Published July 11, 2001


The ferry sailed past the summit, and we could see seagulls nesting on the cliffs below the underground hangars used by the US Airforce, probably soon to become vacant. The shore receded in the distance but there was, as yet, no sign of whales. Somebody mumbled that they had probably become extinct years ago, and that this brought back memories of a trip he’d taken monster spotting on the Loch Ness. Grapevine tried to console itself with the fact that the ocean melting into the sky somewhere on the far horizon wasn’t a bad view at all, when the guide excitedly shouted out “12 o clock!” Tourists hurried to the front of the boat (the stern, I believe, according to experts), cameras were wielded and flashes were flashed. A fin disappeared back into the big blue, but reappeared moments later. Perhaps it says something about Grapevine’s private life that this seemed like the greatest thrill imaginable. Well, almost.

More fins appeared and the guide kept shouting out times of day. Meanwhile, seagulls were gathering on the horizon like a storm, hugging the surface of the water, gliding as low as possible as if they were fighter pilots showing off to imaginary beach babes. As we approached they took evasive action, and we saw what was the cause of their commotion.

Squadrons of seagulls lined up in formation and then dived down, sending up streams of water as they penetrated the surface. The fish below jumped suicidally out of the sea, playing the Polish cavalry to the birds Stukas. Some of them seemed to be jumping right towards the beaks of the waiting birds, perhaps taunting them, perhaps playing their own version of extreme sports, perhaps just seeing to it that nature takes its course.

Any close encounter with nature reminds you of its brutality, as is evidenced by its favourite offspring, mankind. Millions of animals are systematically killed in factories every day to supply its insatiable hunger. And yet the debate rages over one particular species eaten by this most voracious of predators.

Whales are mentioned in some 18 sagas, and it has even been supposed that frequent whalesighting in these waters is one of the reasons people settled here in the first place. Whales frequently drifted ashore, and these were prized assets. Sometimes people were even killed in disputes over ownership of whale carcasses. To this day, the phrase hvalreki (whale drift) is still used about great fortune befalling someone.

The Norwegian medieval script Konungsskuggsjá, tells of whales that drive fish towards fishing boats when men are peaceful, but when blood is shed, it drives the fish away. It concludes that the whale is edible, but hunting is banned since they are more useful as is. This rule did not always apply. As times grew harder, whaledrifting became ever more important, and regulations were set regarding the dividing of carcasses. One law stipulated that a tenth should be given to the poor. The whale may indeed have saved many lives during the famines of the 17th and 18th centuries. In the 19th century, whaling grew to such a degree that whales became a rare sight, and it was banned in 1916. In 1948 it was assessed that the species had recovered, and whaling was resumed. It remained steady at around 380 animals a year.

In 1986, the International Whaling commission temporarily banned whaling, although it was still conducted for scientific reasons until 1989. Growing impatient, a man named Paul Watson from the organisation Sea Shepard sunk two whaling ships in the harbour in 1986 before making off back to the USA. Lately, an Icelandic MP has quipped that the terrorist should be handed over, and no distinctions should be made between terrorists and the countries that harbour them.

For 14 years the whaling ships have been lying still rusting in the harbour. This might be about to change, for recently, the government announced its intention to hunt 250 animals for scientific purposes, prompting an outcry from some conservation organisations.

So what is the case for and against whaling? Among the crew of the ship, some worry about the impact whaling will have on their industry, and that whalers will not respect their wishes, even harpooning whales within sight of camera wielding tourists. The guide, Katja, a marine biology student from Denmark, says that whales are a heritage for the whole world, and should not be hunted. It is hard to determine exactly how many whales there are left. They only mate every other year, and often have a hard time finding each other to mate. Apparently, dating difficulties is something that plagues all species of a supposed higher intelligence.

The Case for Killing Whales

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, sits Kristján Loftsson, manager of Whale Inc, formerly the main whaling company. He says that with modern methods it is quite easy to determine approximately the amount of whales, and hence to only hunt in small enough amounts that it doesn´t threaten the species, the whales in these waters being in no danger of extinction.

He likens those people who are against whaling to teetotallers, who oppose all consumption of alcohol per se, be it moderate or not. I ask him whether there is any market for whale in the present climate, and he says that the Japanese market would still be open. When asked whether whaling might hurt other exports and the tourist industry, he says he doesn´t believe so. When the whaling station in Hvalfjörður was still open, there was a steady stream of tourists coming over to watch. Apart from the usefulness of hunting whales for its own sake, when one species is left alone and the others are hunted, it upsets the whole balance. Both whales and men prey on the same fish stocks, which might in the end have catastrophic results if both continue to do so undeterred.

We asked Kristján about the concerns of whale watchers that whaling might harm their industry. He says it wouldn’t because whale watching is conducted close to the shore, whereas to whale you need to sail out at least 10-15 hours to get to the most desireable whaling grounds. He compares it to not being allowed to harvest sheep since there are sheep on display in the petting zoo.

Finally, I ask him about whales supposed intelligence, he says: “Well, they keep coming back to the same grounds. You can only hunt whale within two days distance from shore, or else the catch goes rotten. If they had kept away, we wouldn´t have been able to hunt them.” How smart, he infers is, is that?

…or Should We Just Look at Them?

Ásbjörn Björgvinsson, the chairman of the Whale Watchers Association, says that since it is illegal to sell whale meat these days, it would be hard to export it. On the other hand, the whale watching industry has been growing steadily, and today visitors number some 60.000 per year. He says that it would be difficult to combine both whale watching and whaling, since whalers would scare off the animals, and those least afraid, and hence best for watching, would be the first to get killed. Regarding the increasing whale population having an adverse impact upon the fish in the sea, he says that the amount of whaling suggested, 250 minke whales out of a population of an estimated 58-70.000, would be too little to have any impact, whereas it would hurt tourism immeasurably. It seems, paradoxically, that the resumption of whaling, far from driving them into extinction, would actually have too little effect to achieve the desired result for the fishing industry at all. It is interesting to note, though, that anti-whaling objections from whale watchers are almost all based on financial rather than moral grounds.

From whaling to whale watching…and back?

Pro- and anti-whalers tend to be barely on speaking terms, with tempers flaring on both sides. We met one man had actually made a living on both sides of the fence, a former whaler who now works as a guide for Elding whalewatching company, located at Reykjavík harbour, and asked him for his opinion on the subject.

“Do you see any fundamental difference between hunting whales and other marine animals?”

“No. It’s all a part of the community based on harvesting nature.”

“Since you’ve been observing whales every day, have you changed your mind regarding whaling?”

“I cannot look at it from another perspective than that we use our right to harvest our surroundings. But that entails approaching it as a farmer approaches his stock. A farmer can be very proud of his cows and his sheep, and become attached to them, but he still has to make a living. For someone who has been around whales his whole life, it means a lot to be able to be close to them. I respect whales, but we also respected whales when we hunted them. It wasn’t about barbarism or cruelty, there were specific laws here in Iceland that stated that you couldn’t kill an animal that was too young, or a mother who was still weaning her offspring. If you did you were fined, and didn’t get your share of the whale. But we shouldn’t hunt whales if we cannot use them. If we cannot sell the product, there’s no point in hunting them.

“Do you think, in the present circumstances, that whaling would pay off?”

“I’m not in a position to judge. I know how to do the job, but I don’t know about the market.”

“As someone who currently makes his living from whale watching, do you think it would hurt that industry?”

“I understand those concerns, I think it would be stupid to hunt whales in those same areas.”

“But do you think the two can be combined, as long as they are kept in separate areas?”

“If that is done, yes, otherwise not.”

“If whaling were to be resumed, would you change your profession and go back into hunting?”

That’s a difficult question. I can’t answer that. I love doing both, I would have to make that decision if the situation would arise. But being around whales in one capacity or another is a part of me.”

A whale jumps out of the big blue, hurling up gallons of water as he crashes back down. Perhaps they jump out of the sea as a means of communication, perhaps it is to get parasites off their skin, or perhaps it is just for fun. As always, there seems to be little we know for sure. “Do you still want to kill them?” asks Katja as we reach shore again. To be honest, I really don’t know. They are truly majestic creatures. Tasty, as well. The restaurant 3 Frakkar bought up the remaining stock of whale meat and put it in the freezer back in 1989. Today it is the only place where you can get whalemeat in Iceland. The meat is red and served as a steak, and tastes rather wonderful.

The chef, Úlfar, says they have enough supplies for one year more, so he´s hoping for a resumption of whaling before then.
Ironically, we seem to find ourselves in a situation these days where whaling seems to be morally defensible but financially unsound. Then again, if more is to be gained from watching whales than eating them, perhaps the solution is pretty clear cut after all.

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