A friend of mine owns a house by the sea in Steingrímsfjörður, a beautiful tranquil heaven on Earth where you can sit on the porch for hours on end and feel the urban stress just drip off your fingertips. It is one of those places where if you sit still long enough, you might very well see a whale. Usually, you see turbulence in the water as a school of fish tries to escape a feeding whale or if the weather is very still you sometimes hear their blowholes before spotting them out in the fjord. If you’re super lucky you might even see a whale jump up, right in front of your eyes. Sound like a fairytale? That’s because these are truly magical creatures and like the Nordic lights, I will never cease to be amazed by the sight of them or marvel at the wonder that they are.
The center of much controversy in the last few decades, these magnificent beasts are both common and popular sights off the coast of Iceland, one of the last countries in the world to still hunt whale (minke whale and fin whale). Whaling ships and whale watching ships dock next to each other at the city harbor, much to the dismay of, well, almost everybody.
Why whale hunting will not go quietly into the night is something of a mystery in itself, given the massive international opposition for it and there being no real market for whale meat anyway. One of the best arguments against whaling is the economic viability of whale watching, so do us all a favor and go spot a whale. You’ll find tours in Reykjavík and along the west and north coasts and your chances of seeing a whale are surprisingly good; according to the Icelandic Whale Watching Association they have a 90% success rate on their summer tours. I also highly recommend the exhibition Whales of Iceland in Reykjavík, which offers life-sized replicas of all the whales you’ll find around Iceland, complete with useful and interesting facts about whales.
So what’s so fascinating about whales? Take for instance the blue whale, Earth’s largest animal ever, as far as we know. They can reach lengths of over 30 meters and the heaviest recorded blue whale was 173 tons. That’s the length of three full-size buses and the weight of 32 Asian elephants! Despite their monstrous size they feed almost exclusively on krill, teeny-tiny crustaceans, but make up for it by eating up to 40 million of them a day. Apparently, your odds of seeing a blue whale are nowhere as likely as in Iceland.
Or the sperm whale, the oddest-looking animal I’ve ever seen and the inspiration behind Moby Dick. Its giant head, which accounts for up to one-third of its entire body, holds the world’s largest brain ever, not to mention the weirdness that is the spermaceti organ that produces the liquid wax the whales uses to make those clicking sounds.
Another strange creature is the narwhal, which up until quite recently fueled stories about a rather more mythical creature when their tusks were traded as unicorn horns. But what looks like a manmade helix is, in fact, a tooth, and it just gets weirder. You’ll be forgiven if you think it is used to break through ice and win elegant fights, but the latest theory is that it is actually a sensory organ and that when the males rub their “horns” together, they’re not actually fighting, their exchanging information about the waters they’ve been in.
As shocking as the facts are, the lack of facts is even more shocking. The incredible sounds these animals make, apparently structured songs with specific notes, are a mystery. Very little is known about the mating habits of the blue whale for example and then there are questions like; why do whales breach and why do whales strand, sometimes in great numbers? There are all kinds of theories out there, but in the end, nobody really knows. That’s the kind of stuff I like to think about when I sit in Steingrímsfjörður and wait for a whale to find me.