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Whale watching, whales around Iceland

Whale watching, whales around Iceland

Whale watching, whales around Iceland

Here is a pref description of the whales that can be found around Iceland, with emphasis on whales that are the most common.

NORTHERN BOTTLENOSE WHALE (Hyperoodon ampullatus)
Northern Bottlenose Whale

Length: 7 meters.
Weight: 6 tons.
Worldwide population: Unknown.
Life expectancy: Ca 50 years

The northern bottlenose whale, belonging to the toothed whales, is about 7 - 10 m in lenght.

They are brownish in colour and are rarely seen in inlets and bays, preferring deeper waters. No other whale species, except sperm whales, dives as deep as the northern bottlenose whale. Their diet, like that of other toothed whales, consists mainly of fish.

Northern bottlenose whales can remain submerged for more than an hour, but they usually surface within half an hour of diving. Their spout is low and difficult to spot; their breathing cycle is 3 -4 times before diving. Northern bottlenose whales rarely fluke, but are known to leap.

The population size in Icelandic waters is believed to be around 40,000 animals. They keep to deeper waters in the South-East of Iceland in wintertime, but venture closer to shore in the summer.

SPERM WHALE (Physeter macrocephalus)
Sperm Whale

Length: 12 meters.
Weight: 30 tons.
Worldwide population: Uncertain, at least few hundred thousand.
Life expectancy: Ca. 70 years.

The Sperm whale is the largest of the toothed whales.

Its most prominent feature is the enormous head, which can be up to 1/3 of the whale's body length, which is up to 17 - 20 m. Their powerful spout slants to the left, with the blowhole being located on the front left side of the head.

Sperm whales hold the diving record with being able to stay submerged for up to 2 hours. Though commonly, the dive will last for 30 - 40 miuntes. When emerging, they remain on the surface for 5 - 10 minutes. Before diving, they will raise their flukes.

Their main diet consists of squid, redfish, black halibut, monkfish and various other fish species. Scientists found out, that they also feed on giant squid, which is the reason for them to penetrate high dephts.

The 1,200 - 1,400 individuals frequenting Icelandic waters in summertime, are bulls, which have lost the competition for the females. The female whales remain in their breeding grounds in the southern seas, together with the strongest males.

LONG-FINNED PILOT WHALES (Globicephala melas)
Long Finned Pilot Whale

Length: 4 meters.
Weight: 2 tons.
Worldwide population: Unknown, at least few hundred thousand.
Life expectancy: Ca. 40 years

The long-finned pilot whales, members of the dolphin family, belong to the toothed whales.

Their dorsal fin is tall and located in the front half of their back. The fluke is small, but is usually visible when the whales start to dive.

Commonly staying submerged for 5 - 10 minutes at a time, they are able to remain for longer diving periods and are known to have gone as deep as 600 m. The usual diving range in search of food, which is squid and various fish species, is around 30 - 60 m.

The population size in Icelandic waters is estimated to be around 35,000 individuals. They often travel in large groups, or schools, although individuals can be seen travelling solitarily. Most frequently, they can be spotted off the South-East, South and West coasts of Iceland in late summer and fall.

ORCA (Orcinus orca)

Length: 6 meters.
Weight: 3 tons.
Worldwide population: Unknown.
Life expectancy: About 50 years

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are members of the dolphin family and belong to the toothed whales.

They are easily identified by their tall dorsal fin, which can be up to 1,8 m tall, and the dominant black and white colour. Orcas are the fastest swimmers, and can reach a speed of 50 km/h. They can remain submerged for up to 20 minutes, but usually surface in 5 minute periods. The breathing cycle is 3 -4 consecutive times before diving.

Orcas are family bound, staying together in groups, known as pods. These pods either consist of females and their offspring or bachelors. The males temporarly leave their pods during mating season.

Their diet ranges from various fish species (e.g. herring, salmon) and squid to other marine mammels, like sea lions and smaller whale species or calves. Though according to scientists, the pod members will either specialize on fish ("resident pods") or marine mammels ("transient pods"), to be able to co-exist.

The Icelandic orca population (resident pods) is believed to be around 5,000 individuals. They can be spotted anywhere in Iceland, but most frequently in the rich herring grounds off the East Fjords, and the South and West coasts of Iceland. In summertime, orcas tend to be close to shore, in inlets and bays, but preferring deeper waters during the winter months.

Orcas are probably one of the best studied whale species world-wide, which is not only the result of extensive research, but also the attention generated by captured orcas in aquaria across the world. The most famous one, Keiko, the star of the Free Willy movies, returned home to Iceland in fall 1998, when he was brought to the Vestmannaeyjar Islands on a U.S. Air Force cargo plane. Keiko has made excellent progress since his arrival, and is under constant care of the Ocean Futures team.

HARBOUR PORPOISE (Phocoena phocoena)
Harbour Porpoise

Length: 1.5 meters
Weight: 55 kilograms
Worldwide population: Unknown
Life expectancy: About 30 years

Porpoises, like dolphins, belong to the toothed whales, forming a seperate family.

With their body length being only 1,5 - 2 m, they are the smallest of all whale species. Their back is dark grey in colour, getting lighter towards the sides and belly. The snout is round, unlike other dolphins, and their head is relatively small.

Their diet consists primarily of various small fish, but also herring and capelin. While trying to snatch fish from the nets, they increasingly get tangled up in fishing gear and drown, which results in a serious population decline.

Purpoises are shy, rarely leap, and tend to stay away from boats and ships. Being so small, they are difficult to spot. Preferring shallow waters, they can be seen in fjords and bays, and sometimes in estuaries.

The local population is believed to be 25,000-27,000 animals. They often form large groups of up to 250 individuals.

HUMPBACK WHALE (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Length: 13 meters.
Weight: 25 tons.
Worldwide population: 10.000.000 individuals
Life expectancy: Ca. 95 years

Humpback whales, 11 - 19 m in length, are baleen whales, like blue, fin, sei and minke whales.

They primarily feed on plankton, krill, but also small fish, such as capelin and are easily identified by their enormously long flippers, which can be up to five or 6 m in length. Humpback whales are playfull, occasionally raising the flippers to slap the water surface, rolling over or leaping out of the water. Head and flippers are covered with barnacles, which will attach soon after birth and remain there during its lifetime.

Their powerful spout, 2,5 - 3 m, lasts for several seconds and their breathing cycle is 3 -4 times before deep diving. They remain underwater for 5 - 7 minutes at a time, though often much longer. Humpback whales nearly always raise their fluke before diving, revealing the distinctive black and white pattern, which distinguishes individuals and is used for identification.

Northern Atlantic humpback whales migrate to their breeding grounds in the Caribbean. In summertime, they frequent shallow waters around Iceland and come often into the fjords and bays in search of food. The population size in Icelandic waters is uncertain, but is estimated to be around 1,500 - 1,800 individuals.

MINKE WHALE (Balaenoptera acutorostrata)
Minke Whale

Length: 7 meters.
Weight: 8 tons.
Worldwide population: Possibly 1,000,000
Life expectancy: ca 50 years.

The minke whale is the smallest of the baleen whales, reaching 8 - 10 metres in length, weighing up to 10 tons. The males, smaller than females, are about 7 - 8 metres in length. The North Atlantic minke whales have white diagonal stripes across their flippers, unlike their relatives in the South, which have plain black flippers.

Minke whales spout 3 - 4 consecutive times before deep diving. They can stay submerged for up to 20 minutes, though the usual time is around 3 - 5 minutes. They don't fluke, but often bend their backs before vanishing. Sometimes, they leap out of the water.

Their diet consists of plankton, krill and small surface fish, but it is believed that around 1 - 6% of their diet is based on various stockfish, such as cod.

The Icelandic minke whale population is estimated to be 50,000 - 60,000 individuals. With an estimated population size of 1,000,000 animals world wide, they are thought to be the most abundant whale species.

FIN WHALE (Balaenoptera physalus)
Fin Whale

Length: 20 - 25 meters
Weight: 50 tons
Worldwide population: 120.000 individuals.
Life expectancy: About 90 years

The fin whale, a baleen whale, is closely related to the blue whale.

Fin whales, 18 - 27 m in length, have a distinctive colour, which has been used for identification. The right jaw is white or pale, while the left jaw is dark grey or black. The baleen plates are coloured accordingly. The whale itself is dark, but with lighter, brown-toned streaks or swirls across the back.

Their powerful spout, 4 - 6 m, can be seen from afar in good weather conditions and their breathing cycle is between 3 - 5 times. Fin whales usually remain submerged for 5 - 8 minutes at a time, but frequently longer. They rarely lift their fluke when diving.

The amount of fin whales in Icelandic waters has been estimated to be around 10,000 individuals during the summer months.

WHITE-SIDED DOLPHIN (Lagenorhynchus acututs)
White Sided Dolphin

Length: 2.5 meters
Weight: 130 kilograms
Worldwide population: Unknown
Life expectancy: About 25 years

White-sided dolphins are closely related to white-beaked dolphins, but are somewhat smaller.

They can easily be distinguished by their coloration. The back and the flippers are dark, almost black, and the sides are grey. The identifying features are the yellow and white stripes and spots on their sides.

Like other dolphins, white-sided dolphins do not remain submerged for long and their diet also consists primarily of various small fish, such as mackerel and herring, and squid. They stay close to the surface and, being extremely fast swimmers, they are constantly on the move. It can often be seen them leaping straight out of the water, landing on their sides.

White-sided dolphins are quite common in Icelandic waters. Mostly travelling in large groups, the most frequent sightings are off the South, South-West, West and North-West coasts. The estimated population size in Icelandic waters is around 35,000 - 38,000 animals.

SEI WHALE (Balaenoptera borealis)
Sei Whale

Lenght: 15 meters
Weight: 20 tons
Worldwide population: 50.000 individuals
Life expectancy: About 80 years

Sei whales are, like blue and fin whale, baleen whales.

They are 12 - 20 m in length, very dark in colour and their spout, 3 m in height, can be spotted in good weather conditions. Sei whales and minke whales are similar in looks and can easily be mistaken, but sei whales are bigger in size and have a dominant dorsal fin.

Their breathing cycle is up to 3 - 4 times, before deep diving. Usually, they stay submerged for 5 - 7 minutes, sometimes longer. Sei whales generally don't lift their fluke, but will sometimes roll over before diving.

These species can best be spotted in the west of Iceland, but prefer to keep to deeper waters; about 30 - 60 miles offshore. An estimated 10,000 individuals travel to Icelandic waters every summer, feeding mainly on plankton, krill and various species of small fish.

BLUE WHALE (Balaenoptera musculus)
Blue Whale

Length: 20 meters
Weight: 110 tons
Worldwide population: 3000 individuals
Life expectancy: About 90 years

The blue whale is the largest animal ever to live on Earth. The longest measured blue whale was 33.5 m long, and the heaviest weighed almost 200 tons. Being a baleen whale, it lives almost entirely on some of the smallest living beings in the ocean: plankton and krill.

Their spout reaches 6 -9 m and is the most significant indication of their presence.

The breathing cycle is 3 - 5 times before deep diving, which may last from 7 - 10 minutes, sometimes longer. Occasionally, they lift their fluke, when starting to dive to be able to reach higher dephts in a short period of time; an action known as "fluking". The flukes can be up to 8 m in diameter.

One of the largest stocks, 700 - 1000 individuals, is believed to migrate to Iceland's coast in the summer. Approaching Iceland in the spring, they stay the whole summer to feed, mainly in Breiðafjörður in the West of Iceland. In fall, they start to migrate south, but their breeding grounds are yet to be known.

 

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