Carbon-Free Whale Watching


Carbon-Free Whale Watching

North Sailing, humpback.

Photo: North Sailing.

A jumping humpback whale with Húsavík in the background.

Innovative green technology powers North Sailing’s traditional oak ships

In 1995, North Sailing not only became the first company to offer scheduled whale watching tours in Iceland, it also established itself as a socially-responsible organization committed to preserving Iceland’s maritime heritage.

Back then, the company, based in Húsavík by Skjálfandi Bay in Northeast Iceland, operated a single ship, Knörrinn, a beautifully-restored traditional oak fishing boat that has since taken more than 50,000 guests on thousands of sea voyages.

Twenty years later, this family-run company has expanded its fleet to eight traditional oak ships—including the only traditional two-masted, gaff-rigged ships in Iceland—but is still upholding its core values and even going one step further: carbon-free whale watching in 2015.

This July, North Sailing will inaugurate one of its newest vessels, Opal, the first ship in the world to be installed with a specially-developed Regenerative Plug-In Hybrid-Electric Propulsion System.

What this means in practical terms is that Opal will run on self-generated, renewable energy. “It’s kind of a dream come true,” says co-founder and captain Árni Sigurbjarnarson, explaining that the company plans to utilize this unique propulsion system on its other gaff-rigged ships, Haukur, Hildur and Donna Wood, in the future.

Eventually, the goal is to transition the remaining North Sailing ships from diesel gas to electricity as well. “They’ll be just like electric cars,” says Árni. “We’ll plug them in at night and they’ll be ready to go in the morning.”

North Sailing, schooner.Schooner Hildur on Skjálfandi Bay.

Minimal Environmental Disturbances

While its carbon-free initiative represents a renewed commitment to eco-friendly and sustainable whale watching, North Sailing’s dedication to these principals is longstanding and rooted in the recognition that in order to thrive and prosper as a business, the organization must also maintain the environment and well-being of the whales themselves.

For one, since its humble beginnings, the company has abided by a strict code of conduct which has now been formalized by IceWhale, the Icelandic whale watching association. This code is a set of best practices for approaching and interacting with marine species, all designed to minimize environmental disturbances for the animals.

North Sailing’s oak vessels are also more whale-friendly than many other vessels. One of the primary environmental benefits of sailing traditional ships, in fact, is that their slow-moving propellers generate very little noise and few disturbances, and thereby reduce the boats’ impact on marine life in the bay.

When North Sailing’s new regenerative propulsion system is introduced, the boats’ engine noise will be almost entirely eliminated. This will not only benefit the animals, it will also enhance whale watchers’ experience in this wild habitat as well, since now they’ll be able to hear the whales even more clearly than before.

North Sailing, minke whale.A jumping minke whale.

Whale-Friendly Whale Watching

For North Sailing, social responsibility and sustainability are not just fads of the moment—they are values on which the company was founded. “If we were only being reactive, without giving thought to the whales and the environment,” says Árni, “we’d be going about this a whole different way.” But ultimately, North Sailing knows that what is best for the whales is best for business in the long run, too.