fixed guarantee when and where you will see an animal. The company follows a code that is printed and taped up inside the boat. Basically, respect the whales, or the cetaceans, boats can only come closer up to a certain limit, otherwise we wait for them to come to us, not the other way around. Like I said, we are the visitors here.

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