From Iceland — A Whale Of A Conflict: Are Whale Watching Ships Responsible For Strandings?

A Whale Of A Conflict: Are Whale Watching Ships Responsible For Strandings?

Published August 23, 2019

Photo by
Art Bicnick


A biologist at the Marine Research Institute (MRI) created a stir this week after declaring that whale watching boats could be to blame for the recent pilot whale strandings along the Snæfellsnes and Reykjanes peninsulas.

Was it noise?
On August 6th, Sverrir Daníel Halldórsson suggested to state broadcaster RÚV that noise from whale watching ships could cause the whales to become confused and move toward shore.

“I heard of a group [of whales] in Faxaflói Bay, which was probably this group [that eventually stranded], and there were six whale watching boats around them,” he said. “Therefore, I think it’s not unlikely that it may have distracted them. That is, noise from the boats.”

The Board of Whale Watching in Iceland promptly requested that Sverrir retract his statement, saying that, while their ships were watching the pelagic whales, they were nowhere near them, and that it is more likely that private boats are to blame.

“It’s highly unlikely that the whale watching boats are causing strandings.”

“In recent years, whale watching companies, the University of Iceland, and foreign parties have been researching the possible effects of whale watching on animal behaviour, such as food production, and have shown that the effects are small or nonexistent in the long run,” read a statement from the Board. It further asserted that it was irresponsible of MRI to make such a public statement without scientific data or research to back it up.

The voice of reason
“It’s highly unlikely that the whale watching boats are causing this,” Edda Elísabet Magnússdóttir, PhD marine biologist at the University of Iceland, said of the quarrel. “If it would have been the boats disturbing the whales, it would have led to stranding very quickly.” She went on to say that Sverrir was referring to a whale watching tour that happened around the 16th of July, while the first stranding occurred two weeks later.

In the midst of the drama, the two parties came together for a meeting on the afternoon of August 7th, which proved to be a harbinger of peace. Gísli Víkingsson, head of whale research at MRI, defended his employee, saying that the comments were taken out of context. “[Sverrir] did not state that this incident was a likely reason for the stranding event last weekend,” he explained. “Although, he said that such behaviour of whale watching operators could negatively affect the behaviour of whales.”

Gísli also iterated that the way this situation has been handled in the media has caused people to draw a direct connection between the two incidents, which was not the intention of MRI.

Moving forward
“I think we all agree that while there is no way to determine the cause of this particular event, and that there is a need for more research on interactions between cetaceans and the whale watching industry, as well as other vessel traffic, and also more generally on the causes of mass strandings of cetaceans,” Gísli said, insisting Sverrir’s original comments were in the spirit of whale conservation.

Ensuring the welfare of whales is certainly something we can all agree on.

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