From Iceland — Aboard A Whaling Vessel

Aboard A Whaling Vessel

Published December 5, 2013

Aboard A Whaling Vessel

It was mid-afternoon when I received the email I had been waiting for all summer. Guðmundur Konráðsson, son of long time minke whaler, Konráð Eggertsson, informed me that I was welcome to board their whaling vessel, the Halldór Sigurðsson, if I could make it to Ísafjörður in time for the next hunt. I promptly rented a car and took off on a seven-hour journey to Iceland’s famously beautiful Westfjords area, astonished that these men had just granted me access to film the killing of a minke whale.

I boarded the ship two days later, after some bad weather postponed the hunt. It wasn’t the rain or haziness that deterred the whalers, but the choppiness of the wind-blown ocean that held them back. The Eggertsson duo hunts whales independently, so they don’t feel the pressure of going out on a difficult day. They hunt when they want to and sell their meat to Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson, head of the Minke Whaling Association and owner of Hrefna HF, the leading distributor of minke whale meat in Iceland.  

Before the engine started Guðmundur looked me straight in the eyes with a very serious look on his face. “If anything goes wrong when we shoot the minke whale,” he said, “I am going to tell you to turn off the camera. You must do it. It only happens one out of 100 times, but it could happen.” I agreed, nodding my head, while conjuring up ways of capturing the moment things “go wrong” without the whalers noticing. Immediately switch the memory cards?  Set up my GoPro in a hidden location? I was distressed enough by the thought of witnessing the brutal act of things going right, so the idea of a mishap really put me on edge. “Things going wrong” entails the explosive harpoon entering the wrong area of the whale, leading to a slow and miserable death.    

Whales spotted!

As we slowly drifted out of the harbour, the two men scrambled to prepare the harpoon. They attached a rope to the end of the red-tipped explosive metal rod and ran it along the length of the boat. The rope wrapped around a circular beam at the end of the vessel, which acted as a crane to drag the minke whale onto the back platform once it had been shot. After setting up the rope, Konráð ran inside the cabin to grab something. I followed him and sat in the corner, filming as he rummaged through a box. After he had found what he was looking for he walked back toward his son who was still fiddling with the deadly weapon at the front of the ship.  All of a sudden Konráð turned on his heel, looked directly at me, and lifted a red object in the air before saying, “this is bomb” with a large, animated smile on his face. Shivers ran up my spine as the reality of the situation set in.

From an outside perspective the atmosphere would have seemed similar to that of a regular fishing expedition.  The men drank cup after cup of steaming hot coffee, occasionally looking down at the radar monitor or grabbing their binoculars to scan the glassy water. Other boats in the small community knew them well and waved cheerfully as we passed. The whalers even received phone calls from other fishermen in the fjord who reported minke sightings.

About two hours into the voyage we came across our first whales–a cow and her calf–but to the Konráð’s dismay, they were of the wrong species. Humpback whales are protected by the government. Konráð and his son have spoken to media outlets about how it is in Iceland’s best interest to resume the killing of this species, which is currently protected by the government.

After three months of whale watching all over Iceland, I found it ironic that my closest encounter with whales was aboard a whaling ship. The magnificent mammals rose to the water’s surface directly in front of me as if they were a friend of mine coming to let me know things would be ok.  My initial reaction of enthusiasm must have been off-putting to the whalers as I momentarily forgot where I was. I looked over to them in awe as I was so accustomed to share my excitement with fellow passengers on whale watching tours.  As if the beautiful beings spurred them on, they cranked the ship into high-gear and off we went, leaving the ever-so-peaceful humpbacks to roam their waters.

Unexpected chaos

Unexpected chaos exploded in an instant when we saw a minke whale around 3:00 PM, seven hours into our journey.  Konráð shouted “HREFNA!” (`minke’ in Icelandic) to his son with eagerness as he grabbed ear protection and headed for the harpoon. I leapt to my feet and got into position atop the second story of the boat where I thought I had the best position for capturing the kill on camera. A siren rang loudly, warning others that a powerful explosive would soon be launched into the ocean. Guðmundur stood next to me, driving the boat from the second platform, changing directions to keep the minke whale directly in front of the boat.  Konráð swung the harpoon violently, changing directions as the minke whale continually broke the surface of the water. It seemed as if Konráð had at least four clear opportunities to shoot the whale, so I felt the need to ask Guðmundur, “Is he going to shoot it?” Guðmundur simply responded with, “You never know when he is going to shoot.”  After about eight minutes of intense follow, the whale had vanished.  We slowed down to almost a standstill and crept through the empty fjord for about an hour before the men gave up and continued onward.  

As relieved as I was, it was confusion that stood out as the dominant feeling in my mind.  I had never seen a whale watching operator lose a minke whale. Once they are spotted it is almost always the driver who decides to leave the area after viewing the whales for long periods of time. How could someone who had been doing this for 40 years lose a minke whale that easily on a clear, glassy day? Why didn’t he shoot it when he had the chance?

Just a show?

As the clock turned to 5:00 PM, I realised we were heading back to the harbour. I was ecstatic that one more minke whale would be roaming the North Atlantic, but baffled by the behaviour of the minke whalers. Were they putting on a show for me? Was this whole day a charade put on for the viewers of my film? While interviewing the two men for my documentary about Icelandic whaling, they repeatedly told me that they don’t have anything to hide. I will never get a definitive answer, but I believe their motivation was to have me capture them on a hunt, showing people that they are not afraid to kill on camera, without actually having to kill on camera.

As we pulled back into the harbour, Guðmundur began ranting to me that my country, The United States, is responsible for killing more whales than Iceland. I thanked the men for allowing me on their ship and hopped off of the Halldór Sigurdsson, bewildered by my day on a whaling ship.

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