Here are my 5 best tips for whale watching in Vesterålen!
Whale watching comes in all shapes and sizes, just like whales come in all shapes and sizes!
You will get a totally different whale safari experience, depending on the place in the world you are, the marine mammal species that can be found in an area at a particular time, the season, the weather, the type of boat being used and the educational experience that is coupled to the whale safari. You could even go out with the same whale watching tour operator twice and have a completely different experience.
Therefore, my best tip for whale watching, anywhere, anytime, is to prepare yourself. You will 100% enjoy the experience more if you have an understanding of what is going on in that stretch of the world that you find yourself in. The experience will become all the richer, I promise you.
At the time of writing, I conclude my second year as a whale safari guide in Vesterålen, Northern Norway. So, I do think I might be able to give you a tip or two about whale watching in this particular part of the world.
The first important thing to know is that in Vesterålen they follow the ‘whale watching guide of conduct’. Like in most of Europe and other places in the world. This basically means that whale safaris have rules that prevents them to cause any disruption to the live of the marine mammals they are visiting. This means, no chasing whales, not staying with them for an extended period of time, approaching them only at specific angles and at specific speeds and more rules of this sort. This also means that sometimes this means that even though there are whales in the area, you might not come as close as you like or stay as long as you would like. The captain will evaluate the situation and do what is best for the whales.
The second important tip when going on a whale watching trip in Vesterålen, is to take the weather into consideration. Northern Norway is not known for its delicious boating weather, so dress appropriately. Depending on the season and the tour operator, you might get a tick suit to wear over your clothes. However, you still have to be smart in what to wear underneath. The rule of thumb is, whatever the temperature and wind on land, it will be triple as cold and windy out at sea. Also, you will be standing or sitting still, outside in the elements, on deck of a boat for sometimes multiple hours. Make sure to not only wear a lot of layers, preferably wool, but also wear a wind- and waterproof outer layer. Every day I would tell exactly this to the guests before leaving on the boat, and still, everyday there would be people who were cold.
And while we are on the topic of ‘common sense on board’, I give you a bonus tip for your upcoming journey at sea. You will find yourself on the artic ocean. Read that last sentence again. There will be waves. The boat will be rolling. In my personal experience, even on a calm day, one out of every 6 people would get seasick. And half of that group would be throwing up too, sometimes the whole trip. Now and then, guests’ condition would be so bad that they missed the whales entirely. Nobody wants that for you! So, I would advise you to take a travel sickness pill a few hours before your trip, if you think you might be vulnerable to sea sickness. Preferably something stronger than a ginger tablet. I would be the last to advise taking pills, but I also really want you to enjoy your whale watching experience!
On to more exiting matters! What species can you expect to see? It depends on the season of course and it can also change greatly from year to year! In the summer of 2020, we used to see pilot whales every couple of days but I never saw them the summer after!
Whales come in 2 big groups, the toothed whales or hunting whales and the baleen whales or grazing whales. Let’s start with the latter, the grazing whales. The smallest one on this list, is the minky whale. He often lives solitary and is can be extremely difficult to spot, but we used to see him almost daily on our trips! Then we have the fin whale, whom also most often lives solitary, but is extremely impressive to see because of his enormous size! And then of course, we have the humpback whale, the most expressive species in this group. They can come alone but also in smaller groups.
Moving on to the hunting whales, the smallest species you might see is the harbour purpose, whom rather lives solitary closer to shore. Moving to slightly bigger species, you could see white sided and white beaked dolphins, whom live in bigger groups. As does the long-finned pilot whale, one of my favourite species to see because of the heart-shaped pattern on their chest. Next is the Orca. Orca’s usually are seen in smaller family groups. And then at last, we have the famous sperm whale. In Vesterålen you have the chance to see adult male sperm whales, who live far apart from the females and calves. Adult male sperm whales have an enormous size and very specific behaviour, which makes them a must-see for every whale enthusiast. There are only a handful places in the world where you can watch them and Vesterålen is one of them!
All of these species can be seen year-round. The difference regarding the seasons, is that during summer, some species will be found (much) further out at sea. During springtime, they love to take advantage of the herring spawning migration, which finds place along the shorelines. Because of the greater abundancy of food in spring, you might also have a bigger change of actually seeing (more) whales and more species on your whale safari! This is true for all except the sperm whale, whom are found in the deep sea canyon year round.
Therefore, my fourth tip is for you to decide what time of the year you would like to witness these amazing marine mammals.
My last tip for you is to look out for a whale watching tour operator whom offers an educational part to your experience. As said before, when learning a bit about the biology, the ecology and the social behaviour of these amazing marine mammals, you will appreciate your trip all the better. You will understand and form a bond, making your memories all the more special.
I might be a bit biased here, but the place I worked, was coupled with a research station for those famous sperm whales. They offer guided tours in the whale museum before every trip and as a guide, this was my favourite part of it. Find them here.