May 11, 2015
- as seen by -Alex Wiles
It took us only an hour on the turbulent North Atlantic water to reach the herring boats. Having just left the city of Grindavík, it was a downright beautiful winter day in southern Iceland (a rare occurrence, from what I’m told.) As we neared the large fishing vessels on the horizon we began scanning in all directions, looking for telltale signs of life breaking the surface of the water. Several humpback whales had been seen in this area just the day before, so it came as a surprise when we saw something entirely different.
Like a knife cutting through the wake, a tall black fin emerged in the distance, gliding for a moment then disappearing. Another, slightly closer, then another, until two pods of orca adding up to eight individuals could be seen at the same time. Coming within 20 feet of the boat, they seemed indifferent to our presence, carrying on as if we were just another feature of the landscape. When they surfaced I could see and hear the blast of their breath escaping through the blowhole at the top of their head.
Killer whales, as they are commonly called, are in fact not whales at all. They belong to the same family as oceanic dolphins. This was the first sighting of orca in this region for quite some time, due to their tendency of roaming great distances seasonally to keep their food close by. While some orca feed upon marine mammals such as seals, other groups indulge in copious amounts of smaller fish as their main food source. It just so happens that Iceland has plenty of herring. For long periods of time the orca will disappear, following these masses of herring for an easy meal. As the fish migrate back to the coastal region of Iceland the orca will follow, hunting in close proximity to the herring boats that supply Iceland with this economic staple.