The Whales of Iceland

All About the Whales & Types of Whales in the Waters Around Iceland

All About Whales

In this section, you will be able to find everything you need to know about whales including general information about the whale, their habitat, diet, how they breathe and which threats whales have to face.

What's a Whale?

All whales, dolphins and porpoises, belong to the scientific order Cetacea. In spite of sharing many common traits, whales are not fish but mammals.

Whales are warm-blooded animals, they breathe air through their lungs, they give birth to live young and they nurse them. More than 80 species make up the Order Cetacea, which are classified into two suborders: the Mysticetes (the baleen whales) who have baleen in their mouths and have two blowholes and the Odontocetes (the toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises) who have teeth and a single blowhole.

Whales come in different sizes and forms. Whales lack hind limbs, the forelimbs have evolved into flippers, and the whale's tail, fluke, is positioned horizontally, unlike a fish’s vertical tail, enabling the whale to swim through the water by moving it up and down and displacing water. The fluke is made out of cartilage.

The Whale's Habitat

The whales live in all oceans. Many of them migrate, meaning they travel throughout the year between the territories where they feed in the summer and where they reproduce in the winter. Most whales feed in cold, polar waters rich in krill or other food sources. There they spend 4 to 6 months eating, accumulating an excess of blubber, or fat, which serves as a food reserve used during the breeding season in warmer waters, where food is often scarce

The Whale's Diet

The toothed whales, which include the dolphins, porpoises, orcas and the sperm whale, feed on fish and squid. They do not use their teeth to chew, only to capture and tear their food. The baleen whales, including the right, blue and humpback whale, do not have teeth but baleen: a row of plates that hang like a curtain from both sides of the upper jaw.

They feed on plankton, particularly on krill (tiny crustaceans similar to shrimp) or on small fish.The internal edge of each baleen plate is frayed, forming a sort of net or filter. The whales allow the water to enter their mouths and drain out again with their mouths open, or they use the pressure of their tongues to force the water back out of the baleen plates, which act as a filter in retaining the food left in the mouth after the water is expelled.

How do Whales Breathe?

Like all mammals, whales have lungs. They must come to the surface periodically to breathe, as they cannot breathe underwater. They take in air through their blowhole, essentially their nostrils, located on top of the whale’s head; this allows them to breathe without lifting their heads out of the water.

The baleen whales have two blowhole openings and toothed whales only one. When a whale dives, the blowhole stays closed. When coming to the surface to breathe, the whale exhales the air in its lungs with great force, and moisture from the exhalation forms a large vapor cloud, known as the whale's “blow” or “spout”.

What Threats do Whales Face?

The Cetaceans have been on the Earth for approximately 50 million years, a length of time difficult to imagine. Today, many of them are in danger of extinction. To understand why, we must look at many of our own activities that affect the health of the planet, especially the oceans.


Pollution affects the Earth in numerous ways. We throw garbage into the ocean, and runoff of chemicals, including industrial waste, pesticides and fertilizers, oil, metals, and sewage feeds into the oceans, harming all forms of marine life. The polluting agents that enter the sea do not remain in the water; they enter its inhabitants, ingested through what they eat and absorbed through their fat, passing up the food chain from one organism to another.

Fishing gear

Another threat whales face is entanglement in fishing gear. It is estimated that every day approximately 25,000 miles of fishing nets are thrown in the oceans, a length equivalent to the diameter of the Earth. Whales and dolphins are often accidentally caught in them, forcing them underwater and preventing them from surfacing to breathe, or preventing them from eating and killing them by starvation. Each year approximately 100,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises are drowned in fishing gear, and thousands more bear the scars of entanglements.


Sadly, whales were hunted in mass for many years. More than two million whales were killed between 1929 and 1979. When one species became depleted, the whalers simply switched to another species not yet exploited. At that time, before the widespread use of petroleum and plastic, the whales provided very valuable raw materials for objects of daily use. Soon, with the discovery of petroleum, a cheaper oil source, the most whaling ceased, but the damage was already done. Unfortunately, some countries still hunt whales under the guise of “scientific” whaling, or for the purposes of subsistence whaling.

How can we help?

  • Speak with your family and friends about the existing problems in the oceans, so that there are more people conscientious of the matter.

  • Consume less, by reusing and recycling materials such as boxes, bottles and plastics to prevent them from becoming garbage. Use reusable cups and dishes. Everything made of disposable plastic winds up as waste.

  • Don't dump toxic products down the drain; chemicals that go down the drain gradually end up in the ocean. Read the labels on the cleaning products and other chemicals in your home to find out which are toxic, and try to avoid buying any products containing toxic chemicals.

  • Use alternatives to pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in your garden. Buy organic products which are grown without the use of harmful pesticides.

  • Pick up litter you see on the beach and other places.

  • Be cautious of the amount of water you use by not leaving taps on unnecessarily, water is precious and it is necessary to conserve it.

  • Most importantly, continue your interest in whales and dolphins. The more you know about these gentle creatures, the more you will be able to understand them and to help us to protect them. No action which you can take is too little. The small contribution each one of us makes will allow us to help other people understand about whales and the problems that threaten their survival.

You can make a difference!

Fun Facts About Whales

Did you know that...

  • Sperm whales have the largest brain on the planet. It may weigh 9 kg (20 lbs).

  • The Fin whale is one of the fastest whales. They can swim over 32 km/hr (20 miles/hr).

  • The Blue whale is the largest whale. They may grow up to 30,5 m (100 ft) and weigh as much as several elephants.

  • The Harbor porpoise is one of the smallest whales. They grow to only about 1,5 m (5 ft) in length.

  • Killer whales are the largest dolphins. They get their name because they sometimes eat other, larger whales.

  • Whales can't breathe through their mouths. The mouth is connected directly to the stomach. They breathe through their blowholes, which go to the lungs.

  • The sperm whale can hold its breath for at least an hour.

  • The Blue whale's voice is one of the deepest voices on the planet. It is so powerful that it can travel approximately 100 miles underwater.

  • Whales do not spout water. They are letting out air from their lungs. The warm air forms a cloud, similar to what ours does in the winter. As it comes out it will also push any water which is covering the blowhole high into the air.

  • A newborn baby blue whale may weigh two tons and be 7,6 m (25 ft) long.

  • Some whales do not have teeth. They have baleen instead. The largest baleen is that of the bowhead whale, whose baleen may be up to 3 m (10 ft) long.

  • There is a toothed whale which only has two teeth. Narwhales have one tooth hidden under the gums, but in the males, the other tooth sticks out from their head like a tusk, which may grow to be 2,5 m (8 ft) long.

  • Whales are conscious breathers so they have to actively decide when to breathe, so in order to breathe, they have to stay conscious. Because of this, they sleep by putting only one half of their brain to sleep at a time. In this way, the animal is never completely unconscious, but it still gets the rest it needs.

Types of Whales Around Iceland

Read all about the different types of whales in Icelandic waters. Use the navigation below to browse between the various species. 

whales of iceland

The Humpback Whale

Megaptera Novaengliae | Hnúfubakur

A large and rather robust body that is black above and black-and-white or mottled below. The characteristic features are the long flippers, measuring ⅓ of the body length, and the fluke that has a distinctive black and white pattern on the underside. The composition of the pattern distinguishes individuals and is used for identification. Head and flippers are covered with barnacles, which will attach soon after birth and remain during the animals lifetime. They can stay underwater for about 5-15 minutes.

Living solitary or in small unstable groups, they occasionally engage ina cooperative hunt. They always lift the fluke before a dive and revealing its shape and coloration. During mating season, they produce a high variety of songs that can last for hours to attract the females. They are known for water-surface acrobatics, such as breaching, lob-tailing and flipper-slapping. The migratory routes and whereabouts during the winter months are well known. Traveling about 6.000km one way, this is one of the longest journeys known of any mammal. The population is estimated to be about 70.000 - 100.000 individuals worldwide.


  • Length: 13-17 m (42-55.7 ft)

  • Weight: 25-40 tons (27-44 US tons)

  • Worldwide popul.: 10-15.000 indiv.
  • Status: least concern

  • Icelandic: Hnúfubakur

  • Blow: 3 m (10 ft)


  • Diet: krill & small fish

  • Binomial name: Megaptera novaengliae

  • Typical lifespan: 50 yrs


The Killer Whale

Orcinus Orca | Háhyrningur

A very robust body with a distinctive black-and-white colour and a grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin. The head is conical and lacks a well-defined beak. The dorsal fin, situated mid-back, is large (up to 1,8 m (6 ft) in males), prominent and variable in shape: curved in females and juveniles, erected and almost spike like in adult males. The flippers are large, broad and rounded.

The varied diet and vivid chase of other marine mammals make them the top predators in the oceans and gave them the common name "killer whale". They feed on fish, cetaceans, pinnipeds and squid. Orcas are fast swimmers, reaching a speed of 50 km/h. They usually don’t stay very long underwater and don’t dive very deep, or 30 m (98 ft). Being very social animals, they live in stable groups called pods with strong family ties. They are known for their well-organized hunting techniques and for developing specific vocalizations within the pods.

This species was not hunted as much as other whales but has often been caught for display. The biggest threat is heavy ship traffic, toxins in the water and reduced prey abundance. The worldwide population size is unknown.

Fun fact: did you know that Willy from the "Free Willy" movies was from Iceland? Keiko, who most people know as Willy, was captured near Reyðarfjörður in East Iceland in 1979. After becoming world-famous for his role in Free Willy, Keiko was freed in Iceland in July 2002. Unfortunately, he did not fully adapt to the wild and died in 2003. Still to this day, he remains Iceland's most famous creature.


  • Length: 6-9 m (20-29 ft)

  • Weight: 3-9 tons (3.3-9.9 US tons)

  • Worldwide popul.: 10-15.000 indiv.
  • Status: : conservation depend.

  • Icelandic:: Háhyrningur

  • Blow: 1-3 m (ft)


  • Diet: : various

  • Binomial name: Orcinus orca

  • Typical lifespan: 35-50 yrs

The Minke Whale

Balaenoptera Acutorostrata | Hrefna

A comparably small and sleek body that is black or dark grey above and whitish underneath. The head is pointed and V-shaped, with a longitudinal ridge running along the top of the head. The flippers are narrow with pointed tips and have a white band across, whereas the individuals living in the Southern Hemisphere usually have plain black flippers. The dorsal fin is falcate and used for identification. They can stay underwater for about 5-20 minutes and can dive down to 50-100 m (164-328 ft).

This species is known for its curiosity and for approaching the boats. They arch their body prior to a dive but don't lift the fluke, and can occasionally be seen breaching. They live solitary or in small groups, but large aggregations sometimes occur in feeding areas. Once considered too small to hunt, they became the primary target of commercial whalers until today.

Minke whales seem to be very adaptable and the only species, which population size increased despite the commercial whaling era and other disturbances. As a migratory species, they generally inhabit warmer waters during the winter, while spending the summer months in higher latitudes to feed. The population size is estimated to be about 800.000 individuals worldwide.


  • Length: 7-10 m ( ft)

  • Weight:  8-10 () tons

  • Worldwide popul.:

    1 million indiv.

  • Status: : lower risk

  • Icelandic:: Hrefna

  • Blow: almost none


  • Diet: : krill, plankton & fish

  • Binomial name: Balaenoptera acutorostrata

  • Typical lifespan: 35-50 yrs


The Sperm Whale

Physet Macrocephalus | Búrhvalur

The squid eating Moby Dick, or Sperm Whale is the largest of the toothed whales. It has a rather wrinkled and shriveled appearance, the body is evenly dark grey with a white upper lip and white patches on the belly. The head measures ⅓ of the body length and is blunt and square. The dorsal fin is low and thick. The flippers are short and broad, and the fluke can be 5 m (16.4 ft) wide and is triangular in shape with a straight trailing edge. The single blowhole is located in the front left side of the head, creating a bushy, forward projected blow. The lower jaw is small and contains all the, 40-52 teeth and therefore it isn’t a baleen whale.

While foraging, they are capable of diving as deep as 3000 m (1.8 miles) and stay submerged for more than 2 hours. Between the dives, they spend long times "rafting" at the surface. The females form stable, long-term groups that stay in warmer, tropical waters year round. The males are solitary during their breeding prime and old age, but form "bachelor-groups" until they have reached maturity. There was a general reduction during the whaling era but the population is considered to be stable. The selective killing of large mature males over many years is resulting in a decline of the birth rate. Estimated population size is 1.000.000 individuals.


  • Length: 12-18 m (40-60 ft)

  • Weight:  30-50 tons (33-55 US tons)

  • Worldwide popul.:

    hundreds of thousands

  • Status: : vulnerable

  • Icelandic:: Búrhvalur

  • Blow: forward projected


  • Diet: mainly squid (fish)

  • Binomial name: Physeter macrocephalus

  • Typical lifespan: 60-70 yrs


The Blue Whale

Balaenoptera Musculus | Steypireyður

The Blue Whale is also known as the "King of the Sea", being the largest animal on earth. Their body is distinctively mottled and grayish-blue in color. The large blow can be seen from afar and is a clear sign of their presence. Occasionally they will lift the fluke before a deep dive to be able to reach higher depths. The fluke can be up to 8 m (26 ft) in diameter. Their breathing cycle is 3-4 times before going down for a deep dive and they usually spend about 10-30 min underwater, diving down to about 50-100 m (164-328 ft). They live solitary or in small groups, and travel occasionally in association with fin whales. Possessing the loudest voice in the animal kingdom, they emit low-frequency sounds that travel hundreds of kilometers under water and can reach 188 decibels. Sometimes they crossbreed with fin or humpback whales.

The Blue whale species is believed to be the largest animal ever to live on earth. The longest animal on record was over 33 meters, and the heaviest was about 200 tons. For comparison, the largest of the dinosaurs are thought to have weighed only half as much. Excessive whaling during the 20th century has caused drastic reduction of the populations to almost99% of the original numbers. They are protected worldwide since 1966, with some signs of population recovery. The current population is estimated to be about 10.000 individuals worldwide.



  • Length: 20-30 m (65.6-98.4 ft)

  • Weight:  110-190 tons (121-209 US tons)

  • Worldwide popul.:

    3-4.000 indiv.

  • Status: : endangered

  • Icelandic:: Steypireyður

  • Blow: 6-12 m (20-40 ft)


  • Diet: krill & plankton

  • Binomial name: Balaenoptera musculus

  • Typical lifespan: 35-40 yrs (up to 90 yrs)


The Fin Whale

Balaenoptera Physalus | Langreyður

The Fin Whale is the second largest animal in the world! The body is long and sleek, and dark coloured above and white below, with a brown-toned chevron pattern behind the head. The right jaw is white or pale, while the left is dark gray or black. The baleen plates are coloured accordingly. The tall below looks like an inverted cone. Their breathing cycle is 3-4 times before going down for a deep dive and they usually spend about 5-20 min underwater, diving down to 50-250 m (156-820 ft).

Living mostly solitary or in small groups, they are sometimes found traveling with Blue whales, with which they occasionally crossbreed. They are fast swimmers and reach speeds of up to 45 km/h. Like the Blue whales, they producing very loud, low-frequency vocalizations that travel long distances underwater. This was the most hunted great whale species during the 20th century but has been protected since 1966 worldwide. The population size is estimated to be 120.000 - 150.000 worldwide. They occur in all major oceans but are mainly found in temperate to polar latitudes, where they concentrate in coastal and shelf waters.

Fin whales are among the species hunted in Iceland since the ban on commercial whaling. In the years 1986-1989, 292 fin whales were taken as a part of a scientific program. In 2006, 7 more were taken for commercial reasons.


  • Length: : 20-25 m (65-82 ft)

  • Weight:  : 50-80 tons (55-88 US tons)

  • Worldwide popul.:

    120-150.000 ind

  • Status: : endangered

  • Icelandic:: : Langreyður

  • Blow: : 4-6 m (13-20 ft)


  • Diet: : krill, plankton & fish

  • Binomial name: Balaenoptera physalus

  • Typical lifespan: 90 yrs


The Sei Whale

Balaenoptera Borealis | Sandreyður

Sei Whales are the fastest swimmers! They have a large, sleek body that is grey on top and white or cream-coloured below. Oval scars often cover the body. A single longitudinal ridge forms the midline on top of the head. The flippers are relatively short and pointed, and the fluke comparably small. Together with the fin whales, they probably are the fastest swimmers of the large whales, capable of speeds up to 45 km/h. They usually stay underwater for 5-20 minutes but it doesn’t dive very deep. They live solitary or in small groups of 2 - 3 individuals.

Occasionally, they form large aggregations of up to 100 individuals in good food spots. Sei whales are baleen whales and filter their food, krill, plankton and small fish, out of the sea. They have a series of fringed, overlapping plates that hang from the upper jaw where teeth would be, which they use to filter the sea. Sei whales have 320 to 380 baleen plates on each side. They were hunted excessively during the mid 20th century, which caused the population to crash. Protected since the 1970's, the population size is estimated to be about 50.000 individuals worldwide.



  • Length: : : 15-20 m

  • Weight:  : 20-30 tons

  • Worldwide popul.:

    50-70.000 indiv.

  • Status: : endangered

  • Icelandic:: Sandreyður

  • Blow: : 3 m (10 ft)


  • Diet: : krill, plankton & fish

  • Binomial name:  Balaenoptera borealis

  • Typical lifespan: 60 yrs


The Bottlenose Whale

Hyperoodon Ampullatus | Andarnefja

This largest member of the beaked whales in the North Atlantic has a long but rotund body shape, with a grey back and a light underside. The head has a pronounced beak and a bluff melon that is white and flattened in males but grey and bulbous in females. The dorsal fin is up to 30 cm (90 in) high and situated on the lower part of the back. The flippers are small and rounded at the top.

Bottlenose whales have two teeth at the tip of the lower jaw that only erupt in adult males. The females remain toothless. Species with no functional teeth are assumed to feed by creating a low-pressure environment in their mouth, a technique known as suction feeding.

Like sperm whales, they are able to reach high depths in the search of food and are able to stay submerged for at least one hour. They can dive down to 1000 m (3.2 ft) They usually travel in groups averaging four individuals and keep to deep waters. There has been a population decline in some areas due to whaling, but the species has been protected for more than 25 years.



  • Length: : : 7-9  m  (23-29.5 ft)

  • Weight:  : 6-8 tons (6.6-8.8 US tons)

  • Worldwide popul.:

    unknown, heavily whaled

  • Status: : lower risk

  • Icelandic:: Andarnefja

  • Blow: : 1-2 m (3.2-6.5 ft)


  • Diet: : squid & fish

  • Binomial name:    Hyperoodon ampullatus

  • Typical lifespan: 37 yrs


The Pilot Whale

Globicephala Melas | Gindhvalur

The Long-Finned Pilot Whale - the mass strander. A long but robust body that is dark grey or black with a light grey saddle on the back, behind the dorsal fin. The dorsal fin has a characteristic profile: it is set ahead of the mid-body, it is very wide at the base but low. The flippers measure about ¼ of the body length. They have 36 - 48 teeth in both, the upper and lower jaws.

They usually stay underwater for 5-10 minutes while deep diving and can dive down to 30-600 m (98-1.968 ft). They form large schools of up to several hundred individuals that consist of many small pods. Serious fights amongst the males, with severe injuries or even death, are quite common during the mating season.

This species is known for mass strandings, when hundreds of individuals beach themselves at once, possibly due to navigation errors caused by the leading animal. They have been and still are hunted on the Faeroe Islands on regular basis.

The Pilot whale is either of two species of cetacean in the genus Globicephala. The two species are the Long-Finned Pilot Whale and the Short-Finned Pilot Whale. The two are not readily distinguished at sea.



  • Length: : 4-8 m (13-26 ft)
  • Weight:  : 2-5 tons (2.2-5.5 US tons)

  • Worldwide popul.:

    ~200.000 indiv.

  • Status: : lower risk

  • Icelandic:: Grindhvalur

  • Blow: 1 m (3.2 ft)


  • Diet: : squid & fish

  • Binomial name:   Globicephala melas

  • Typical lifespan: 40-50 yrs


The White-Beaked Dolphin

Lagenorhynchus Albirostris | Hnýðingur or Höfrungur

A robust body and a fairly short thick beak. The coloration is diffuse and highly variable. The dorsal fin is grey, tall and strongly falcate (curved backward) and can be used for identification. The beak is often entirely white. There are 23 to 28 pairs of teeth in the upper jaw and 22 to 28 pairs of teeth in the lower jaw.

This species form groups of 5 - 50 animals, which often affiliate in schools of several hundred individuals. They are attracted to powered vessels and are active bow-riders, but lose interest rather quickly. They can be very playful and fun to look at and sometimes follow boats, jumping into the air and doing all sorts of tricks. They can’t stay underwater for very long and don’t dive deep. Occasionally, they are killed by hunters in Greenland and the Faeroe Island. Some mortality occurs in fishing gear.

The population of white-beaked dolphins is estimated to be 10.000 - 12.000 animals. They live in high-latitude waters of the North Atlantic, including the northern areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the North Sea. During summertime, they prefer arctic and subarctic waters with ice-covers or at least ice-infested.



  • Length: : 2.5-3 m (8.2-9.8 ft)
  • Weight:  180-275 kg (397-606 lbs)

  • Worldwide popul.:


  • Status: : least concern

  • Icelandic:: Hnýðingur - Höfrungur

  • Blow: none


  • Diet: : krill, squid & fish

  • Binomial name:   Lagenorhynchus albirostris

  • Typical lifespan: 25 yrs


The White-Sided Dolphin

Lagenorhynchus Acutus | Leiftur

Like the White-Beaked dolphin, the White-Sided one is slightly larger than most other oceanic dolphins. Females reach sexual maturity at between 6 and 12 years and males between 7 and 11 years. The gestation period is 11 months and lactation lasts for about a year and a half - both typical figures for dolphins. Individuals are known to live for up to 22 years (males) and 27 years (females).

The key distinguishing feature is the white to pale yellow patch found behind the dorsal fin of the dolphin on each side. This variation in colour to the Atlantic White-sided Dolphin is unique amongst the mixtures of white, greys and blues of other pelagic cetaceans. The rest of the body's coloration is well demarcated: the chin, throat and belly are white; the flippers, dorsal fin and back are dark grey to black with the exception of the yellow patch.

Dolphin group sizes vary by location, with an average of about 60 close to the Newfoundland shores, but rather smaller in the east of Iceland. From the analysis of the stomach contents of stranded animals, fish such as herring and mackerel and squid appear to form the species' main diet. The Atlantic White-sided is fairly acrobatic and keen to interact with boats, however, it is not as wildly gregarious as the White-Beaked.



  • Length: : 2.5-2.8 m ( ft)

  • Weight:  200-230 kg ( lbs)

  • Worldwide popul.:


  • Status: : least concern

  • Icelandic:: Leiftur

  • Blow: none


  • Diet: : squid & small fish

  • Binomial name:   Lagenorhynchus acutus

  • Typical lifespan: 25 yrs


The Harbour Porpoise

The Harbour Porpoise - the world’s smallest whale. A small and stocky body that is dark-grey above, but lighter coloured on the sides and white on the underside. The flippers are dark, and a dark stripe extends from the flipper to the eye. The medium-size, triangular dorsal fin is set at mid-body. The flippers are small, rounded at the tips and oval in shape and the fluke curved with a median notch. They have 22 - 26 pairs of teeth in the upper jaw and 22 - 28 pairs in the lower jaw.

Harbor Porpoises don’t go down for deep dives and usually only stay underwater for about 1-6 minutes. The smallest of all whale species can only be seen briefly when coming up to breath. They are rather shy and tend to stay away from the boats. Occurring mostly solitary or in pairs, they occasionally form small groups of up to 6 individuals. They have been hunted for centuries because of the nearshore habitat. Though still abundant locally, they are no longer as numerous. The biggest threat is the entanglement in fishing nets, habitat destruction and high ship traffic.



  • Length: : 1.5-2 m (4.9-6.5 ft)

  • Weight:  55-70 kg (121-154 Ibs)

  • Worldwide popul.:


  • Status: : vulnerable

  • Icelandic:: Hnísa

  • Blow: none


  • Diet: : fish

  • Binomial name:   Phocoena Phocoena

  • Typical lifespan: 24 yrs


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