Swimming with whales is bucket list stuff that most of us will never get the chance to dip into. But one travel company has been working to orchestrate meetings with these gentle giants in Iceland.
The Nordic island country is a land of water, mountains, frozen landscapes and never-ending scenery. It’s also home to a vast range of arctic wildlife - including the rare and beautiful humpback whale.
And luxury travel experts Black Tomato have created an Icelandic expedition of dreams: swimming with humpback whales in northern seas when the sun is out at midnight.
Why do humpback whales migrate to Iceland?
The humpback is Iceland’s most frequent foreign visitor, a graceful and sombre creature with a dark back, a light belly and an eponymous ‘hump’.
In the days of early spring every year, humpbacks begin their 7,000km journey from the Gulf of Mexico to the seas of northern Iceland. Their motive is simple: mothers and calves are in search of the country’s rich feeding grounds.
What’s it like to swim with humpback whales?
The expedition begins off the coastal waters of Akureyri, where feeding grounds are full of fish and the occasional visiting blue whale.
Here, you will set off with your captain and travelling companions. Dry suits on, RIB boat boarded, this is a meeting that has been months and thousands of miles in the making.
Humpback whales surface most keenly when the ‘night’ sets in, which makes the winter sun the perfect time to see them.
Eyjafjörður, the fjord which connects Akuyeri with the sea, is Iceland’s longest. Framed by snow-capped peaks and brown-black slopes, it is a dramatic and narrow waterway which runs some 60km from its head to its gigantic mouth.
And at this mouth, the lowlands stop, and the hills roll directly into the blue-black sea beneath. This is where your search will begin.
The trip is timed to perfectly align with the midnight sun. This is a natural phenomenon that occurs, worldwide, in places north of the Arctic Circle, when the sun remains visible deep into the night.
At its height, at the approximation of the summer solstice (21 June), the sun does not set below the horizon for an entire 24-hour period. Instead, it dips – curving toward the horizon without ever making contact with it.
Is it safe?
As with all travel experiences centred on wildlife, it’s important for travellers to know they aren’t causing any harm with their tourism.
Carolyn Addison, head of product at Black Tomato, explains, “As with all the travel we design, we take care to work with specialist partners who avoid exploiting or harming animals in any way.
“We feel strongly that education in the form of direct interaction is a wonderful way to raise awareness around the important issue of whale protection, and their crucial place in the oceanic ecosystem.”
Black Tomato is also keen to point out that female whales caring for newborn calves are banned from any interactions, and the behaviour of all whales involved is respected.
“Our guides accompany our guests to ensure the whales are not stressed or hindered. The activity is undertaken privately or in a very small group, further ensuring minimal impact on the wildlife.
"Humpback whales are known to be very curious and social animals, often approaching boats directly. It is our hope and belief that this is a positive experience for both clients and these extraordinary creatures”.