In our tours you will be invited into a very important feeding ground for the whales. It is, therefore, particularly important that we strive to blend in as much as possible to avoid any disturbance while searching for wildlife. The whales' success and likelihood of surviving the winter, also to copulate and for females to give birth and lactate, depends on the animals ability to fill their energy reservoirs during the summer. Constant disturbance from boats and especially boats that do not respect the codes of conduct will significantly reduce the whales’ ability to forage and gain weight for the coming winter. Being a part of a responsible whale watching team that is aware of the possible impact on the whales is important, both for the whales and for your own experience. We are quite sure that you will feel a magnitude better after having entered a wild life area, to learn and experience, without causing harm.
Before the boat leaves the harbor, make sure that you have your camera ready at the top of your backpack or in your pocket if you plan on catching some wildlife moments. These moments are over before you know it. It can cause stress and panic on board if you start anxiously searching for your camera the moment a whale shows up. Make sure you have enough storage space on your camera or phone, since full memory alert is incredibly annoying and disappointing during an up close moment with a whale. We head out to the bay at a speed of approximately 20 mph depending on the sea condition and swell. Once we pass the puffin colonies (e.g. Akurey or Lundey) we will be heading straight into the whales feeding grounds. It can take about 15 – 20 minutes to reach the common feeding hotspots. Always have in mind that we are the visitors into the whales' home, an area which is a wild and untamed nature, and it is up to them whether they will be found or not. We can only increase the chance with good searching effort. Fortunately, the sighting probability in Faxaflói during summer is around 96%.
Once we reach the feeding grounds, we reduce the speed and the whale survey starts. At that point it is crucial that all passengers participate in scanning the surface to look for some movement, the crew will also be in radio contact with other whale watching boats.
We have no clue of where the whales might surface, something we will never know in advance without at least a very specialized technology. Therefore, the best technique is to slowly scan the boat in 180° to the left and then 180° to the right (or vice versa), starting at the front of the boat.
The spy hopping minke whale is at 9 o'clock and the other whale watching boat is between 5 and 6 o'clock
If you spot a whale it is important that you will notify other passengers and crew members by describing what you saw and in what direction. Left and right are of no use out at sea but the clock system is something everyone can use (at least those capable of telling time the old fashion way).
12 o'clock: Right in front of the boat
3 o'clock: 90° to the right (when facing forward)
9 o'clock: 90° to the left (when facing forward)
6 o'clock: Right behind the boat
Discriminating between a whale and a white capped wave can sometimes be a challenge. That is why you must be fully aware of what we are looking for. We are precisely looking for :
1) A black back breaking the surface with a dorsal fin at the top
2) A blow or a spout of air emerging from the surface
3) Splashes at the surface that are obviously not rhythmic (to discriminate from breaking waves)
4) Fluke emerging vertically from the surface
These sighting cues are very common when the whales are sighted from a distance, but that is how every trip starts. You spot the cues from even few kilometers away and start sailing towards the whale at a around 10 mph . When the boat is within approximately 300 m of where the whale was last seen the speed is reduced to 5-6 mph.
From some distance, the back of most whale species appear black at the surface though that can vary slightly depending on the light conditions. Have in mind that you have a set of eyes that are perfect for hunting, which is exactly what we are doing here except we will not be killing anything, only enjoying. Humans have forward facing eyes that are very sensitive to sudden movements, specifically on a rather uniform surface. So, you are actually very well equipped to spot a surfacing whale. However, the ocean is big and we are small, that is why we need to be scanning the surface more or less continuously. We are by far more likely to succeed if we all participate in the search.
With patience and effortful teamwork the likelihood of coming up close to the whales increases exponentially
Once a whale is spotted it is important to slow down the engine, if the whale is nearby it is best to turn of the engine completely. Whales are not drawn to boat noise, since their hearing is very acute. Since they are less likely to approach loud and fast boats, they will be less likely to continue their activities undisturbed if the boat moves fast and unpredictably.
The exceptions to this are sometimes the dolphins, such as white-beaked dolphins and killer whales, which can get excited around a fast moving boat, but they are often drawn to the bow waves. Nonetheless, a boat should never follow the dolphins to try to encourage them to bowride, at all times the dolphins should take the initiative in approaching the boat. If the dolphins start bowriding, you should keep a steady course and move predictably. That will keep the dolphins interested in the vessel for a longer time and they are less likely to be annoyed or nervous.
Whales are sometimes curious and approach the boats, especially humpback whales, minke whales and dolphins. Among the baleen whales the curious ones are often younger animals. When dolphins approach a boat, it is often the males or larger animals that show up first which are later followed by females and juveniles if everything is safe. If the team meets some of these charismatic animals it is crucial to turn off the engine immediately. That will increase the likelihood of the whale scrutinizing the boat and its crew for a longer time. Of course, if these are bowriding dolphins the boat should keep a steady paste as previously mentioned.
If you are lucky, you can smell the whales breath if it exhaled upwind. The minke whales breath is particularly strong. The smell is easily recognized as a strong stench of a fish, hence the nickname “Stinky-Minke”. This stench is not derived directly from the whale´s diet but rather a derivative of metabolism brought to their lungs via the blood circulation.
Baleen whales, such as minke, humpback and fin whales, that are feeding close to the surface, can be seen making lunges out of the water with the mouth and throat grooves extended to its maximum. If they are however feeding closer to the bottom they will make frequent deep dives and be more difficult to follow.
A resting, scouting or travelling baleen whale usually surfaces 3 – 4 times in a row and then lunges for a deeper dive. The deep dives usually last for 5–10 minutes, though they are capable of holding their breath for 20-25 min. It is impossible to foresee where the whale will surface. It is nonetheless very likely that the whale will surface somewhere within a 200-500 m radius from where it took the dive. But remember, radius, so you must continually scan the surface around the boat.
A whale or a dolphin that is busy at foraging will possibly be more difficult to follow. Their movements can be quite sporadic as they constantly try to locate the best feeding patch. This is where we need to be patient and slowly follow the whales, preferably parallel to them. Usually, the best tactic is to turn off the engine and wait a little while.
Whales quickly become stressed when more than two boats are tailing them, particularly minke whales. Make sure that you don’t follow the same whale for more than approximately 15-20 minutes, especially if it constantly swims away from the boat. If more boats start approaching, it is important to start looking around for other animals.
Whales submerged few meters below the surface can be incredibly difficult to spot even though they are quite close to the boat. But pay attention to circular patches that might start forming at the surface. These patches are fluke prints and tell you where the whale is located under the water. Aim your camera in a direction towards the fluke prints. If you see a whale surface, focus on where it dove but a whale length or two in front of that spot. If the whale is doing shallow dives it will surface 1-3 whale lengths in front of the location of the last dive. During shallow dives, the whale keeps the body relatively straight when surfacing. If it is going for a deep dive the whale arches its back quite prominently and you know it will be under for few minutes and can surface anywhere around you.
If you are enthusiastic about contributing to science do your very best in catching a photo of the whales dorsal fin in approximately 90°angle, or perpendicular to the surfacing whale. If you get close to a humpback whale aim at catching a photo of the fluke's underside when it raises the fluke from the surface during dives. Blue whales have distinctive spotted pattern on their sides which along with the dorsal fin shape help distinguish between individuals. These photos allow us to recognize individuals and help scientists estimate the re-occurrence of whales within the bay, investigate if the whale has been spotted in other distant locations and allows for investigating the side fidelity of individuals. All of which are vital information that aid the conservation of the whales.