Killer Whales and Their Prey in Iceland

Expedition Briefing


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The Research

In the 1960s, the population of herring in the Northeast Atlantic (Iceland and Norway) nearly collapsed, largely due to overfishing. At the time, there was rising conflict between fishermen and orca populations that were feeding on herring and were reportedly harming fishermen’s nets. Today, the Icelandic government manages the herring stock carefully, and there is little competition between populations of killer whales feeding on herring and commercial fishermen whose livelihoods depend on it.

However, killer whales, also known as orcas, face other threats that are connected to their diet. In recent years, the North Atlantic marine ecosystems have undergone dramatic changes due to warming waters (Dulvy et al. 2008). Changes in the availability of important fish species have been reported (Astthorsson et al. 2007, 2012; Solmundsson et al. 2010), and this is affecting the distribution, population size, and diet of top predators in the area (Víkingsson et al. 2014, 2015).

For killer whales, understanding how environmental changes impact their health and survival first requires a more complete understanding of their ecology and diet preferences. Scientists currently have very little information on the population and feeding patterns of killer whales in Iceland. While killer whales have used Iceland waters as a feeding ground for decades, the Icelandic Orca Project represents the first long-term research program dedicated to understanding their ecology, behavior, and conservation status.

Our research to date suggests that Icelandic killer whales have a variety of feeding strategies. Some killer whales follow the migration of herring, while others appear to switch between herring and other prey types (Samarra and Foote 2015; Samarra et al. 2017).

Understanding whether a large proportion of the Icelandic killer whale population specializes in hunting herring is relevant in the face of changing environmental conditions and will impact our ability to predict how these whales might cope with future climate change and other human impacts. By understanding threats to populations of killer whales, scientists can help to establish policies to better protect these animals.

Research Aims

With the help of volunteers, this project aims to understand how widespread herring specialization is amongst the killer whale population in Iceland. By combining land-based observations with boat-based observations and biological sampling, our goal is to monitor killer whales in a known herring spawning ground and investigate how different groups use the study area. This includes how often feeding on herring occurs, and how different killer whale groups interact. Understanding which populations rely upon a single prey species, what proportion of whales share this feeding strategy, and how they interact with other whales, is crucial to our understanding of their behavioral complexity, adaptability, and the threats they may face.

Our overarching objective is to test the hypothesis that killer whales observed in Vestmannaeyjar are herring specialists. If this is the case then we will expect that:

  1. Killer whale occurrence in the Vestmannaeyjar spawning ground will coincide with the spawning of herring;
  2. Killer whales observed in this area will be predominantly feeding;
  3. Long-term dietary markers of whales observed in the area will suggest consistent feeding upon herring.

How You Will Help

Volunteers will be included in all aspects of the data collection. Due to its exposed location, weather is the main limiting factor for conducting fieldwork in Vestmannaeyjar. We appreciate your flexibility and understanding.

Specific volunteer tasks include:

  • Land-Based Observations. You will help observe killer whales from land using high-magnification binoculars. You will record positions of whales and other marine mammals observed and also help record data on environmental factors. We expect about half of days to be suitable for land-based observations, but this may change from team to team depending on weather conditions..
  • Boat-Based Observations. You will help researchers on board the research vessel and focus on specific groups and perform behavioral observations and collect acoustic recordings. You will also help collect pictures for photo identification of individual killer whales.
    • Additionally, you will support efforts to collect biological samples from whales for diet analysis. Often, less than half of the days are suitable for boat work. On occasions, weather conditions can be quite bad and only one or two days may be suitable for boat work but this may change from team to team depending on weather conditions. We will always try our best to conduct as many observations as possible but fog, high winds and large swell can occur often in this exposed subarctic field site so we appreciate your flexibility
  • Processing Photographs and Acoustic Recording. You will help to process photographs for photo-identification. You will also be trained in how to process acoustic recordings. These activities will take place when the weather is unsuitable for fieldwork but please bear in mind that in bad weather periods this can be quite a large proportion of your expedition time.

Life in the Field

Upon arrival we will present the general expedition and house rules. You’ll receive a safety briefing (safety protocol on-shore and boating safety) and important tips for successful fieldwork.

In the following days we will review the safety protocol on-shore, along with boating safety and best practices in the field, and we will also introduce the research, general field sampling techniques and a framework for all of the project’s key protocols. You will have time to practice research tasks, both at sea and on shore at the main observation points. Every team will also have presentations or documentaries related to the project and marine mammals or Iceland.

When we begin our fieldwork each day, project staff will introduce and demonstrate each new task; we’ll work with you until you’re comfortable with any new activities. We will also supervise to ensure quality data.

  • Day 1: Arrival & Introduction
    • Get picked up by field staff and travel from Vestmannaeyjar Airport or the ferry port to project accommodations, unpack, and settle in. We’ll present the course of the expedition and an overview of the research before having a light meal in the accommodations.
    • We do suggest an early night to prepare for the week ahead.
  • Day 2
    • The following day, you’ll receive a safety briefing and overview of the fieldwork tasks in detail. We will then continue with training throughout the rest of the day, both in the harbour and in the office. If time allows, we may visit the land observation point.
  • Days 3–11
    • Breakfast will be around 7:00 a.m. and we will start preparing for the day ahead. On good weather days, the team will split into two groups. If weather allows, groups will be divided between the land station and the research vessel. Both teams should be ready to head to their respective work station at 9:00 a.m. Work will take place approximately between 9:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., as long as weather conditions allow. A member of staff will be present with the groups at all times. On poor weather days, all participants will be working in the office but working hours will be reduced.
    • All teams will reconvene around 6:00 p.m. at the field station.
    • When back at the field station, some team members will backup the recorded data. The teams will carry out any equipment maintenance necessary, such as rinsing equipment with fresh water, cleaning lenses and cameras, charging batteries, ensure the equipment is ready to be used the next day.
    • Usually all participants will be involved in these tasks, except for those that are on cooking duty who will be preparing dinner for the team.
    • The staff will plan for the next working day before dinner, checking the weather forecast and making a preliminary decision on whether the teams will go out or not the next morning.
    • At the end of dinner we will hold a brief team meeting, where we will inform all participants of the plan for the next day.
    • Participants will then have time off in the evening to relax. On some nights, project staff members will provide presentations or offer documentaries featuring Iceland and Icelandic wildlife. Staff members will occasionally visit a local indoor saltwater pool with outdoor hot tubs. The pool costs 900 ISK per visit. Volunteers are more than welcome to join.
  • Recreational Day
    • Usually we will have one recreational day in the middle of the team, or on a day where there’s poor weather. Volunteers will have the option to visit a newly opened aquarium and beluga sanctuary (ticket prices found at https://belugasanctuary., a folk museum (1000 ISK) and a volcano museum (2400). NOTE: these prices were accurate at the time this briefing was printed and are subject to change. Discounts may be available if you purchase a combined ticket to all three museums.
  • Day 12: Program Close and Departure
    • After breakfast, the project staff will first depart for the airport to drop volunteers off in time for 8:00 a.m. flights. For those taking the ferry, you may depart at anytime on the last day.

Note: this is based on the 2019 Eagle Air Flight Schedule. Earthwatch will notify you as soon as the 2020 summer flight schedule is available if there are any changes.

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


Expedition participants will stay in a comfortable house within 20 minutes walk from the town center and cafes, restaurants, and local shopping. The accommodation has separate rooms for each volunteer, and couples can be accommodated. It also has a kitchen, dining room, and living room where you can spend free hours with your teammates.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


The apartment is equipped with one full bathroom with a hot shower and conventional toilet. Please bring clothes that you can easily wash by hand, as well as a towel. Laundry service is available at the accommodations (there is a washing machine and drying rack).


You are welcome to bring electrical equipment. The house has 220-240 volt electrical outlets (type C, E or F).


Free Internet is available at most nearby cafes and at the research station/accommodations. Depending on your mobile phone carrier, cell service will also be available if you have set up your device in advance for international service.

Please note that personal communication with outsiders is not always possible while participating in an expedition. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.


The research boat and dock is a 5-minute drive from the accommodation. The land observation point is a 10-minute drive from the accommodation.


The project team will purchase groceries for most meals.

Volunteers will prepare breakfast and lunch. There is always a nice variety of food to choose from.

Cooking dinner is a task shared by volunteers and staff members, according to the schedule of house chores, which is prepared in advance.

As fieldwork may sometimes last longer, we recommend that you always pack a snack.

Volunteers can expect continental-European cuisine using fresh ingredients, often with vegetarian/vegan meals and meat or fish options available.

Volunteers can also expect a fixed menu with simple recipes to help guide them when helping the field staff.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

  • Breakfast: Cow milk, soya milk, yogurt, various cereals, bread, toast, eggs, ham, cheese, butter, jam, peanut butter, honey, various spreads, fruit and vegetables, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, juices, water.
  • Lunch: Typically sandwiches for the team going out on the boat and soup and sandwiches with different options of spreads, meats, cheese, eggs, etc.will be available for the land teams coming back for lunch at the apartment.
  • Dinner: Dinner will be prepared by volunteers and research staff, depending on a previously prepared schedule, and will typically consist of pasta, rice, pizza, oven baked foods, etc.
  • Snacks: Fruit, sandwiches, nuts, chips, pretzels, granola bars, etc.
  • Beverages: Water, juices

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

This project can cater for vegetarian diets easily, vegan, gluten-free, and lactose-free diets may also be possible, but please contact Earthwatch in advance to inform us of your dietary preferences.

Project Conditions


Weather conditions can be variable, and may include high winds, rainfall, and changes in temperature. Research will be conducted on board a small boat around the island, which has no cabin and limited seating thus volunteers should be prepared for such working conditions. Moderate fitness and balance are required, but we strive to make the project as accessible as possible. For land-based activities, volunteers will walk up a hill to the observation point, and may have to carry project equipment.


For weather and region-specific information, please visit and search for your project location.


Our 19-foot (six meter) V-hull boat has no restrooms available and seating space is very limited. Occasionally, we will ride into a headwind or have some swell, which will make some rides bumpy. If you do need to use the bathroom, it is possible to urinate off the back of the boat, or use a bucket onboard, which we will have for emergencies only.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Be able to cope with cold and windy conditions for extended periods of time
  • Enjoy being outdoors most of the day in variable weather, in the potential presence of wild animals.
  • Be comfortable wearing a flotation suit that’s insulated. NOTE: suit sizes are limited, while we will try to provide a suit that best fits your size we appreciate your flexibility. Volunteers are advised to always use their suits either on the land station or on the research vessel. Weather and temperatures are variable and strong, cold winds are common, so having layers like thermals and long underwear are strongly advised to wear under the suit, as well as hats and gloves.
  • Be comfortable looking through binoculars at sea and on land to help scout for whales.
  • Tolerate 40–50°F weather with rain and wind.
  • Sit and/or stand in a small motorboat for periods of 5–8 hours or more with limited space. Good balance is important.
  • Carry personal daily supplies such as lunch, water, and some small field equipment.
  • For the land based activities, carry equipment uphill for a distance of approximately 300m from the car park to the observation platform over thick grass.
  • As a safety precaution, we ask that volunteers be able to swim.

Note: The primary research vessel can only seat 6 persons comfortably, and keeping the boat balanced is essential for the safety of the team. There are also limited flotation suit sizes available. In addition, the boat journey can often be quite bumpy making it unsuitable for people with back problems.

If you are near or over 220 pounds (or are likely to require a larger sized suit) or have any back problems, please contact Earthwatch as you might be limited to specific research tasks during your expedition.

Health and Safety


Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions


Land vehicles will transport volunteers to the land observation point base (5–10 minute drive). For boat-based teams, the accommodations are a 5 minutes drive to the boat docks, and vehicles will transport volunteers and equipment. Only project staff will operate vehicles. Seat belts must be worn at all times. For the office-based work, the research station is a 15-minute walk from the accommodations.

We will use boats to travel across open water to study sites. The vessel is fully equipped with safety equipment (life jackets, flares, vhf radios, throw rope, and first aid kit), navigation, and communication items. It is always possible for the ride to become bumpy for some portion of the trip, so the boat work is not advisable for volunteers with back problems. Volunteers are not permitted to drive the boat. Volunteers must also wear the proper flotation suits and lifejackets at all times when on the boats. Boats typically operate at a maximum of one-hour journey time to the harbor.

Exposure to cold

Both the land team and boat team will be exposed to wind and rain and cold temperatures. Volunteers should wear layers of clothes and rain jackets when necessary. Boat and land based teams will have flotation suits for insulation (provided by the project).


You will also walk to the observation point, which is approximately 300m. You may take your time with any sections of challenging terrain.

Getting Lost

Please inform project staff if you need a moment away from the team. Volunteers will work in groups of at least two at all times. The scientists take great care to know, at all times, where each volunteer is working, so that lost volunteers can be located quickly. If you leave the accommodations to go off on your own, you must always notify the project staff first and sign out from the project. You must also let staff know when you will return.


We will cover appropriate responses to wildlife encounters in the introductory briefing. Do not approach or touch any wildlife.


Volunteers will be on the research vessels at sea or on the land station for three to eight hours per day. Bring warm and protective hats and clothing, along with sunglasses. To avoid dehydration, volunteers will bring two water bottles each day, and extra water will be available.

Working on a Boat

Volunteers will be briefed on the safety measures at sea including instructions for boarding and disembarking the boat. Appropriate footwear should be worn on the vessel, and volunteers should follow the captain’s instructions for safety protocols when the boat is in motion.

Slips and Trips

The land observation point is at a high elevation and has sheer cliff drop offs. The observation point is also covered in thick grass, which can be slippery when wet. Volunteers should stay at least 10 feet away from the cliff edge as a precaution.

Falling Overboard

All volunteers will receive a safety briefing prior to research activities on the boat and will be told where safety equipment is located and how to use the equipment. Volunteers are screened for swimming ability. The boat is fully equipped with safety gear (life jackets for all crew members, fire extinguishers, first-aid kit, VHF radio, mobile phone, etc.). Smoking is not allowed on the boat. The captain will have a valid nautical license and extensive navigation experience. The staff will go over safety protocols in the event someone falls out of the boat. Volunteers will wear flotation suits and life jackets at all times when on the boat as a precaution for falling overboard. The staff will also brief volunteers on the deployment of hydrophones and avoiding the cables, which are potential trip hazards.

Personal Security

Vestmannaeyjar is a generally safe region for travelers; however, do not leave valuables unattended in public areas.

Earthquakes and Volcanic Activity

While rare on the island, earthquakes and eruptions are possible as the island and surrounding ocean have active volcanoes. Volunteers will be briefed on warning notices, safest locations on site during tremors/eruptions, evacuation procedures, and the group gathering point.

Distance from Medical Care

There is a health care center on the island located at Sólhlí? 10, in the town center. It consists of a primary health care center including on-call emergency doctor service 24 hours a day and a small 15-bed hospital with an on-call physician/doctor as well. During working hours the health care center can be contacted via telephone 432-2500 for assistance or appointment booking, but in the case of emergency one can come directly to the reception. Out of working hours the central health care help desk should be contacted (1700) for assistance and the contact of the island’s on-call doctor. In case of emergency the number to call is 112, and a local ambulance service operated by the health care center can assist. In the case of major injuries or illness patients can be transported via air ambulance to Landspitalinn hospital in Reykjavík either by plane or helicopter.

Travel Planning


The scientists will meet you when you arrive in Vestmannaeyjar on Day 1.

By Ferry (preferred option): You will be met at the Vestmannaeyjar ferry landing dock at 6:45 p.m.

By Plane: You will be met at the Vestmannaeyjar airport at 4:10 p.m.

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website:

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


  • Icelandic Orca Project researchers are main authors or co-authors of several scientific papers, published in scientific journals; a list of these can be found here:; please contact if you require copies of any of these publications and can’t access them.
  • Astthorsson OS, Gislason A and Jonsson S (2007) Climate variability and the Icelandic marine ecosystem. Deep Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography 54:2456-2477
  • Samarra FIP, Vighi M, Aguilar A and Víkingsson GA (2017). Intra-population variation in isotopic niche in herring-eating killer whales. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 564: 199-210
  • Astthorsson OS, Valdimarsson H, Gudmundsdottir A and Óskarsson GJ (2012) Climate-related variations in the occurrence and distribution of mackerel (Scomber scombrus) in Icelandic waters. ICES Journal of Marine Science 69(7): 1289-1297
  • Dulvy NK, Rogers SI, Jennings S, Stelzenmuller V, Dye SR and Skjoldal HR (2008) Climate change and deepening of the North Sea fish assemblage: a biotic indicator of warming seas. Journal of Applied Ecology 45:1029-1039
  • Samarra FIP and Foote AD (2015) Seasonal movements of killer whales between Iceland and Scotland. Aquatic Biology 24: 75-79
  • Solmundsson J, Jonsson E and Bjornsson H (2010) Phase transition in recruitment and distribution of monkfish (Lophius piscatorius) in Icelandic waters. Marine Biology 157: 295-305
  • Víkingsson GA, Elvarsson BT, Ólafsdottir D, Sigurjónsson J, Chosson V and Galan A (2014) Recent changes in the diet composition of common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in Icelandic waters. A consequence of climate change? Marine Biology Research 10: 138-152
  • Víkingsson GA, Pike DG, Valdimarsson H, Schleimer A, Gunnlaugsson T, Silva T, Elvarsson BT, Mikkelsen B, Øien N, Desportes G, Bogason V and Hammond PS (2015) Distribution, abundance, and feeding ecology of baleen whales in Icelandic waters: have recent environmental changes had an effect? Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 3:1-16