I work in Snæfellsnes peninsula, West Iceland on a whale watching boat, the only one in the area, Laki Tours. We are only whale watch in Iceland that regularly sees Killer Whales (Orcas) and the best time of year for this is late winter and spring (March until around June). The orcas around Iceland mostly feed on herring, although there have been a small number of sightings on them eating mammals. We know a number of groups of orcas that winter off Iceland and feed on herring here go to feed off Scotland in the spring and summer, and there they feed on seals. We know so much about the resident and transient orcas off the Pacific north-west and their completely different diets and I think many people presume this is the same for orca populations all over the world. However, this is certainly not true of all the orcas here in the North Atlantic, and we know that a number of pods regularly feed on fish in one area and mammals in another.
One other difference I think between the Pacific and Atlantic orcas is their surface activity. While breaching is reasonably common out in the Pacific it is incredibly rare in both the Icelandic and Norwegian populations of orcas over here. We very rarely see a breach, but we do see them spy-hop fairly regularly. Spy-hopping, when they stick their head out of the water is so fun to see.
One of the most awesome things about being on the water every day is you genuinely don’t know what you will see out there. I think passengers sometimes think we just make this up when they ask us, but of course it is nature and we have no idea who will be out there and what they will be up to.
One day in late July a few years ago we came across two pods of orcas socializing. Being July we were very pleased to find orcas as we don’t seem them so regularly as the summer goes on. The orcas were spy-hopping before we arrived as we saw them from a distance.
And they continued this behaviour the whole time we were with them, around an hour. We saw well over 150 spy-hops, in all different combinations of number, angle, height etc.
It was just an incredible encounter. We know the whales were not doing it to look at us as they were spy-hopping before we arrived and many of them were far from the boat, so it must have been some kind of social interaction between the groups. I would love to know what it meant but I don’t suppose will ever know. In the five years since this day I have never seen this many spy-hops again, even though we have had some other great spy-hoppy encounters with the Icelandic orcas.