Location: Grundarfjörður, Iceland
Rating: 4.5 stars
An expertly run tour that has it all, great attitude towards not disturbing the whales, passionate about both the wildlife and giving their customers a fantastic experience and of course, a wonderful opportunity to see incredible whales up close in epic Icelandic landscapes. What more could you ask for! Check the time of year when you go so you know what species you are likely to see, but I strongly recommend going in the spring like I did so you stand your best chance of seeing orca pods hunting for fish.
Why not five stars?
Laki lost half a star for the ‘The quality of the information on the animals given to the public’ category. Read on to the ‘Worst part?’ bit of this review for why I deducted this and go here for the star category criteria.
Laki has a medium sized boat, which for me is the perfect size for whale watching and taking photos. It gives you some elevation from the water’s surface so that you can see the whales coming up to the surface (and have a better chance of snapping them) while keeping you close enough to the water to get great shots and really feel the presence of the whales when they are right beside you, or off the bow. Being slightly above the water’s surface also means that your gear is unlikely to get wet from swell splashes, which happens in smaller boats. The captain of the boat was very skilled at driving calmly so the whales were not only comfortable around the boat, maximising your time to try and get shots of
them, but actually approached it at some points! Having a male orca surface right before the bow is an amazing experience and photo opportunity. Of course all photographic opportunities with the whales will be down to which whales are in the area and what they are doing at the time, if they are busy foraging they are unlikely to hang around too much. However Laki certainly have the ability to give you the best looks at the whales they find, which will translate to great pictures if you can keep up with them!
Most Recent Trip: 2nd April 2016
Total Number of Times Visited:
Three times within two weeks in March – April 2016, we booked two trips at either end of our holiday as we wanted to make sure if one trip was cancelled due to bad weather we’d have another chance to go out with these guys. The first two trips were so successful we went on a third straight after the second tour!
When you get to the ticket office/café before your trip, you check in with the people behind the till and get your tickets. We always got there a little early, so there was time to have a drink in the café and browse the whale books on display, including a photo ID catalogue of the orcas seen repeatedly in the area. When the time for the tour arrives you are taken outside and everyone is issued a survival suit. Laki’s suits were very well maintained and warm, and these really help you stay cozy when out on the water.
Then depending on where whales have been sighted and where their boat is currently docked, one of two things will happen. Either you will be lead to the docks in Grundarfjörður and onto the boat for departure or you will be put on a coach to drive you further down the coast to board at a more westerly dock than Grundarfjörður like Ólafsvík. This happened on one out of the three tours we went on, and I didn’t mind the drive as the scenery is so beautiful on the way, but it gets a bit toasty on the coach in your survival suit so make sure you at least unzip it before getting on!
Once on the boat you can pick where you want to be, either inside for warmth or outside to keep an eye out for whales. One of the tours we were on sighted an orca pod literally in Grundarfjörður bay as soon as we departed, so things can happen quickly once the boat is on the water! Laki’s captain and crew are in communication with local fishing boats around the peninsula and they generally have a good idea where any whales that can be sighted are in an area, and what direction they are travelling in (very important for fast moving orca pods). If whales are not in the immediate area, then you will set off for the nearest place where whales have been sighted recently.
There is a naturalist on board, but unfortunately they don’t talk at all during the early part of the tour, they say that they are focusing on looking for whales with the crew. More about this in the ‘worst part’ section of the review, as I feel it’s completely feasible for a naturalist to watch out for whales while informing the tour guests about what they are currently seeing as all other whale tours do!
Once you have found whales, or marine mammals of any kind, you then spend some time with them. How long you will be with a particular group will depend on their behaviour. One pod of orca we encountered was clearly travelling and foraging for fish, so were difficult to stay with and we only spent a short time viewing them, which I approve of as there is no point dashing about disturbing whales that are trying to feed. Another large pod of orca were resting and socialising, travelling together very slowly and coming very close to the boat. These we spent longer with as their movements were predictable and slow, so it was easier for the captain to put the pod on one side of the boat and travel alongside them. The boat was expertly driven throughout the tour, I was very impressed by how respectful of the whales the captain was while getting very good looks at the whales when conditions allowed.
Either midway or towards the end of the tour the naturalist will come round with hot chocolate and will be available to answer any questions people have. The naturalist speaks a little during the whale encounters, telling you what species you are seeing and if there are any recognisable individuals in the group, but they mostly focus on taking photo ID images for the research they do. Again, I think this is a shame as it’s a prime time to talk to the tour guests about the species they are seeing, explaining any behaviour the whales are doing or talking about the wider ecology of the species in this part of the world. It’s only once the tour is over and you are heading back into dock that the naturalist then starts giving talks about what you saw on the trip and Icelandic marine life in general.
Once you arrive back into the dock you return to the Grundarfjörður office and give back your survival suits. You can then have a drink or a pizza from the café and get any gifts you want to buy, they have some beautiful cards and postcards with images of local orcas on them!
Value for Money:
Laki charge 9,900 Icelandic krona (about £75) per guest for three hour tours. This is pretty expensive compared to companies I’ve been whale watching with worldwide for similar durations, but seems pretty standard for winter, southern Iceland whale watching tours. It is unfortunate that they only offer a free trip if you don’t see whales on you tour, as most visitors are not able to take advantage of this. In other countries, partial refunds are offered instead. However the ‘free trip if you don’t see whales’ is not an uncommon policy and it is consistently present in all the Icelandic tours I’ve looked at, so Laki aren’t doing anything different to their competitors in this country.
Orca. The Snæfellsnes peninsula has some groups that regularly visit the area in the winter/spring and also plays host to many other pods travelling through the area. The summer is not the season to see them, although it is possible, so if you are primarily after orca then choose your time of year carefully.
What else can you see?
A whole host of different species, the Snæfellsnes peninsula is truly an amazing place to whale watch! We saw two humpback whales on one of our trips, and other commonly seen species include white beaked dolphin and minke whales. In the summer they get male sperm whales and can also see large groups of migrating pilot whale occasionally. We also saw grey seals on our tour and lots of sea birds! In the summer there are lots of puffins about.
3 hours typically, but the captain and crew are enthusiastic about whale watching and if what you are seeing on the water is amazing they extend the trips so you can experience it as much as possible!
Like many Icelandic whale watching companies, Laki provides complimentary survival suits for all their customers on their tours. Laki’s suits are well maintained and very toasty, with lots of pockets for gloves and spare camera batteries. Make sure you bring hats and gloves to keep your extremities warm though, it is literally freezing out at sea!
Boat – Laki has several, medium sized boats that typically carry under 100 people per trip. We went out on Láki II, which is in very good condition and has both indoors and outdoors areas for guests. You do not have assigned seating and are free to move about the boat as soon as you get on. Medium sized boats are my favourite, you can see the whales really well when they surface, you still feel close to them and they usually also keep you out of range of wave splashes. Laki’s boat has a fair amount of space on the front of the deck for guests and has a fantastic high rail to provide good support for people to lean on. This might sound like something every whale watch company should have, but many medium sized whale watching vessels are catamaran style boats which have incredibly low, flimsy boundaries. The outdoor area is where I spent all of my time on the three trips I went on, so I really cannot comment on what the indoors part is like! There is little seating outdoors so if you are keen to ‘stake out’ a place on the bow early on in the trip you could be in for a long time standing up waiting to see something. However, this didn’t bother me at all, and there was an enthusiastic ~12 year old girl who also had no difficulty standing for several hours on the prow looking for whales!
Tour Office, café and gift shop – The office where you buy your tickets is in a medium sized building that has many functions. It has a very good gift shop with lots of postcards, books and whale related things to buy. There is also a decent sized café/restaurant attached to the ticket desk, and you can buy coffees and snacks with your ticket and sit and look over the whale ID catalogues while you wait for your tour to depart. During lunch and in the evening the attached restaurant serves really tasty pizzas.
When you are out on the boat, amongst the whales with the incredible landscapes of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, especially Kirkjufell or Snæfellsjökull, towering around you!
Laki lost half a star for the ‘The quality of the information on the animals given to the public’ category. I guess the problem with Laki isn’t so much the quality of the information; it’s the lack of opportunities to get the information while on the tour!
This is a frustrating one, as the naturalist they had on board the boat was extremely knowledgeable and if you asked her questions about anything, she clearly knew what she was talking about and could tell you lots of information. But the opportunity to ask questions was fairly limited as she spent most of the tour in the wheelhouse with the captain or concentrating on taking ID photos. Also, the amount of time she actually spoke over the PA system to tell us about what we were seeing was very limited compared to other tours I’ve been on. They give the excuse that they are spending the time at the start of the tour looking for whales, but every other whale watching boat I’ve ever been on (including ones where I’ve been a naturalist myself) either have naturalists that can look out for whales and give their talks at the same time, or have more than one naturalist on board so one can concentrate on looking and the other can give talks.
On one of the tours we were on, the lack of naturalist talks was especially noticeable. We departed from Grundarfjörður and the orcas were sighted in the far west, off the tip of the Snæfellsnes peninsular, so we would have a 2 hour boat drive without seeing any whales. Rather than give talks then, about the wildlife in the area, about the amazing geography clearly visible on the shore etc, there was nothing, just silence. The guests were left to amuse themselves for the 2 hours! It was extremely noticeable among the guests, and we were left to discus things amongst ourselves and speculate about facts and information about what we were seeing. It’s a real shame as it’s the one problem with an otherwise amazing company, and could be easily fixed with some more training or another naturalist on board.
How to get there:
Grundarfjörður is a pleasant, fairly easy 2-3 hour drive from Reykjavik, although in the winter it is essential that you check the road conditions before you go. We hired a car to get there, as there aren’t many public transport options, only a few buses which are on a very restricted timetable in the winter.
We did not need a 4×4 car to get to Grundarfjörður, but make sure your hire company gives you good winter tyres and choose your route carefully. There is a spine of mountains running down the Snæfellsnes peninsular and some roads go up into the mountains and cross them, so you can save time getting to the northern side rather than going around the coastline. We only went up and across the mountains once during our trip, and it was to see the views not as a short cut to get to our tour with Laki. It was an amazing but slightly scary experience, the snow and ice was everywhere when we were there during late March/early April and it would be easy to come off the mountain roads and get in a lot of trouble quickly. We saw a number of car accidents around Reykjavik involving tourists coming off the road and getting stuck in snow drifts, be careful if you aren’t used to driving in such conditions!
The drive is very easy and well signposted; from Reykjavik you take route 1 north until you get to Borgarnes and then take route 54 towards the peninsular. You then have an option to stay on route 54 and go over the mountains on route 56, which technically is quicker, or you can do what we did to be on the safe side in the winter. We took route 55 to the northern coast of the peninsular and re-joined route 54 going west (to the left!) along the northern shore, eventually you will get to Grundarfjörður. This route 55 does still go up a fair way up into the mountains but not as much as the route 56 way. Whichever way you go, check the excellent weather warning and road condition information before you set off and give yourself plenty of time to get there before your tour, don’t rush! We tried to get to Grundarfjörður the day before all our tours so we would not be stressed trying to arrive on time. Sometimes this was not possible, and once we stayed at Borgarnes for a night before driving on in the morning to Grundarfjörður.
According to the Laki website, some of their Snæfellsnes tours depart from Ólafsvík now. It is easy enough to reach this port once you have got onto the loop of route 54 that goes around the whole peninsular; it’s an pleasant 20-30 minute drive west of Grundarfjörður.
Where to stay:
When we stayed in Grundarfjörður we used the excellent hostel, and I highly recommend it. The hostel is made up of several separate houses in the town, they are not on the dockside but Grundarfjörður is so small it’s easy to walk to Laki or the restaurants/shop in the town. The staff are very friendly and very knowledgeable about the local area and what we could do there. The rooms were lovely, clean and well equipped, as were the bathrooms and kitchen facilities. We booked a whole series of hostel stays for our tour around the South of Icleand, ranging from Vik to Grundarfjörður. If you get in touch with the Hostelling International association they can help you plan your trip and book you into various hostels along the way. Accommodation is expensive in Iceland, so hostels were the best option for us.
There is also a hotel in Grundarfjörður, Hotel Framnes which we did not stay in but had a wonderful meal at their restaurant and it seemed very nice. HOWEVER, apparently the hotel was sold just after our visit in April 2016, and now the hotel has terrible reviews and no restaurant, so beware!
Where to eat:
As mentioned above, Laki’s café/restaurant serves food and really good pizzas, plus we also had a great meal at Hotel Framnes, but their restaurant sadly closed when the new owners took over. There is a tiny, cheap fast food diner in the local grocery shop, which is a common thing in Iceland and happens throughout the country.
The best place by far to eat in Grundarfjörður is the amazing Bjargarsteinn restaurant. It’s expensive, so we saved it for our last night in Grundarfjörður (and Iceland) as a special treat and we were not disappointed! The food was phenomenal and the views look out over the bay to the impressive Kirkjufell Mountain.
Other things to do?
There are loads of incredible sights to be seen in the surrounding area on the Snaefellsness peninsular, the Kirkjufell Mountain and the amazing Kirkjufellfoss waterfall close beside it are an absolute must. In the winter this is a great place for northern lights as there is so little light pollution away from the town, our favourite site to wait and watch for them actually was the top of Kirkjufellfoss, but take a torch of some kind to light your way up the stairs! We also drove the whole of route 54 around the peninsular to see the Snæfellsnes national park, an amazing old lava field dominated by the imposing Snæfellsjökull volcano with glacier. The point of the peninsular in Snæfellsnes national park also has amazing, dramatic cliffs and seabird colonies to visit.
I said the same thing at the end of my Elding whale watch review (based in Reykjavik, Iceland) but it bears repeating… 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 Icelandic 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 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 while out with Laki: