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Whale Watching in Reykjavík with Special Tours

Iceland is widely considered an excellent destination for whale watching. This is largely due to the variety of whales, including Humpbacks and Orcas, that call Iceland home and the frequency with which they’re spotted. To have the best chance of seeing a whale up close, you’ll want to meet the whales where they are: in the ocean!

We recently set sail with Special Tours on their Whale Watching Reykjavík tour. In this post we’ll be sharing a detailed account of our experience, including what we saw on our excursion and how we rated our motion sickness. Then we’ll give you all details on how to book this experience and how much it costs to see whales in Reykjavík.

NOTE: This post was not sponsored. We chose Special Tours based on our own research and paid full price for our tickets.

When to See Whales in Reykjavík

Reykjavík in general has a high whale spotting success rate. According to Guide to Iceland, the chance of spotting a whale near Reykjavík is as high as 99%.

Whale season is April through September, and it peeks in the summer months, June through August. This is when the most whales flock to the shores of Iceland for eating and breeding. However, whales can be spotted in the winter months too, and tours are offered in Reykjavík and other cities in Iceland year-round.

While you can spot whales in the winter, that doesn’t mean you want to run out and book a tour on your winter trip. Winter in Iceland can get really cold and wet, and it also brings in more storms. You’ll want to consider that when deciding if you want to stand outside on a whale boat for three hours. Winter weather also increases the chance that your excursion may be cancelled all together.

Even in July, people on board were wearing winter coats and the overalls provided by special tours, as seen on the man on the far left of this photo.

Due to the nature of whale watching, being wild animals and all, we’d be remiss if we didn’t remind you that your experience will vary. Some visits during peek season won’t cross paths with any whales, while you might get lucky off season and see a bunch.

With these types of experiences, we like to set our expectations low. We went out knowing that at the very least, we were going to have a nice 3 hours together on a boat with ocean views and warm coffee.

Some of us were more thrilled than others

Why We Choose Special Tours for Whale Watching

When choosing tour providers, we often start with the usual methods: basic Google search for offerings and pricing > read Google & Tripadvisor reviews to establish a baseline > then read blogger reviews for detailed accounts from people we trust.

Depending on the activity, though, we sometimes have to weigh things differently. This was one of those times. For a whale watching trip specifically, we wanted to prioritize two things.

First we wanted to have the best possible chance of seeing whales. Special Tours posts on their blog daily the status of their tours, including a log of exactly what was spotted. We liked the transparency and the ability to figure our own “odds” of seeing whales. They also offer a free ticket to “try again” and take another tour if you don’t see any wildlife on your excursion.

Sample entry from the Special Tours Daily Diary

The second thing that mattered to us was comfort. As much as I always want to love water-related activities, the truth is that I get motion sickness pretty easily.

Special Tours sails one of the largest whale watching boats in Iceland. The bigger the boat, the smoother the ride. If I was going to be on a boat for three hours, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to be barfing the whole time. The boat also had a cafe onboard. We knew it would be nice to be able to purchase water and snacks if my stomach did get upset. (And also buy coffee, obviously.)

About the Whale Watching Boat, Andrea

Special Tours sails their boat Andrea on whale watching tours, which is one of the largest whale watching boats in Iceland. The boat was originally built as a ferry boat and it felt like one. It’s spacious, with lots of seating, and has a smooth and slow ride.

There are two indoor, temperature-controlled floors and an open-air upper deck. There are 6 bathrooms on board, as well as a small whale exhibit, cafe and small souvenir shop. Their website states that the boat can seat 130 passengers and can comfortably tour with almost 200. (There were nowhere near that many on our trip.)

Here’s a look at the ships layout.

  • Lower Deck: Indoor and temperature controlled. Half of the deck is seating and tables. The other half is where you’ll find optional overalls (for warmth, dryness and floatation) and life vests (required for children under 12).
  • Middle Deck: Most of this deck is indoor and temperature controlled, but there’s also a small outdoor outdoor deck with seating in the rear. The cafe, souvenir shop and whale exhibit can be found on this deck, as well as additional seating and tables.
  • Upper Deck: This entire deck is outdoors, but offers seating and tables as well. From here there’s access to an additional small raised deck above the captains wheelhouse. The top decks offer 360-degree views around the boat.

Overall, we found the boat to be very clean and very comfortable. We spent most of our time on the lower and middle decks because we had a child, but the upper deck was very appealing as well.

A Few Things We Didn’t Love About Andrea

We did just have a couple small knits to pick because that’s our job.

The first thing to note is that the bathrooms did not have baby changing tables. We fortunately didn’t need to change our infant, but you would have to do any diaper changes in the main seating area. This surely is not ideal for anyone.

We also didn’t love how steep the steps were to the upper deck were. They were so steep that they required you to go down backwards. I’m sure this is by design, which we understand. It was just tough for us carrying a toddler, and would also be quite difficult for anyone who is otherwise unsteady.

Lastly, we want to mention the views from indoors. While being indoors was comfortable and there were large windows, you didn’t really have a great view. Because of the constant waves and mist, the glass was often covered with water drops which made it difficult to see through.

If you truly wanted to get good views or photos of whales, you’d want to spend your time on the outdoor decks. This would potentially be an issue for anyone with difficulty going up and down stairs or anyone in a wheelchair, as they would be limited to the indoor middle deck and small rear-facing outdoor space.

This is just a small example of the water on the glass. As we got further from shore, the wave splashes became more intense.

Again, these are just small issues. We overall found our time on board the Andrea to be extremely pleasant, clean and comfortable.

Motion Sickness Review ofWhale Watching in Reykjavík

Motion sickness was a concern for me when considering this whale watching trip, so I’d like to provide a review of our experience for anyone who may have similar concerns.

To set a baseline, I can handle cruising (I’ve sailed on the Disney Dream), large ferries (such as the Greek Island ferries) and quick transit boats (such as the Chicago water taxi) pretty well. I struggle with smaller vessels (like the glass-bottom boats in Crete) and constant swaying (like an anchored speedboat on a wavy lake).

It’s also important to note the sea conditions for my experience. Special Tours rates the sea conditions for each excursion as Good, Rough, Very Rough or Cancelled. Our sailing was rated as “Rough,” so our experience of how the boat handled the “motion of the ocean” is based on that.

We first spent about 30 minutes speeding away from the shore. We were on the first floor at this time. During this time, the motion of the boat was just up and down at a very steady clip as we sped over the waves. The motion was consistent in direction and frequency, but felt smooth. I noted my motion sickness at this time to be around 3 out of 10 (with 10 being the worst).

Once we started tracking the whales, things got rougher. We slowed down, changed directions more often, and were not hitting the waves straight on. This meant that the boat was bobbing with the waves, instead of cutting through them. The motion felt more circular.

At this point, we I went up to the upper deck. You could visibly see the boat leaning back and forth, which really triggered my motion sickness. I wasn’t scared for our safety by any means – it didn’t look like we were going to tip over or anything – but it was enough to make me queasy. I recall my motion sickness at this point to be around a 7 out of 10 (with 10 being the worst).

We had a toddler who needed to nap about 2 hours in, so I sat inside with them during our roughest time at sea. Between resting and a bottle of water (purchased from the onboard cafe), I was relatively fine for the remainder of the experience. I settled back into about a 5 out of 10 (with 10 being the worst).

I personally did not throw up, but there was at least one person on our boat who did. They specifically warn you not to throw up off the boat’s rails or in the toilets. Instead they provide barf bags which are available throughout the ship. There were also additional free seasickness pills provided on the boat if needed.

I will say that the bigger boat made a huge difference. One of the smaller boats by us was getting tossed around substantially more than ours, and I know I would not have done well on that. The bigger the boat, the more stable you will be, so I was very pleased to be on one of the biggest options.

Our Experience Whale Watching in Reykjavík with Special Tours

Let’s recap our personal experience with our whale watching tour with Special Tours on July 26, 2021.

The Whale Watching tour begins at the old harbor in Reykjavík. We were instructed to check in 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. Check in for the tour is at the Special Tours ticket office on the harbor. Upon check in, we were notified of the conditions (“Rough”) and offered free motion sickness pills.

About 15 minutes before our scheduled departure, we were taken on the boat. This was a good time to put on the available overalls (for warmth, water protection and flotation) or a life jacket (required for guests under 12, available but optional for all other guests).

We were visiting in July and the temperature was in the 60s. Since we didn’t plan on spending too much time outside, so we didn’t mess with the overalls. We did need to put our nearly 1-year-old toddler in a life vest.

The cafe was open, so we grabbed coffee, a chocolate chip muffin and a banana. The cafe menu was small and overpriced as to be expected, but we were happy to have it there at all as we didn’t have time to get coffee before we got there.

We departed on time and set out to sea. Pulling out of the harbor was beautiful and a great start to the excursion. We spent the first 30ish minutes jetting out to sea, so this was a great time to relax on the indoor decks. This would have also been a nice time to check out the small whale exhibit onboard, but we didn’t get to that.

Guides on board shared information along the way about passing wildlife and other updates. The announcements could be heard throughout the entire boat, but not very clearly. I often had to walk up to the speaker to try to hear what they were saying.

As we waited to hear news of any wildlife, we spent most of our time indoors on the lower deck. We had a squirmy toddler who wanted to be climbing around and playing with anything they could get their hands on, so we knew our outdoor time would be limited. Had this been an adult trip, we definitely would have enjoyed the views from the top deck.

About an hour into our trip, our guides spotted a whale in the distance. At that time, we popped out onto the lower rear deck to see what we could see … which was nothing. The guides tried to track the whale, but it did not resurface.

A little while later we came across a lively bunch of white-beaked dolphins. They stayed with us for a while and were fun to see. We also passed a few puffins. I thought this was cool at the time, but I had much more amazing puffin encounters later in my trip. We had no other whale sightings.

Special Tours does offer a free ticket to try again if there are no sightings. Given the dolphins we spotted and the fact that they never mentioned the free ticket, we assumed that we did not qualify for the free ticket. We didn’t ask or push the issue because we didn’t have an extra day in our schedule to take the tour again anyway.

We spent most of our time on the remainder of the tour on the lower and middle decks. The stairs to the upper decks were very vertical, so much so that there was a sign instructing you to walk down them backwards. With the rocking of the boat, we did not feel comfortable carrying our child up those stairs. Instead, we took turns going to the upper decks while their other parent stayed back with our child.

Halfway through our journey, our toddler got tired and we had to nap. I made a parental decision to take them out of the life vest to sleep in my arms, while I sat stationary inside on the middle deck. This likely violated their policy, but no one said anything to me about it. As soon as they woke up, they went right back into the life vest.

Fortunately for me, nap time came as I was feeling my most seasick. Staying stationary and drinking water while they napped was honestly the best thing for both of us.

By the time they woke up, we were already heading back to shore. We enjoyed the remainder of the boat ride, especially the view pulling back into the harbor.

I have fond memories looking back on our experience. We didn’t see any whales, which was a bummer, but we still enjoyed the thrill of it. I’m glad we did it and I’d do it again and hope for better luck next time.

Whale Watching with a Toddler

We were in Iceland with our nearly 1-year-old child. They had only been on one boat prior to this, and it was the Disney Friendship ferry boat between Hollywood Studios and EPCOT. So this was their first big boat ride.

Special Tours requires that all children under 12 wear a life jacket at all times. They had a few different styles of children’s life jackets, and we had no problem finding two different styles that fit our child. If your child was much smaller than one though, you may want to try them on before you disembark.

Zoe had no interest in the life vest.

We understand the need for life jackets, but would actually argue that they made us feel less safe. We had planned on keeping our child attached to us in a baby carrier. Instead, we had to carry our child wearing a bulky life vest, which required both hands to do safely. That left no hands to use on the railings while walking up and down stairs, some of which were wet. Because of this, we didn’t move around too much with our child.

Other than that, we felt like this was a perfectly safe experience for our child, even with the rough sea rating. If you were nervous, I’d recommend keeping your child on the middle deck and staying indoors, and you could all still have a very pleasant experience.

Zoe was way happier before the whole life vest situation.

Even though it was safe, our toddler didn’t get much out of it. First and foremost, they’re too young to know or care what they’re seeing. We could have had a real Free Willy moment and they would still be more interested in an empty water bottle. That’s not to say they had a bad time — they were perfectly happy watching the birds and eating snacks onboard — but the whale part didn’t really matter to them.

Also, due to the motion of the boat, we couldn’t let them walk around much. Being contained for three hours was hard for our fresh walker. They also spent a good hour of the trip napping, so neither child nor mom got to see any marine life during that time.

The best part of Zoe’s whale watching trip was probably getting snacks near the end.

All things considered, I would say this experience is not for toddlers, but toddlers are welcome. Therefore I would say it’s up to the adult’s interests. As an adult, if you want to see the whales and you have a child, for sure bring them along! I just wouldn’t recommend doing this activity solely for a child if the adult had no interest in it.

Is Whale Watching inReykjavík Worth the Money

This excursion is not cheap. For an adult, it’s just under $100 USD, which is a lot for three hours of almost anything.

In hindsight, it’s easy to say whether or not it was worth it. We didn’t see any whales, so no, I don’t think I got $100 worth of value out of the boat ride. I’m sure I’d feed differently though had I seen an orca in the wild.

Happy fam after a day at sea with no whales

You’re taking a gamble when you book something like this. You’re given a set of odds (possibly as high as 99%) and you have to decide whether you’re willing to risk the money for those odds.

Based on a review of their daily diary, it sounds like most excursions do see whales. In fact, I checked the log for the days on either side of our excursion, and nearly every sailing saw humpbacks. So we just got unlucky. Even given my no-whale experience, I’m glad we took the tour and I would take it again.

If this price point is in your budget, I would say it’s worth the money to try it. If you can comfortably spend the money on a three hour boat ride, do that. That way, if you see whales, it’s just the icing on the cake.

Book Your Whale Watching in Reykjavík Tour with Special Tours

Ready to book your trip? You can book your whale watching tour with special tours online on the Special Tours website. The price for the whale watching tour is the same regardless of the date or how early you book and costs:

  • Adults ages 16 and up: ISK 11,990
  • Teens ages 7-15: ISK 5,995
  • Children 6 and under: free

We booked our whale watching tour a few weeks before our trip, but bookings are available more than a year in advance. If tickets are still available on the day of the tour, you can also purchase them in person from the ticket office near the old harbor.

We were traveling on the tails of a pandemic, when the world was just starting to open up again, so we did not have any issues with any dates selling out. In fact, as of October 2021, there are no sold out dates through September 2023. That doesn’t mean that they won’t ever sell out though, so keep an eye on things as your trip approaches.

And that’s a wrap! Have you been whale watching in Reykjavík? We’d love to hear who you sailed with and hear about your experience! Please share in the comments.