Seals have fascinated humans for centuries. With their big soulful eyes and natural curiosity it’s easy to see why they feature heavily in the songs and folklore of Iceland. Spotting a seal lounging on a beach or frolicking in the sea is a fantastic experience and the best place to do that in Iceland is at the seal sanctuary on Vatnsnes Peninsula in North Iceland.
There are only two species of seals that pup around Iceland, the Harbour Seal and the Grey Seal. The Harbour Seal is also known as the Common Seal. Its fur can range from brown, to silvery grey or white and they have distinctive V-shaped nostrils that make them easy to recognise. The pups are born at around 16 kilos and can swim and dive within hours from birth. The Grey Seal is a large seal, with the bulls often reaching over 3 meters in size and weighing around 300 kilos. It is distinguishable from the Harbour Seal by its straight head profile and wide set nostrils and it also has fewer spots on its body. Pups are born from September – November and weigh about 14 kilos. They have silky white fur that turns into the dense, waterproof fur of an adult after a month. In addition to these two “local” species, others have also been known to visit. Harp Seals, Ringed Seals, Bearded Seals and Hooded Seals have all been spotted on Icelandic shores although they usually reside in the Arctic.
Although seals can be spotted all along the coastline of Iceland the seal colony at Vatnsnes peninsula is among the best viewing sites in the country. Surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of North Iceland the three public seal viewing sites Hvítserkur, Illugastaðir and Svalbarð, opened and maintained by the Icelandic Seal Centre, offer fantastic opportunities to watch these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. The best time to arrive is two hours on either side of the low tide as that is the time when the seals like to rest and relax on the stones around the beach. Vatnsnes Peninsula also has a lot to offer besides the seals, there are lovely cottages and farm cafés where you can grab refreshments in the company of the friendly locals and the rock formation at Hvítserkur, with its peculiar elephant shape, should be familiar to anyone who’s ever googled pictures of Iceland.
At the nearby town of Hvammstangi is the Icelandic Seal Center, a recommended stop for the serious seal enthusiast. There they have interactive exhibitions on seals around Iceland, as well as the other wildlife around the area and a window into their research lab where they analyse samples and further the research of seals and whales. As well as the exhibitions, the knowledgeable staff will point you to the best spots and times to see the seals, and introduce you to the code of conduct for seal watching, as it is important to remember that we are visitors in their home and make sure that we don’t disturb them in any way. The Center’s aim is to build an ethical and sustainable seal watching industry in Iceland. Every year between July and August, they hold The Great Seal Count, a census of the harbour seals made possible by the participation of volunteers, mainly tourist. Anyone can sign up to help and this is a great opportunity to get to know more about the seals and their way of life.
The fascination with seals is evident in Icelandic folklore. Various tales of seals turning into beautiful women, or Selkies, exist in Iceland as well as in other nearby island nations like Ireland and the Faroe Island, but Icelanders also believe that there’s one night a year, the mystical New Years Eve, when seals throw off their skins and become human in order to dance on the beaches to celebrate the coming year. There’s also the story of the legendary priest Sæmundur Fróði who studied black magic at ancient Denmark’s answer to Hogwarts. When he needed to get back to Iceland he tricked the devil himself into turning into a seal which Sæmundur rode over the ocean all the way back home. This event is commemorated with a statue located in front of the University of Iceland in Reykjavik.
These incredible creatures are a huge part of life in Iceland and seal watching is fast becoming one of the most popular activities for visitors wanting to experience the seals in stunning environments barely touched by man. This can be a once in a lifetime experience. Just remember to show them respect and don’t be charmed by any beautiful women on the beach!
Do you want to see the seals of Vatnsnes? Try a day tour!