Greenland stands as one of Europe's premier destinations for whale watching. During the summer, you have a 90% chance of encountering one of the hundreds of whales that reside in the Disko Bay. For wildlife enthusiasts, this is an experience not to be missed! During our stay in Ilulissat, we embarked on a whale watching tour, spending around 3 hours at sea in search of these majestic creatures. Curious about our experience? Allow me to introduce you to Greenland whale watching from Ilulissat!
Unveiling the Wonders of Greenland Whale Watching in Ilulissat
Imagine a sleek, glossy black submarine, gliding gracefully above the ocean's surface. Whales, serene yet decisive, elegantly emerge from the depths, breaching to inhale through their blowholes. They bask in the daylight as if craving a sunbath. These leviathans of the open water never appear hurried. Like elegant dancers, they move calmly beneath, above, and on the water, radiating patience and thoughtfulness.
There's an air of mystery, an intangibility about whales. Even when they notice you, they seem indifferent to your presence. Undisturbed, they continue their activities with a nonchalant 'je m'en fous' attitude. I recall, as a ten-year-old, being captivated by the immense whale skeleton on display at the natural history museum. I could almost wander endlessly between its origins, from its baleen-laden jaw to its powerful tail. The sheer strength and power exuded by these colossal creatures left an indelible impression.
Admiring whales in their natural habitat quickly became a boyhood dream. While 'bucket lists' were unfamiliar terms, I knew early on that I wanted to scour the ocean for the world's largest mammals. A personal Moby Dick adventure, akin to a whale hunter but without harpoons and other dubious tools—observing from a distance, open-mouthed, and awestruck by these majestic beings.
Whale Safari in Ilulissat: Hoist the sails, weigh the anchor!
The boat's engine hums to life. Fast forward 28 years, and I find myself on deck with fellow adventurers, gazing towards the exit of Ilulissat's harbor. Today marks my whale watching tour in Ilulissat, with the horizon concealed behind numerous icebergs adrift in Greenland's Arctic waters. A chilly wind brings tears to my eyes, and I tighten my hat and gloves, bracing for the potentially frigid ocean journey. Fortunately, the summer sun, piercing through light cloud cover, endeavors to make the experience a tad more comfortable.
The captain skillfully navigates us out of the harbor. Seagulls perch undisturbed on one of the icebergs, seemingly patiently awaiting the return of fishing boats expected to come back laden with treasures from the deep sea. Perhaps, they anticipate a chance to cleverly snatch a meal.
As we sail along the magnificent ice fjord, a wall of snow-white natural beauty extending for kilometers, the surreal feeling persists. Despite two days in this enchanting environment, the colossal nature of it all remains overwhelming. The sheer immensity and grandeur.
About five kilometers further, in a tranquil bay south of Ilulissat, the captain informs us of a high probability of spotting whales today. Earlier that morning, one of the fishing boats had spotted two humpback whales, a mother with her playful calf, almost ten meters long.
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Playing hide and seek
As the boat advances, a fellow traveler points to a spot in the distance, near a large iceberg. Something seems to be moving based on what she observes through her binoculars. We drift slowly towards the promising location. Excitement courses through me—am I finally about to witness one or perhaps several whales in Greenland up close? The tension on the boat abruptly rises. Everyone senses that an incredible moment is imminent.
Suddenly, a shrill cry emanates from someone to my left, pointing towards a spot just in front of me. Indeed, something smooth emerges from the water's surface, like a beautifully polished dark rock. A few meters away, a slightly smaller version makes an appearance.
Bingo! There they are—the two humpback whales we heard about earlier. Moments later, the mother, seemingly done with the display, elegantly undulates her back, raising her whale tail into the air before submerging it underwater, diving into the depths of the ocean. Her calf quickly follows suit. It appears playful, as if taking a breather, with misty curtains emerging from its blowhole, eliciting admiring murmurs from the boat. A few minutes later, they both resurface, seemingly bidding us farewell. Nothing could be further from the truth. A few minutes later, both reappear at the water's surface. It seems playful, but it's a necessity for them to breathe. The misty curtains they create with their blowholes prompt awe on the boat. Shortly afterward, they dive once again.
Meanwhile, the captain cautiously attempts to get closer to the ocean giants. Careful not to disturb them in their daily activities. As the sun has now found its way through the clouds, a serene atmosphere prevails. All that's left are the icebergs, the ocean, and a blue sky, with sunlight turning the water into a glittering landscape, as if someone has scattered diamonds over the vast expanse.
Have our two whales ventured into the open sea?
Best whale watching in Ilulissat: A ballet in the open sea
Gazing and continuing to gaze. Minutes pass without any noticeable change in the landscape before us, except for the gentle ripples of waves on the usually calm water surface. Perseverance becomes our greatest ally, as we expect the two whales to resurface within our field of vision.
In hindsight, this built up to an incredible climax. About a minute later, something happens that almost literally takes our breath away. The two humpback whales, now relatively close to our boat, decide to treat us to a few pirouettes only these heavyweights can perform. Springing from the water and landing with a dull thud back into the seawater on their backs. The splashing seawater and the swell accompanying each landing are an added bonus. What a spectacle. Not one jump, not two jumps, but a total of three spinning leaps performed in the air before us.
Unbelievable joy envelops me, and everyone on the boat, after witnessing this whale ballet. Even the experienced captain acknowledges that we've witnessed something truly unique, an unprecedented succession of jumps in his experience.
A blissful murmur resonates. This group of inexperienced 'whale hunters for a day' senses that something phenomenal has unfolded before our eyes. A highly successful journey, that's the general sentiment. The captain treats us all to a steaming cup of coffee or tea. I savor it, stating that I don't need sugar in my coffee. This splendid experience makes everything taste automatically sweeter. I glow from within, and I feel the warmth in my cheeks from the excitement. A feeling that I don't lose throughout the day.
Experience the breathtaking beauty of Ilulissat, Greenland, during a whale cruise. Discover the magic of encountering majestic sea creatures and create memories for a lifetime. Book your unforgettable experience now!
A whale is never alone
In the expansive surroundings, complete tranquility reigns now that the humpbacks are gone. The boat gradually begins its return to the safe harbor of Ilulissat. The sun seems to bid us farewell at that moment, starting to hide behind a thickening gray cloud cover. I see many people with a blissful grin around me. Perfectly understandable.
What. An. Adventure.
A quarter of the way back, it turns out that we've drawn not one but two lucky cards from the whale hunter's deck that day. As I notice the captain turning off the engine, I see him gesturing cautiously to a spot about thirty meters in front of us. I look in the indicated direction, and almost immediately, I feel myself reaching for the railing in front of me to hold on.
Am I dreaming? No, on the contrary, because there lie two colossal male humpback whales side by side, resting on the water's surface. The boat gently sways in their direction. Except for the clicking of cameras, an almost sacred silence prevails. Everyone around me, myself included, is so profoundly affected by the spectacle unfolding before us.
My breath catches as I see the whales suddenly move and appear to dive. A few seconds later, it turns out to have been a feint. They both resurface, spouting watery mist from their blowholes. Similar to the female humpback, they immediately, in a well-rehearsed synchronized dance, make a graceful wave motion with their backs. They now effectively take a dive into the deep waters, with the impressive ice fjord in the background. Two colossal whale tails rise one last time before simultaneously disappearing beneath the seawater. I find myself laughing out loud. In disbelief. In happiness and joy.
What was once a dream of a little boy after a museum visit became, for me, an absolutely unforgettable experience in Ilulissat that day. I had been able to admire the gigantic creatures that inspired so much awe in me as a ten-year-old, up close in their natural habitat.
As I stepped off the boat, felt the solid ground of Ilulissat under my feet again, and leaped into the air with my arms raised in joy, I experienced the purest form of euphoria I could ever feel. This peaceful whale hunter fell asleep that night in Ilulissat with a blissful feeling. Dreaming of whales, but no dream will ever surpass what I had the privilege of experiencing that day.
How to go whale watching in Ilulissat?
We booked our whale safari with Diskoline, one of the highest recommended whale watching tours in Ilulissat. It was an incredible experience, spotting four whales on our trip to Greenland. If the tour is canceled due to weather, you get a refund or can join on another day to search for whales. You go on a boat with a limited number of visitors, ensuring no crowding to catch a glimpse of these sea giants! Whale watching in Ilulissat is one of the most affordable tours in Greenland, starting from $175 p.p. (1,195 DKK).
Best time to see whales in Greenland
Discovering the optimal time for an enchanting rendezvous with the majestic whales in the Ilulissat and Disko Bay area is key to an unforgettable experience. The best time to see whales in Greenland, particularly in this Arctic haven, is during the summer months, from June to August. This period marks the peak of whale activity, as the icy waters teem with life.
As the Arctic summer unfolds, humpback whales, minke whales, and other marine giants migrate to the nutrient-rich Disko Bay. The long days and milder temperatures create a perfect stage for these marine spectacles. Joining a whale watching tour during these months enhances your chances of encountering these gentle leviathans, basking in the surreal beauty of icebergs and the Arctic landscape. The breathtaking natural amphitheater of Ilulissat and its ice fjord provides a front-row seat to the marine ballet, ensuring that the best time to see whales in Greenland is also an ideal time to create lasting memories in this Arctic wonderland.