Published May 29, 2013
Hvalur hf., an Icelandic whaling company, has announced that this summer it will resume hunting fin whales, an endangered species. Icelandic whalers also hunt minke whales, which are not an endangered species, though this is perhaps not of particular concern to the individual whales that will experience the distinctly unpleasant feeling of a harpoon surprise.
HAS HVALUR’S ANNOUNCEMENT CAUSED DEBATE IN ICELAND?
Icelanders have been arguing about whales since retired Vikings settled the island in the 9th Century. Lately, whalers on the one hand, and whale-watching guides on the other, have been arguing whether whaling is a danger to the livelihood of whale-watching guides. The tour guides maintain that the fact that Icelanders hunt and kill whales could keep tourists from going on whale-watching tours.
JUST LIKE THEIR VIKING WHALER ANCESTORS FOUGHT WITH VIKING TOUR GUIDE ANCESTORS?
The tourist industry was somewhat primitive in 9th Century Iceland, so this was more about who got to own beached whale carcasses. In the Middle Ages, that was serious business. One whale carcass could enrich its owner considerably. In fact, to this day, the Icelandic word for a great, unexpected stroke of luck, “hvalreki,” also means having a whale beach itself.
INSTEAD OF SAYING, “THIS WAS LIKE WINNING THE LOTTERY, ICELANDERS SAY, “THIS WAS LIKE FINDING A WHALE CARCASS?”
Pretty much, and like winning the lottery, historically speaking, coming into possession of dead whales has brought nothing but trouble. The medieval Grettis Saga has accounts of two separate battles over
the possession of a dead whale, with multiple men dying in both incidents. This whale-connected blood-letting did not end along with Viking Era. In 1615, a large number of Basque whalers where hunted
down and killed by inhabitants of the Westfjords, for reasons petty and spurious.
HAS THIS WHALE-BASED HUMAN BLOODSHED CONTINUED UNTIL THE PRESENT DAY?
The only blood deliberately spilled in the pursuit of whale meat and by-products in the last few centuries has been that of whales, which is hardly any consolation for the whales. Not that there has been any lack of strife. The most famous incident is the 1986 sabotage of an Icelandic whaling station and sinking of two whaling ships by activists from environmental group Sea Shepherd.
HOW DID THEY SINK THOSE SHIPS, BY BLOWING THEM UP?
They flooded the ships by opening their seacocks. That is a real word, if you are too much of a landlubber to believe it, just Google. On second thought, it is probably best not to. But yes, the upshot of this act of sabotage was that Icelandic public opinion was radicalised in favour of whaling, the high watermark being reached five years later when a super-group of Icelandic pop musicians released pro-whaling song “Undir regnboganum” (translation: “Under the Rainbow”).
THAT’S KIND OF A BORING TITLE, COULDN’T THEY HAVE CALLED IT SOMETHING LIKE, “WHALING’S A WHALE OF A TIME?”
Easy there, Troll Porter. The song is a pretty good encapsulation of Icelandic pro-whaling rhetoric. The song’s message is that in the North, life is hard and people should be allowed to stick to their ancient way of life, which naive, city-dwelling environmentalists do not understand. The song also asks God for protection against “green peacebreakers,” which is just as groan-worthy a pun in Icelandic as it is in English.
COLE PORTER WOULD’VE DONE BETTER.
When it comes to political doggerel, I suppose anything goes. But this particular brand of rhetoric dominated whaling discourse in Iceland for the last couple of decades. It has, however, been rendered less effective by the new reality of Iceland becoming a popular tourist destination. Many of these tourists spend their money on whale watching tours.
AND TOUR COMPANIES DON’T WANT TO REFUND BECAUSE OF HARPOON SURPRISE?
Pretty much. They worry that continued whaling would make fewer tourists want to take their tours. Pro-whalers counter by claiming that there is no evidence to suggest that tourists care about whaling. Anti-whalers say that a whale is more profitable alive than dead.
I NOTICE A DISTINCT LACK OF CONCERN FOR WHAT WHALES WOULD PREFER.
As a rule, humans prefer not to think about their food as beings with agency and feelings. In recent years the argument has been between two business associations who both wish to make money off of whales. What started as a debate about animal rights has become a debate about whose profits are more sacred.