Location: Reykjavik, Iceland
Rating: 3 stars
A massive whale watching company that does well on educating their guests about Iceland’s sea life and respecting the whales, but is just too large scale for me to personally enjoy as much as some of the other whale watch experiences I’ve had. You can see several types of whales and dolphins on their tours, although which kinds you can see and how likely you are to see anything at all greatly vary with the time of year, so do your research before you decide to go out with them! The weather conditions during the winter/spring can be harsh, cold and sea sickness seem to be common problems on these tours at these times of year (although I personally didn’t suffer from either). They have a fleet of boats, and the whale watching tours are either in RIBs or in large boats that can take over a hundred people at a time, which are much larger than my idea of an ‘ideal’ whale watching vessel. On the plus side, their naturalists are some of the best I have ever heard, knowledgeable about a huge range of species and Icelandic topics and very friendly. The tours seem designed to capitalise on the large numbers of tourists that travel through Reykjavik who are in Iceland for a short period of time, and if you are only visiting this part of Iceland and want a company to take you out on the water, show you what’s there and then get you back on schedule then these guys fit the bill. In all this company is a good all rounder, respectful of the whales, able to show you interesting species depending on the time of year and great at providing accurate, interesting information to their customers about the wildlife you are seeing.
Why not five stars?
Elding lost half a star for the ‘How friendly and helpful the staff or company is’ category and half a star for the ‘The quality of the boat and the facilities available to you’ category. I also took one star because I simply don’t think this large scale style of whale watching is as good as, smaller companies provide, giving 3/5 stars (feel free to ignore this if large boats/companies don’t bother you). Read on to the ‘Worst part?’ bit of this review for why I deducted these and go here for the star category criteria.
I went out on their larger boats (it would have been one out of “Hafsulan”, “Elding” or “Eldey” but I don’t remember which one) so can only really comment about the experience on these. However, I’ve been on enough RIBs to know they are always tricky for long lens photography, so if you are on one of those trips take care to protect your camera gear from the splashes and bashes that commonly accompany RIB tours. In the larger boats, you have the usual problem that all large whale watch boats have, an unpleasant scrum of many people jostling for position on the various front parts of the boat until the first whale is sighted, then the gradual loss of interest that clears the decks as the tour goes on, giving you more space. Top tip, pick a forward corner and stick with it, captains usually try to put travelling whales on one side or the other of the boat so being on the central, front position can be a disadvantage when taking pictures of whales in boats like this. The height you get from large boats gives you a the best opportunity to see the whales coming up to the surface so you can be ready to press the shutter release on your camera, humpback whales especially can be very visible underwater if they have white pectoral fins. Long lenses are useful on these tours as you can seem far away from the whales or dolphins compared to shooting in a smaller boat. There are plenty of indoor places to get your gear out of the elements if you feel it is needed, and take spare batteries if you are going out in winter/spring, it is extremely cold which can drain battery life faster than usual. Wrap up warm and take advantage of the excellent survival suites they offer for free as soon as you get on the boat, so you can be on deck the whole trip. The best photo opportunity we had was an unexpected close approach by a curious minke whale which happened very fast, to get the best out of the tour you need to be out looking for wildlife, ready to shoot the whole time and not be dissuaded by the cold!
Most Recent Trip: 28th March 2016
Total Number of Times Visited:
Twice within the same week in March 2016, we only booked one trip but as we saw no whales and had time, we took advantage of their ‘complimentary ticket if you don’t see whales’ deal and went again a few days later, which was very successful.
On arrival at the Eldling office within Reykjavik docks, you will pick up your tickets and then will be instructed to head towards the dockside boarding area for Elding at an appropriate time prior to departure. To get onto your boat, for the larger tours, you will probably have to queue through the whale ‘museum’ like we did as boarding over a hundred people takes time! The museum is a permanently berthed boat with information on marine mammals and a whale skeleton, plus the company’s gift shop. Once on board you are free to roam around and set yourself up where ever you please on the boat, there are several floors both inside and outside to choose from. I strongly recommend going
down to the deck which hands out the complimentary survival suits as soon as you get on board, especially in the winter/spring. We did not take our suits off for a minute on both the tours we did, despite having many layers of thermals and waterproof coats on already, it is cold out at sea in Iceland!
Once everyone is boarded the boat will set off into Faxaflói bay to look for whales and dolphins, although as this is a whale tour I imagine those would get preference if multiple things are sighted at once. The guests on the tour are free to move about throughout the tour and staff caution you appropriately to take care while moving around while the boat is in motion. The whole time while the boat is heading out one of the companies naturalists will be speaking over the sound system from the top deck, giving you information about the local area, the scenery you can see, the wildlife as it appears and, of course, the whales. While they are speaking, they are also looking out for signs that whales are present in the area so they can direct the boat to them if needed. You can go up to the naturalists at any point in the tour and ask them questions. On both tours, both of the naturalists we had were outstanding, easily among the best I have ever heard on a whale watch. I can remember the name of one of them, Megan Whittaker, as she impressed me so much with her ability to keep providing the guests with interesting information throughout the whole three hour tour. As we saw no whales or dolphins on the tour she guided, all of the guests had nothing to do but stare out to sea and listen to her, and she was phenomenal. Having worked on whale watch boats myself, I know how difficult, if not painful, it can be for a naturalist who has to guide a tour with no whales and a lot of unhappy customers, and she was just amazing. The other naturalist, a guy who’s name escapes my memory unfortunately, was also great on our second tour where we did see minke and humpback whales. This really was the stand out feature of this company for me, I always value good guest education on wildlife experiences and I honestly don’t think Elding’s naturalists could be any better!
After the three hour tour is up, you head back into harbour and if you did not see whales then an announcement is made saying you all have a free ticket for another trip, valid for 2 years, so you can come back and try again, and to pick these up from the bar area before you leave the boat if you are interested. On the first trip we went out on, I think my husband and I were almost the only people who took them up on this offer, the trip was in fairly rough seas and sea sickness had taken it’s toll on lots of the guests, so I don’t think there was high motivation to go on another trip for many of the other guests. Elding offer complimentary sea sickness tablets at their office, which is nice I suppose but few people seem to realise that sea sickness pills are only effective if taken before getting on a boat, lots of people seem to wait until they start to feel sick then take them, by which time it’s too late. If you are prone to sea sickness, take the pill before you get on the boat! Or if you don’t want to have the pill, try and keep warm, stay outdoors in the fresh air and look at a fixed point, like the surrounding mountains or the horizon. Sea sickness occurs (simply put) due to a mismatch of information between your sense of balance (from your inner ear) and what your eyes are seeing, so staying indoors frequently does not help, especially if you lock yourself in a toilet (often considered the worst thing to do when sea sick).
Once back at the harbour you can check out the gift shop and whale museum before going back onto the dock. At the time of our tour, there was also a deal on the back of our tickets that offered a decent discount at a nearby restaurant if you wanted lunch, but as we had another tour planned we couldn’t take advantage of this. If you are rushing off to another tour, head back to the Elding ticket office to wait, and if your pick up doesn’t show up they can help you track it down! The lady in the ticket office was very helpful when we were trying to find our transfer to a horse riding activity in the afternoon.
Value for Money:
At 10990 Icelandic Krona (about £80) per person for a three hour trip, this is definitely one of the more expensive whale watching trips I’ve been on. Considering how variable the wildlife you can see throughout the year is and their policy on what happens when you don’t see whales, it’s pretty pricey for what you get. It’s about double what I’ve paid for similar styles of trip elsewhere in the world, and in the few instances that the price has been similarly high, those companies offer an 80% refund if whales are not seen, rather than the ‘free second ticket for a trip that is valid for 2 years’ that Elding offers, which of course many people cannot use as they aren’t coming back to Iceland in the foreseeable future. The ‘free trip if you don’t see whales’ is not an uncommon policy for whale watching companies and it is consistently present in all the Icelandic tours I’ve looked at, but at this price it certainly seems to leave a bad taste in the mouths of those not lucky enough to see whales on their trip and no time to re-book.
This is a tricky one given that their advertising is almost completely centred around humpback whales, but I would say the minke whales because these are the most abundant species you can see in the area they operate in (according to Elding’s website, they see minkes on a whooping 89% of their summer trips compared to the 13% of trips humpbacks are seen in the summer, although this does go up to 30% in the winter). Minke whales are amazing, beautiful and curious whales which can give close approaches to boats and very memorable whale watching experiences, so I’m not sure why Elding seems to only advertise with humpbacks, which according to their site are much harder to see. It is hugely saddening that in the very same bay during the summer, minke whales are hunted so that tourists can eat whale meat in Icelandic restaurants. Apparently on summer trips you can sometimes hear the explosive harpoons at work while you are on your tour. So I do feel for Elding, their most abundant whale species is hunted in the same place they are trying to take people to watch and appreciate them, which must make the whales boat-shy and make for a terrible spectacle when a harpooning is visible from the tour. Elding give lots of information about Icelandic whale hunts and how you can help end them on their tour, which is highly commendable. If you are visiting Iceland please do not support the whale hunt by eating whale meat or visiting restaurants serving whale meat during your visit! It is not a part of local customs or cuisine, and without support from the tourist industry it is hoped that the hunt will end in this country.
What else can you see?
As mentioned above, humpback whales can be seen (we saw one on our March trip) along with Orca, harbour porpoise and white beaked dolphin, and there are other, less frequently seen species of whale and dolphin too. There are lots of beautiful sea birds around such as fulmars, and the epic scenery surrounding the bay is spectacular. At the right time of year you can also see puffins I believe.
3 hours but there are 2 or 5 hour trips available.
Boats – The large boat I was on had lots of seating, indoor and outdoor areas, plenty of toilets and a sizeable bar where you can buy snacks and drinks. The bottom deck has the place where they hand out their amazing, cosy survival suites to everyone on the tour, they aren’t compulsory but I strongly advise getting one on as soon as you get on the boat so you stay nice and warm while you’re out at sea. RIB boats are too small to have any kind of indoor area, so toilets or places to buy refreshments are absent.
Tour Office – The dockside tour office where you actually buy your ticket is pretty small and only really houses the tills for buying your ticket and any other tourist packages you are interested in so that you can combine several activities into one day. There is lots of information leaflets in the office so you can see what else there is to do in and around Reykjavik, we did a combination tour with whale watching and Icelandic horse riding which was lots of fun!
Museum/shop – When boarding and exiting the boat for your tour you pass through a permanently berthed boat which has a small museum about Icelandic marine mammals and the gift shop inside. We didn’t really get time to actually look around the museum as we had to rush off for our horse riding, but the displays looked pretty good, lots of information and nice images for people to enjoy. The gift shop has all sorts of things in it, again we didn’t get much of a chance to look around but all the usual stuff (T-shirts, postcards, books, cuddly whale toys etc) was there.
The scenery is truly amazing in Iceland and Faxaflói bay is no exception to this. Of course, seeing the whales is undoubtedly the best part of the trip but getting to see them in such a breath-taking environment makes it even more special. Mount Esja dominates the landscape towards the north and the Keilir volcano cone can be seen in the south.
Elding lost half a star for the ‘How friendly and helpful the staff or company is’ category and half a star for the ‘The quality of the boat and the facilities available to you’ category, and on top of that lost a full star due to the style of whales watching company they are. Let’s deal with these one at a time…
Firstly, concerning the staff, everyone both on and off the boats was wonderful and helpful in every way apart from one, crucial point with the office staff. When asked about the recent whale sightings their company had during the week or previous day, the staff were evasive. This really bothers me, I know that telling people the company hasn’t seen whales recently will make some people decide against going, but it smacks of dishonesty. Elding are the only company I’ve been out with who were so evasive about this information, most other companies I’ve experienced have boards they update daily showing what’s been seen in the last month or so, no matter how bare it looks. I know Eliding have a blog where they post some of their sightings, but I strongly feel if you ask the staff what they’ve seen recently, they should be able to give you an open, honest answer. A lack of recent sightings certainly wouldn’t put me off going out because I am happy enough to take my chances, safe in the knowledge that in Iceland there are so many different types of marine mammal that can potentially be seen at various times in the year it’s worth the ‘risk’. There are plenty of companies who get by just fine being totally open and honest about this aspect of their business, and I really don’t see why Elding can’t do the same. It’s possible, I suppose, that the staff on the desk on the particular days I asked didn’t know what the recent sightings were, but then they need to be better trained!
Secondly, the boat design and the number of people on the tours means that you inevitably get a massive, unpleasant scrum of people on the various front decks of the boat. Being at the mercy of how rude other people can be as they jostle and even shove you out the way so they wedge themselves past you is just not nice, and an is an inescapable part of trying to whale watch on these large vessels. There are just so many people and only so much space along the rails! Elding have no control over their customer’s behaviour, but the fact that they use these kinds of boats means you will experience this on your tour (unless you are on one of their RIB trips of course, where everyone has a designated seat from the trip).
Finally, what is my problem with large scale whale watching? Well, I just feel whale watching as an experience is much better when you have fewer people per boat and a smaller company that invests it’s best in one vessel, rather than trying to make everything good across a fleet. This way there is less of the people scrum at the front of the boat, and every tour that goes out has the best boat, equipment, captain, crew and naturalist team that the company has to offer. Large companies with fleets of boats will have a range of people to fulfil these roles and a range of boats and equipment in various states of repair, potentially giving a very different experience across trips with the company. While I cannot in all honesty say large style whale watching is inherently ‘bad’ I certainly feel it is done better on a smaller scale. Clearly large scale companies work well enough for hundreds of people using them to get close to marine mammals around the world, and that’s fine, but I personally would always chose a different style to this given the choice!
How to get there:
This will greatly depend on where you are staying in Reykjavik. You can arrange transfers and pick ups for your tour so getting to the docks from your accommodation shouldn’t be hard if you ask to arrange a pick up. The office itself is easy to find on the docks.
Where to stay:
Not going to cover this as Elding is based in Reykjavik, there are almost unlimited options! We stayed in a hostel away from the city centre called ‘Hostel Village Reykjavik’ which was basic but nice and suited us perfectly.
Where to eat:
Again, I’m not going to cover this as Reykjavik has so many options. Please remember to avoid places selling whale meat on their menu, by taking your money to restaurants that don’t serve whale meat you are supporting ending the whale hunt in Iceland!
Other things to do?
As previously stated, there are so many things to do in and around Reykjavik that it’s impossible to list all of them, but we really enjoyed the Icelandic horse riding through the old lava fields and, of course, there is the legendary blue lagoon near-ish to Reyjavik (remember to book, otherwise you might not get in, like what happened with us!)
Remember to wear warm clothes on these tours! It always amazes me how poorly people dress on whale watch tours, and getting cold is a good way to ruin your trip, as you’ll spend all your time indoors trying to ‘endure’ the trip rather than enjoy it. For my spring trips, I wore 4 layers of clothing and then the complimentary survival suit on top, and on deck I was just about the right temperature to stay outside for the whole 3 hour trip. Gloves are a must, thin merino wool style ones are great if you want to keep some dexterity in your hands for photography, and I also wore a fleece hat and a balaclava to keep the amount of skin on my face exposed to the elements as little as possible.
Images taken on Elding’s tours: