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  • Writer's pictureElding's research team

When is the best time of year to see whales?

When is the best time of the year to see whales? Well, research gives us an idea, but in the end it is up to the whales, living freely in our Icelandic waters.

Elding operates during the entire year (with permission of the weather or global pandemics) which give us the opportunity to witness wildlife through different seasons. Thanks to this, we are able to collect invaluable data regarding the seasonality of the species in Faxaflói. The likelihood to see one or another species relies on an intricate web of several factors. The same way that food availability, weather conditions, oceanic currents or the north Atlantic oscillation influence the presence/absence of cetaceans in Faxaflói, their ecology, behaviour, seasonal movements and/or migrations contribute to increase/reduce the chances we have to see them at a specific time of the year.

Our main species in Faxaflói are white-beaked dolphins, minke whales and humpback whales, but their presence is not distributed evenly throughout the year. For example, our most recent data series for the year 2019 (see graph 1) shows that Humpback whales had two prominent peaks, one for January and another for April 2019. Humpbacks are migratory animals, meaning that they feed in higher latitudes and mate/give birth in lower latitudes. This seasonal movement implies that, in the case of the North Atlantic, they cover a distance of ~10,000 km/year between Caribbean waters and/or northwest coast of Africa and arctic/sub-arctic coasts. Such a trip has its own timing and is perfectly planned. These big cetaceans leave towards the south by the end of the summer (September) and then return with spring and the first emergence of schooling fish. Especially capelin, which gathers in big numbers during the spawning season in early March, is humpback whales' favourite snack, in consequence they have been most numerous during spring in Faxaflói. Naturally, humpbacks follow the Irminger current, clockwise around Iceland, moving towards the north in their pursue for food. After a successful summer, they return to their breeding grounds where the cycle starts again.

Fortunately, not all humpbacks are following this general framework and, as we witnessed last July, some are moving anti-clockwise around Iceland and many stay close to our shores during the coldest months (as we enjoyed last January). Winter time might be challenging, especially weather-related, but humpback whales like to highlight their presence in Icelandic waters, watched by avid whale watchers and scientists alike. The later have discovered an interesting behaviour: a good amount of the humpbacks remain in the cold waters of the North Atlantic and practise a very unique whale-behaviour: they sing songs! This behaviour was believed to be performed only in the breeding grounds during the mating season, giving us a good example of the complexity of these animals.

Graph 1.- Abundance of the three main species per tour in Faxaflói. Counted as presence/absence of the species in each tour. Sampled n=953 tours from January 1st to December 31st 2019.

Another species that makes us thrill is the minke whale. It is nearly impossible to not see one of these elegant baleen whales during the summer time, when we have peaks of up to 80% of tours in which we see them (green line; see graph 1). They follow a similar pattern as humpback whales, though it is still not well understood where they winter. It is believed that they travel along the mid-Atlantic ridge to breed near the northwest coast of Africa. Their presence within Faxaflói is almost constant, and one of the reasons is the landscape of our bay. Not too shallow, not too deep, sheltered from big oceanic currents, protected from potential predators, it's the perfect spot for these cetaceans to feed and nurse the new calves (commonly seen during summer months).

However, if we were to give an award to persistency and loyalty, it would go to one of the biggest species of dolphins in the world: the white-beaked dolphins. These magnificent and intelligent creatures are often seen on our tours in big pods (a group = a pod) and they are distributed almost evenly throughout the year (yellow line; graph 1). Their abundance has peaks and valleys and it might be a response to the natural movements of their diet: schooling fish, cod, whiting, haddock or squid and crustaceans. Their food moves as well, meaning that sometimes it is closer to shore and sometimes further away. White-beaked dolphins are a very dynamic species. They cover great distances and have a wide foraging area, for example some white-beaked dolphins tagged in Faxaflói have been tracked all along the coastal waters of western Iceland, meaning they travelled more than 700 km! During winter, it is not uncommon to see huge pods (counted by hundreds!) of dolphins swimming across our bay, socialising with their calves or interacting with vessels by bow-riding (our favourite behaviour).

But not all years are alike, we have inter-annual cycles too. Some years are better than others, factors afore mentioned might result in bigger/lower abundance of cetaceans in Faxaflói. Generally speaking, summer is our busiest and most successful time to see whales or dolphins and, as we run on average more than 500 tours during that time, we have a great insight in the variability of the three main species. Also, with boats being more numerous during the summer season, finding the place where the cetaceans are is more likely as more area can be covered. As it is shown in graph 2, minkes are the predominant species followed by white-beaked dolphins and humpback whales. It is worthy to highlight how in the years 2015-2016 (when Eldey, our biggest boat, joined the fleet and we could sail few more miles further into the bay) the abundance of humpbacks rocketed while minkes plummeted. This might suggest a strong competition for resources, in which humpbacks due to their size could displace smaller cetaceans from the foraging areas.

However, our records show that winter months are the best to see orcas, with the notorious exception of June. This pattern seems to response to herring stocks, in which Icelandic orcas are specialised. Pilot whales are another species that can be seen during summer time, as well as basking sharks (up to nine encounters last August!).

A good combination of knowledge and experience has given us a better understanding of the marine ecosystem in Faxaflói, so we know what to expect during the year. However, we deal with wild animals which means that at the end of the day is entirely up to them. The blue whales seen in October 2011-2012, humpback whales during winter 2018-2019 in Viðey or even the rare northern right whale spotted during July 2018 are a good proof of it. Anytime is always a good time to share a drop of the ocean with these gentle giants as we enjoy their presence all year around.

Graph 2.- Abundance of the three main species per tour in Faxaflói, during summer season (June-September. Counted as presence/absence of the species in each tour. Sampled n=5548 tours from June 1st to September 30th 2009-2019.

Article written by researcher Rodrigo A. Martínez Catalán


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