Updated: Apr 26, 2018
It was the 24th February 2016. It was midnight, minus 18 degrees and my chin was numb. My knees were aching due to the sub-zero temperatures and my smile had reached Cheshire cat proportions. A beam of green light was spreading across a starlit backdrop and it was like watching something from a Disney movie as the Aurora Borealis danced across the Icelandic sky whilst Gulfoss waterfall roared in the background. It was the second night of our Icelandic road trip and in two days’ time we were to head north west to the Snaefellsnes peninsula to hopefully live out my childhood dream: to see a killer whale in the wild.
But first, let’s backtrack to November 2015. It was a rainy, typically Cornish autumnal evening and I was sitting with my good pals, Calum Laver and Richard Hollis, having a beer and discussing what animal species were on the top of our lists, which places we wanted to go and how cool it would be to see the northern lights. A few beers later, the three of us were booked on a February flight to Reykjavik to go in search of killer whales, gyr falcons and glaciers. It was the most expensive crate of beer I’ve ever bought.
The drive north to Grundarfjörður on the Snaefellsnes peninsula is still, to this day, the most exciting and picture heavy road trip I’ve ever had the pleasure of being on. Every time the car turned a bend in a road a whole new jaw-dropping landscape materialised before us and it was hard to resist the urge to stop to take a photo. It was during one such stop that a flock of four whooper swans flew overhead and their ‘kloo-kloo-kloo’ call resonated across the frozen road side. After two and a half hours we’d reached the bridge that crosses Kolgrafafjörður on the way to the harbour town of Grundarfjörður. During the winter months, killer whales can be seen swimming underneath this bridge to feed on shoals of herring in the shallower waters of the inlet. We stopped and scanned with our binoculars: no killer whales. However, there was a large group of male eider ducks trying to impress some females with that classic ‘oooOOOOoooo’ call. They are hands down the flirtiest duck in the animal kingdom.
We checked in with Láki tours, the wildlife operator that we would be heading out with that morning, got suited up in our sea-worthy, all-in-one weather suits and boarded the ‘Láki II’, a fast, modern twin-engine passenger boat. We were ready. The boat left the harbour and we were soon surrounded by Fulmars and more flirty eider ducks. The mountainous backdrop and early morning light was idyllic and peaceful but it was soon interrupted by Richard as he shouted, “KING EIDER”. What a bird that was. Its bulbous green, yellow and black head stood out like a sore thumb amongst the other eider drakes but the boat didn’t stop; we were in search of much larger beasties. The water was like a sheet of glass as we cruised out of the harbour but the sea soon grew as we headed out into deeper, unsheltered waters. For the next few hours the crew searched and searched for a glimpse of a fin or the spray from a blow hole. Nothing. The boat turned and began to slowly creep back towards the harbour and my hope of fulfilling my childhood dream was starting to diminish. “11 o’clock” shouted Marie, our super enthusiastic tour guide. My heart skipped a beat. Was I about to see the characteristic 6ft dorsal fin of a male killer whale? No. I did see a fin, but it didn’t belong to a killer whale. It was from a small pod of white beaked dolphins. These cold-water dolphins are chunky and robust reaching lengths of three metres and feed on fish, molluscs and crustaceans. One of the dolphins was rather inquisitive and closed in on the boat like a small fighter plane, it bow rode for a brief second before returning to the depths. It was brilliant and lifted my spirits after the disappointment of not seeing a killer whale.
As we said our goodbyes to Marie and the rest of the crew, we asked if there were any other locations around the peninsula where we could stand a chance of spotting killer whales. They’d just had a radio call saying that a fisherman had seen a group of killer whales in the inlet back in Kolgrafafjörður. Ignoring the speed limits, we jumped in the car and drove back to the bridge but unfortunately, by the time we got there, the killer whales had already returned to deeper waters. Another miss! However, as we were scanning the inlet, a large avian shape appeared over the flat icy waters. It was a juvenile white-tailed sea eagle and it was bloody massive. We watched it for several minutes before it flew out of sight around the headland. We decided to do a loop of the Snaefellsnes peninsula in the anticipation of spotting the white beaked dolphin’s larger cousin….
To find out if we were lucky enough to see killer whales in Iceland, pop back next week for part two!
Billy Heaney is a naturalist and wildlife presenter who has just completed his MSc by research studying grey seals at the University of Exeter, Cornwall Campus. Check out his website https://www.billyheaney.co.uk/ and follow him on Instagram @billyheaneynature .