In Iceland, hunters and watchers battle over whales

A slick black head breaks the surface, drawing delighted shrieks from whale watchers in a growing, and lucrative, activity that some say should replace Iceland's controversial whale hunt.

Since their meagre beginning in the 1990s, whale safaris in this island state have grown to attract tens of thousands of visitors each summer. But its proponents tensed up when Iceland reintroduced commercial whaling in 2006, and the two sides remain uneasy bedfellows.

"Whaling is bad for our business," lamented Hoerdur Sigurbjarnarson, 58, of the family-run North Sailing tour company based in the tiny northern fishing village of Husavik.

"And it's useless," he exclaimed, hunched over a long wooden table in the galley of one of six large oak boats his company uses for whale-watching tours.

He insists "there's no market for whale meat," a stance that Iceland's Whale Commissioner heartily disputes.

Watching and hunting whales "work perfectly together" in a look-and-cook combo of tourism and gastronomy, Thomas Heider said last week on the sidelines of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) forum on the British Channel Island of Jersey. He said many tourists "go to restaurants afterwards to taste the whale meat".

But Arni Gunnarsson, the chairman of the Icelandic Travel Industry Association, feels like Sigurbjarnarson that whaling only stigmatises the country and contributes little to its crisis-hit economy.

Iceland and Norway are the only two countries in the world that authorise commercial whaling, under a much criticised exemption within IWC rules. Japan officially hunts whales for "scientific purposes", though the whale meat is sold for consumption.

"It's simple: you get more revenues out of watching the whales than out of hunting them," said Gunnarsson, stressing that with no international market, the hunts bring in little to no foreign revenue.

Icelandic whalers insist their financials are sound, but admit they are serving a tiny market comprising only a fraction of the country's 320,000 inhabitants as well as some customers in Japan.

And this sole export market collapsed after Japan was struck by multiple disasters in March.

"Demand has really shrunk (but) it will pick up," said Kristjan Loftsson, the 68-year-old head of Iceland's largest whale-hunting company, Hvalur.

- Foreigners flock to see the whales -

Sigurbjarnarson, meanwhile, says whale-watching is booming. And foreigners account for more than 90 percent of the 30,000 clients his company takes out each year from April to October, when whales migrate to Icelandic waters.

Typical was a recent day when 20 tourists, including nationals from Austria, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, braved freezing rain, towering waves and bad visibility to board one of North Sailing's five daily rides into the whale-rich Skjalfandi Bay.

All shouted with joy when a slick humpback suddenly showed its head then dove back in, slamming its massive tail on the stormy surface. It was followed by two more humpbacks and a school of dolphins during the three-hour tour.

"It was worth it, I think," said green-faced French national Katia Groh, 29, despite a bout of sea sickness on the lurching vessel.

Whale safaris are also booming elsewhere, from New Zealand to Canada, the United States and Mexico. A study published last year in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Policy said whale tourism worldwide topped two billion dollars (1.4 billion euros) in 2009 and was set to grow 10 percent a year.

An advantage in Iceland is the success rate, according to Sigurbjarnarson who says 98 percent of his own tours actually sight whales. And that, he contends, is largely because there is no whale hunting in Skjalfandi Bay.

Hunter Loftsson, like the government, insists that North Atlantic whale populations are abundant and rejects anti-whaling arguments that whalers are depleting what environmentalists say is a dwindling resource.

Estimates, Loftsson said, show Icelandic waters in the summer hold around 20,000 fin whales and some 40,000 minke whales. "So if we take 150 a year, that's nothing," he said, referring to Iceland's annual quota for fin whales.

Sigurbjarnarson, however, says such estimates are "highly questionable". "Whales migrate. They are hard to count and they shouldn't be hunted," he said.

A few whale watching companies straddle the issue, taking tourists - as Heider told the IWC forum - to see whales then taste them back at port.

The anti-whaling International Fund For Animal Welfare (IFAW) insists that such tastings account for a large portion of Iceland's domestic whale market, saying 40 percent of tourists try whale thinking it's a traditional Icelandic dish whereas only five percent of Icelanders regularly eat whale.

Their slogan "Meet Us Don't Eat Us" was briefly displayed at Iceland's Keflavik international airport before, according to the IFAW, the powerful whaler lobby - who defend hunting as part of national heritage - pressured for its removal last month.

"We want the tourists to realise they can be part of the problem or the solution," said IFAW's Sigursteinn Masson.

Sport
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SFL Group: Video Project Manager

    £24,000 pa, plus benefits: SFL Group: Looking for a hard-working and self-moti...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reservations Assistant - French Speaking

    £16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This rapidly expanding travel c...

    Recruitment Genius: Duty Manager - World-Famous London Museum

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have a strong record of ...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Assistant

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will have demonstrable unde...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor