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An inside guide to Húsavík, Iceland's whale-watching capital

Boat tours of Skjálfandi Bay explore the migration paths of more than 20 species of cetacean, including blue and humpback whales. But there’s plenty to explore on land, too.

Published 4 Sept 2021, 06:06 BST
The town of Húsavík is set on northern Iceland’s Skjálfandi Bay. The best time to visit ...

The town of Húsavík is set on northern Iceland’s Skjálfandi Bay. The best time to visit is between May and September due to the abundance of whale sightings. Infact, the bay's relatively shallow waters means it takes a considerable misfortune to not catch a sighting of these behemoths.

Photograph by GETTY Images

It would be inconceivable to describe humpback whales as boring, but as anyone who has regularly watched them — possibly right here in Húsavík — will tell you, their behaviour is predictable. The town is set on northern Iceland’s Skjálfandi Bay, whose relatively shallow waters mean the creatures tend not to stay submerged for more than 10 minutes at a time, sometimes breaching as they frolic or communicate with other whales. For guides and guests alike, this is something of a dream. Between May and September each year, it takes considerable misfortune to not catch a sighting of these abundant behemoths while out in the bay.

This abundance would be extraordinary on its own, but humpbacks are just one of 24 species of cetacean to frequent these waters. Lucky visitors might also spot pods of orca, spectacular sperm whales and, arguably best of all, blue whales, the largest animals to have ever graced the Earth. Dolphins can also be spotted before even leaving the harbour.

This world-class access to marine mammals has built Húsavík a stellar reputation as probably the finest whale-watching location in Europe. Gentle Giants is one of several long-established operators in town, and also offers bird-watching trips to the nearby island of Flatey.

While the whales have been doing the heavy lifting for Húsavík’s marketing for more than 30 years, the 2020 release of the Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams film Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga boosted the town’s fortunes even further. Its track Husavik (My Hometown) — a strange ode to life here — was nominated for Best Original Song at the 93rd Academy Awards. Hats off to the entrepreneurial locals who have hastily opened Jaja Ding Dong, a cafe-bar named after another song from the film’s soundtrack, albeit one that didn’t receive any form of Oscar recognition. 

The fictionalised version of the town presented in the film may not be the scene that awaits visitors, but, as well as whale-watching opportunities, there are plenty of benefits to making the journey this far north. To flesh out your knowledge of cetaceans, visit the excellent Húsavík Whale Museum, based in an old slaughterhouse (although the focus today is very much on living creatures). 

Elsewhere, among the many pretty buildings in town, Húsavíkurkirkja — a wooden church built in 1907 — is perhaps the fairest, and is open to visitors during the summer months. The Museum of Exploration, dedicated to the history of human exploration, is also well worth a visit — especially as the area around Húsavík is thought to be one of the very first settled by Viking explorers. 

Food and drink options are somewhat limited, but the family-run Naustid restaurant has won plenty of admirers for its clever use of locally caught seafood. And perhaps surprisingly for a town of this size, there’s also a microbrewery, the better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Húsavík Öl.

Published in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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