My most amazing days on the water as a whale guide with Sea Trips Reykjavik – by Lucky Byfleet
As a whale guide, the best and yet hardest question I am ever asked is, “what is the coolest thing that you have ever seen?” because out on the water so many awesome things happen. Also, I am a massive nerd about all things ocean; meaning something that might be super exciting for me might not be as exciting for someone else.
For example, having a humpback whale do a poo next to the yacht! I was delighted, I had never seen it before, and I know how important whale poo is for the ocean environment. Of course, I tried to convey my delight to the passengers, but they were simply thrilled to see a humpback so close and weren’t really sure why their guide is so delighted with it making the clear water a little…muddy.
A more obvious wonderful moment is when two of my favourite humpbacks came together after many months apart. I’d been seeing Spot for several weeks but hadn’t seen Dragon since the previous year. We know humpback whales have friendships that last over their whole lifetimes, and I have seen these two together enough to believe that of them. I try not to put human characteristics onto animals, however intelligent they may be, but seeing these two together after a long time it was evident their delight, and I could feel that as they swam so close to us, mirroring each other and being totally calm.
Of course, seeing breaching cetaceans of any species is always a thrill, however long you have been a whale guide, in fact, any unusual behaviour is a delight to see, like porpoises and dolphins surfing big rolling waves, or young cetaceans chin slapping ( I almost melted when I realised the first pilot whales I ever saw had tiny calves with them) as they learn to swim. People love to watch videos of whales breaching but nothing really compares to seeing it up close, when you can feel the sound wave hit you as 30tonnes of whale hits the water surface.
However, ultimately, the most awesome day had to be the day where we had two blue whales playing with the boat. You can read the whale guide blog post here. It was Independence Day, celebrating Iceland’s independence from Denmark, and the weather was beautiful, bright blue skies, and a brisk wind. I wasn’t even meant to be on the boat that day, but another guide couldn’t come and so I happily went out to sea.
The funny thing was the day before I had made a new friend, we immediately clicked, and of course, I told them I was a whale guide, and so they asked me whether I had ever seen a blue whale – I answered no, they were only seen 30miles out, I can’t remember even hearing of one in the bay itself. They also asked me if I had looked a whale in the eye – again I answered no, dolphins will frequently make eye contact, but baleen whales seem to be rather more interested in their food. The conversation moved on, but the next day was rendered even more unbelievable by that conversation.
There were very few customers on the boat on Independence Day, there was a parade through the city that many people chose to attend. It was a friendly group who came with us and we had a lovely time, seeing porpoises at first and then later we saw minke whales too. Then we saw a big blow in the distance. Normally upon seeing a blow I can make a pretty good guess as to the type of whale, in these waters we see a lot of minkes and humpbacks and their blows – the cloud of steam when they exhale are as different to the eyes of a trained guide, as a cow and a horse are to you!
But the blow-up ahead was massive, a column straight up, all I could do was direct people’s gaze to it and keep watching in the hope of seeing a dorsal fin, or tail flukes, some pointer that would allow me to 100% identify what it was. The thought of a blue whale was creeping into my head but I daren’t say it, in case it might jinx it somehow. But knowing these waters, and the size and shape of the blow I knew we weren’t looking even at a big humpback, it had to be a fin whale at least.
Then as we watched it, we saw it turn over, rolling onto its back with its pectoral fins out of the water above it. Humpback whales have proportionally huge pectoral fins, a third of their body length, and we see them a lot, they love to fin slap! In Icelandic waters, our humpbacks tend to have white pectoral fins, and all humpback finds have lumps and bumps on them. The fins I saw above the water were the same size as a humpback’s but totally smooth. Blue whales have the same size fins, but they are in proportion to their ginormous size. It was definitely a blue.
I was a little worried about the number of boats already in close proximity to it but the whale was clearly totally calm, investigated a red boat. Suddenly we realised there wasn’t one blue whale but two! And they were starting to turn towards us! With almost every other whale you see the blow and the dorsal fin almost simultaneously, but these beauties were so big that we’d see the blow, and then along way behind that was an adorable little dorsal fin. It almost looked like a lone dolphin was following from a distance, but it was just my brain unable to appreciate quite how big the whale was.
One of the whales came up to the front of the yacht, from the port (left) side and straight under the bow, but before it did it stopped and rolled up on its side a little bringing its eye above the waterline and looking straight at us. I took the photo as quick as I could and carried on watching in wonder at this amazing creature and it watched us back!
Four little tear drops ran down my cheek I was so excited and blown away by the majesty of this creature. The funny thing is that as a whale guide the customers sometimes don’t realise how magical what they are experiencing is! Because seeing a minke is incredible, or a humpback is incredible, so I had the feel that a couple of them thought I was loopy to be so excited about this whale.
However a wonderful couple came up to me afterwards, a family member of theirs had passed away recently and always wanted to come to Iceland to see the whales, so they really felt like it was a message from their departed mum. Others came up to me and told me how much it meant to them, they totally got how blown away I was! For me, if I ever wanted a sign from the gods that they approved of my new friendship – the person I had befriended the day before – here it was. They’d asked about blue whales and whale eye contact and the very next day a blue whale looking me in the eye. It was definitely a thumbs up for the friendship!
Coming to Iceland people often have whale watching and the northern lights tours at the very top of their bucket lists, and rightly so! We love showing everyone both. If you have booked onto a whale watching tour with us you can come out with us to see the aurora for half price, but still aboard the luxury superyacht Amelia Rose.
For more information on how we search for whales and dolphins, and learn how to be a pro- whale guide yourself have a look at our whale guide here.
Sea Trips Reykjavik sail daily from Reykjavík Old Harbour, Iceland. Our yacht, Amelia Rose was built as a superyacht in 2003 and as such is extremely comfortable and stable. However the seas often change here, and people are affected differently by the movement of the oceans. As such we have seasickness tablets available for free at the bar. We also have warm blankets and ponchos around the yacht for your comfort, though the inside of the ship is extremely warm and snug.
What is the difference between baleen and toothed whales?
We see both toothed and baleen whales here in Reykjavik harbour, Iceland. Did you know that dolphins and porpoises are also part of the same family? www.uk.whales.org is a brilliant website that goes into a lot more detail however this is the basic description!
They write that;
“Baleen whales have baleen plates, or sheets, which sieve prey from seawater. Toothed whales have teeth and they actively hunt fish, squid and other sea creatures. Dolphins and porpoises all have teeth and rather confusingly are known as ‘toothed whales’ too!
Another obvious difference between baleen and toothed whales is the number of blowholes on top of their head; baleen whales have two whereas toothed whales have one. There are only 14 baleen whale species and they are generally larger than the 76 species of toothed whales – except for the mighty sperm whale, the largest toothed whale.”
If you are interested in learning more we recommend these websites, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/group/whale-facts/ and https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/whale They have a lot of extra learning materials about cetaceans all over the world.