diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spot The Whale

Use your skill and judgement to pinpoint the enormous marine mammal hidden in this photograph. Try to ignore the freezing wind, the rocking motion of the boat, and the queasy feeling of seasickness. Do not use a sharp hooked implement to mark your target. No refunds given.

Faxaflói Bay, Atlantic Ocean

You can't walk far in central Reykjavik without spotting an advert for whale watching. It's something every tourist does once, pretty much, so there are a number of companies with boats competing for your custom. They're all based down by the harbour, ironically right alongside the whaling ships that Iceland still permits to go a-slaughtering on the high seas. Look away, turn a blind eye, and climb aboard the sightseeing boat for your three hour observation trip.

This time of year, there's puffins first. They nest on one of the islands in Faxaflói Bay at this time of year, so the boat heads out to stare at the low cliffs for a few minutes. You'll need sharp eyes or binoculars, because these small birds look no bigger than a paperback logo from this distance. Colourful beaks and soaring flight, sure, but I can promise you a hugely better puffin experience much nearer home off the coast of Northumberland.

Then out into the Atlantic on a whale quest. The bay is prime whale-feeding territory during the summer, as your guide will explain on the journey out. There's a lot of time to fill, at least an hour of outward chugging, so no aspect of the giant mammal's behaviour is left uncovered. Best make sure you're wrapped up warm, because you're likely to be out on deck for a while and it can be damned cold bobbing about on the ocean. My voyage was blessed with bright sun but also a strong north wind, and that cut straight through.

Once out in open waters, it's all eyes to the horizon. The entire crew of the boat will be watching, but you might still be the lucky passenger to make the first sighting. A telltale blow, maybe the swish of a dorsal fin, that's the clue you so desperately want to see. Somewhere out there in the crashing waves, surely there's a whale or three ready to perform. It would be truly awful to come all this way and see nothing, having paid so much up front, especially if the ocean's rough.

I can only speak of my experience, which was a churning but empty sea. We stared, we scrutinised, but all we saw was a carpet of undulating blue and the horizon tipping this way and that. The was one brief moment of success as a black shape leapt low out of the water - a minke whale apparently, one of the smallest to be found here, merely the size of a double decker. But one second later it crashed straight back in, entirely missed by half the viewing audience, and resolutely refused to reappear. Not the triumphant whale-watching session we'd been primed for, just a disappointingly brief blur in a turbulent sea.

Slowly the spectators drifted below deck, off to console themselves with a warming drink, or maybe to hurl up the contents of their stomach into a sickbag. A few stayed up top to watch nothing much happen, stoically enduring the choppy voyage back to the relative calm of Reykjavik harbour. Our guide nipped round with the free tickets - no sighting means you can come back again on any future sailing for nothing. I'm not convinced it's an offer I'd ever take up, and certainly never in similar weather, but it seems we were damned unlucky to see virtually nothing.

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