Why You Need to Take a Boat Tour in Snaefellsnes

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Why You Need to Take a Boat Tour in Snaefellsnes

Guest article by Chris Ayliffe, Traveo

When travelers consider a boat tour in Iceland to see whales and/or birds, after a quick bit of googling and a couple of articles churned through, more often than not either Reykjavík or Húsavík come straight to mind. Though both of these locations are rife with whale and bird watching tours and well worth a visit, it’s actually the tours from the otherworldly terrains of the Snaefellsnes peninsula which are some of Iceland’s lesser-known hidden gems. This article shall illustrate why you need to take a boat tour in Snaefellsnes.

Snaefellsnes is more associated as a popular day tour for travelers visiting from Reykjavík to check out this spectacular mountainous region in West Iceland commonly referred to as ‘Iceland in miniature’. Visitors will flock to the famous sites of the Búðir black church, Snaefellsjökull glacier, the quaint fishing towns of Arnarstapi and Hellnar, as well as the most popular attraction of Kirkjufell, but often they won’t be aware of the rich marine life just offshore.

In this blog, I’ll explain exactly why you need to take a boat tour in Snaefellsnes as well as the reasons why this detour on your journey will give you access to one of Iceland’s best-kept secrets.

A Brief History of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Situated to the west of Borgarfjörður in western Iceland, the peninsula was named ‘Iceland in Miniature’ due to the vast number of sites found around the region and the sheer diversity across the terrains.

You can find yourself starting your journey through coastal roads, head over mountain passes, round the corner of a glacier, and wander through vast lava fields with a number of craters decorating the area further. This diversity earned the peninsula’s reputation among Icelanders of almost sampling the breadth of attractions and views you can find around the whole country into this one small region.

For years, the main attraction has been Snaefellsjökull glacier, which has the highest peak on the peninsula, it sits at 1446 m high. In fact, quite commonly to Iceland, the glacier sits on top of a dormant volcano which can be seen regularly on clear days from Reykjavík.

Snaefellsnes Peninsula Iceland - Snaefellsjokull Glacier

Snaefellsjökull is also the inspiration for the setting of the 19th century classic Jules Verne novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Nowadays, the surrounding area of this mountain and glacier combo has been designated a national park (Snaefellsjökull National Park) which hosts an incredible lava field and some stunning craters – the most famous is named Saxhóll crater.

In folklore, Snaefellsnes is also one of the main settings in the Laxdœla saga, which according to legend is actually the birthplace of the first West Norse member of the Varangian Guard, Bolli Bollasson. The Varangian Guards members allegedly served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.

Nowadays, the most famous site of all is without a doubt Mount Kirkjufell. Situated just outside the charming fishing town of Grundarfjörður, this enigmatic mountain uniquely sits alone on the coastal water’s edge with the adjacent mountain region slightly south of its position.

Translating to ‘Church Mountain’, in more recent times and due to the popularity of the hit HBO show, Game of Thrones, more often than not travelers now refer to Kirkjufell as ‘the mountain shaped like an arrowhead’. 

mount kirkjufell winter

There are plenty of sites to see on this peninsula steeped in geological and historical fascination as well as plenty of folklore to tickle your fancy. Knowing what to do in Snaefellsnes can take plenty of reading, but it’s a region not to be missed.

Why Should You Take a Whale Watching Tour in Snaefellsnes?

Though Icelandic waters are rife with over 20 species of whales with around 8 spotted regularly on whale watching tours, Snaefellsnes is the best region in the whole country to see both orcas and male sperm whales.

The best time to find a pod of orcas is usually during the winter and early summer months. Whereas, sperm whales are usually best seen in the deeper waters between April and June.

These creatures are much less frequently spotted in other regions around Iceland, which makes Snæfellsnes a hidden gem for those keen to discover some of these titans of the deep. In fact, aside from the sometimes spotted Humpback Whales from Icelandic coastlines, there are few sightings that can rival an orca silently exploring the silent picturesque bay of this region.

Though whale watching tours from Snaefellsnes have the added attribute of spotting orcas and male sperm whales, they also frequently encounter humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and minke whales. On rare occasions, guests also get the privilege of watching large aggregations of pilot whales migrating past the peninsula or can even spot a blue whale, the largest animal on the planet.

About Orcas

Known as the wolves of the sea, orcas are toothed whales that belong to the oceanic dolphin family. Often referred to as killer whales, though some exclusively feed on fish, it’s reported more regularly that some pods will hunt other marine mammals such as seals, some species of dolphin, and even humpback whale calves on occasion.

Aside from being an apex predator, orcas enjoy cold waters and are frequently spotted in Arctic and Antarctic regions. They are also highly sociable creatures and can often be composed of family groups known as pods.

More and more research is showing how strategic and well-planned their hunting techniques are. In contrast to a lot of sea creatures, orcas will regularly hunt in packs, particularly when hunting other marine mammals. They will then share the spoils with the other members of their pods, further enhancing the already established bonds.

In Iceland, orcas are best spotted on a boat tour in Snaefellsnes near the fishing towns of Grundarfjörður and Ólafsvík. 

About Sperm Whales

The sperm whale, however, is in fact the largest toothed whale and predator on the planet. It is a pelagic mammal (reaching huge depths underwater) and can be spotted in only a few locations across the globe. Like many other whales, it migrates seasonally for both feeding and breeding.

Though females and young males can regularly be spotted living together in groups, the mature males known as ‘bulls’ live completely solitary lives outside of the mating season. Sometimes it’s a bit lonely being a male sperm whale!

As the largest toothed predator on the planet, the sperm whale has very few predators to watch out for. In fact, it’s the other main guest of the Snaefellsnes waters which the sperm whales need to keep a lookout for. On occasions, orcas have been spotted attacking both sperm whale calves and weakened adults.

In Iceland, you can spot fully mature male sperm whales that have an average length of 16 m, with their head representing one-third of their whole length. Reaching down to depths of up to 2250 m, sperm whales are also the third deepest diving mammal on the planet.

Also worth noting, is that sperm whales have by far the largest brain on the planet, which is more than five times heavier than a human (though I still fancy my chances against them in a pub quiz!). They use echolocation as a type of sonar to detect their surroundings as well as have a vocalization as loud as 230 decibels underwater.

Although the humpback whale can live up to a ripe age of 80 years, the sperm whale can also enjoy a long and bountiful life with recorded age limits of 70 years plus. 

What Whale Watching Tours Are Available?

Láki Tours is lucky enough to take guests on unique whale watching tours from the northern side of the Snaefellsnes peninsula. With tours operating from December to October, no matter whether you’ve come to visit Iceland under the long daylight hours of the midnight sun, or to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in winter, you won’t want to miss this rare whale watching opportunity.

Depending on the time of year, Láki Tours will either operate from Grundarfjörður or Ólafsvík. It’s worth noting that between December and February, tours are operated from Grundarfjörður, whereas from March to October, they’re from Olafsvik.

Tours From Grundarfjörður

Tours during the winter months provide good opportunities to spot orcas. However, not only will you get to watch orcas in the wild, but you’ll also have the unique opportunity to witness them silently searching the seas with the added backdrop of the spectacular Snaefellsnes peninsula. 

Iceland in winter is completely transformed into a snowy tundra with rich contrasts in the landmass and spectacular colors from the iced-over waterfalls that drop from the coastlines. Whereas most whale watching tours in other areas of the country can be great to spot some fantastic creatures, call me biased but as a photographer and whale lover, but Snaefellsnes waters just have the edge.

Your whale watching tour will allow you to see orcas regularly chasing herring, sometimes separately and other times in pods. Getting the chance to see their surfacing blowholes and iconic white eye patches is a sight you won’t soon forget.

If getting up close to the stealthy orcas of our waters is on your bucket list, this is a boat tour in Snaefellsnes you absolutely need to take advantage of.

Tours From Ólafsvík

From March to October, Láki Tours operates its tours from Ólafsvík. Between March and June, chances are really good to see orcas. During this time of the year, also male sperm whales can often be observed out in the deeper waters.

Summer is usually the time of year when travelers and locals alike seek out whale watching tours. Where Snaefellsnes holds the advantage, much like the peninsula, is the sheer diversity of sightings that are made possible.

For instance, if you’re planning a visit between July and September, you will get the chance of spotting the large and very acrobatic humpback whales. The ship’s captain’s experience is invaluable to the experience with a wealth of knowledge about the best locations, timings, and habits of these magnificent creatures.

You’ll want to keep your camera at the ready when onboard a summer tour from Olafsvik to look out for lunge-feeding humpbacks, cheeky white-beaked dolphins chasing the boat, migrating pilot whales, huge male sperm whales and much much more.

It’s the variety and taste of adventure that leaves travelers filled with lifelong memories on a whale watching tour from Olafsvik.

Puffin Tour From Grundarfjörður

If you’re planning a visit in the summer months, the chances are you’re wanting to see some puffins on your trip. Puffins in Iceland are often near or at the top of travelers Iceland summer bucket lists with the birds nesting on cliffs around Iceland’s coastlines as part of their migratory patterns every year.

From Grundarfjörður, you can take a birdwatching boat tour out to the nearby island of Melrakkaey which is a particular hotspot for this charming North Atlantic bird. Each year, hundreds of puffins will be found on this island which few travelers even know exists.

It’s an experience of a lifetime to get close, watch and photograph these birds which are regularly lined up along the island’s cliff edges. You’ll see the adult birds swoop down to the waters to gather small fish to take proudly to their new nests which help frame some epic pictures!

This boat tour is the best opportunity to see these birds up close. With tours lasting around an hour, it’s the perfect activity to add to any day of adventure. 

Sea Angling & Bird Watching From Grundarfjörður

For the particularly keen seamen and seawomen among you, why not take the chance to combine sea-angling with bird watching?

Sailing straight out of Grundarfjörður, your captain will take you straight to the nearby waters of the protected island of Melrakkaey. Known in summer as one of the best places to see puffins in Iceland, it’s also rich in an abundance of other seabirds such as shags, cormorants and kittiwakes; making it perfect for the bird lovers among you.

Not only this, but you’ll have plenty of time on this 2 to 2.5 hours fishing and birdwatching tour from Grundarfjördur to catch your own dinner. With the abundance of fish in the deeper waters you’ll be taken to after your quick stop spotting the delightful seabirds. Every passenger will have a fishing rod with all the necessary equipment made available as the crew offers their best tips and spots to help you hook yourself a delicious fish.

Conclusion Boat Tour in Snaefellsnes

There’s no doubt for many travelers that a boat tour needs to be on their bucket list. Though frequently travelers will flock to boat tours in the well-publicized regions of Reykjavík or Húsavík, it’s actually the hidden gem of Snaefellsnes that provide the more intimate and lesser-known experiences to those willing to explore them.

If you’re planning on coming to Iceland, whether that’s part of an Iceland self-drive tour, a package vacation or simply going it alone, you won’t want to miss the opportunity of seeing the beautiful whales and seabirds that grace our coastlines. Take the rare opportunity to get much closer to these spectacular animals to really take advantage of this beautiful island.

You can have a great experience in both other parts of the country, but the chance to see an abundance of whales, including the popular orca, as well puffins and much more framed in amongst the backdrop of the Snaefellsnes peninsula no matter the season, is a temptation I for one struggle to ignore.

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