Northern European waters, with their astonishing fjords and open blue seas, remain a well-kept secret among whale-watching enthusiasts. Other cetaceans, like dolphins and porpoises, call Scotland home while resident pods of killer whales feed off the coast of Norway. And in Iceland and Ireland, wildlife lovers marvel at humpback, minke and sperm whales.
As the education coordinator at ORCA, a charity dedicated to protecting and studying whales, dolphins and porpoises in European waters, Anna Bunney has devoted her life to advancing the limited scientific knowledge about cetaceans. “I love the fact that no day at sea watching and surveying for whales is the same,” she says. “As soon as I see the whale blow erupting out of the water, or the splash of a pod of dolphins approaching the ship, I get butterflies.”
Bunney recently traveled with Silversea as part of an ORCA team gathering data about the conservation of Europe’s whales for the organization’s report series called “The State of European Cetaceans.” The documents brings together 12 years of data collection about the distribution and range of whales, dolphins and porpoises in European seas.
“Many people think that they need to fly to Canada or Australia to have memorable encounters,” says James Robbins, the science officer at ORCA who led the data analysis of the report. “But Europe has some incredible opportunities to see whales and other marine mammals.”
Surrounded by Humpbacks in Majestic Iceland
Straddling the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, the incomparable geography of Iceland provides a breathtaking backdrop for spotting humpback whales and other marine mammals.
Bunney recalls a recent sighting aboard Silver Wind, around Ísafjörður. “It was early morning, and as the sun rose, we suddenly started to see whale blows with the magical background of snow-capped mountains in the distance,” humpback whales suddenly surrounded the whole ship, all showcasing different behaviors. Some put on a show by leaping out of the water and slapping the waves with their pectoral fins and tails. “It was an explosion of life. The encounter lasted almost all the way into port, where we finally had a chance to take a breath once we were docked,” she says.
While scientists have recorded some individual humpbacks living around Iceland year-round, high season for spotting them is summertime aboard your cruise ship, when these gentle giants migrate 3,100 miles (5000 kilometers) north from their breeding grounds in the Caribbean to feed on plankton in the food-rich waters of the North Atlantic. “The waters around Iceland and the fjords are rich with humpback, minke and blue whales that migrate up to take advantage of the abundance of prey species in the summer months,” Robbins explains. Over three days around Iceland, ORCA staff recorded an impressive tally of 136 marine mammal sightings while traveling on your cruise.
Orcas Make Norway Among the Best Destinations for Whale Watching in Northern Europe
Known for its remarkable fjords and imposing glaciers, Norway is a particularly perfect habitat for cetaceans, including the orcas and humpback whales that appear from October through January. Orcas (also called killer whales) are drawn to the Nordic country thanks to its abundant populations of salmon, herring and mackerel.
“Killer whales are split into several different types, some of which feed on fish, and others that hunt marine mammals such as seals and other cetaceans,” Robbins says. One killer whale pod in Norway is famous among scientists for its carousel feeding technique. First, the group herds a school of herring into a circle. Then, most of the whales swim around the herring to keep them from escaping while one or two orcas swim into the herring and smack them with their tails, stunning the herring. The killer whales alternate roles eating and guarding the herring until each has had enough.
ORCA’s report found that European whales, including orcas, continue to be threatened by marine pollution. The scientists found that polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an industrial pollutant, are still harming the reproduction of killer whales and dolphins. The chemicals were banned more than 40 years ago, but the report says that some European seas are considered “PCB global hotspots.”