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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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Sperm whale (physeter macrocephalus) Gulf of California. The tail of a sperm whale.

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WDC team at UN Ocean conference

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No brainer in Faxafloi Bay – whale watching trumps whaling every time

I have pleasure in introducing a guest blog by Icelander Kris Hjalmarsson, who comments on the increasing conflict of interest between the whale watch community and the whalers. These industries are polar opposites yet each operates in Faxafloi Bay, outside Reykjavik, home to a species targeted by both factions: the minke whale. Below, Kris explains how whaling is threatening to ruin whale watching – an industry that is helping to rebuild Iceland’s economy and which offers an ‘ icing on the cake’ experience to thousands of tourists each year.

The Icelandic whale watching industry has an adversarial relationship with those who set out to hunt and kill a slow, friendly and curious swimmer that just so happens to love being in the company of humans. Thanks to its naturally friendly and curious tendencies, the minke whale has helped spawn an industry embraced by tourists from around the world. With its astounding scenery and pure, clean ocean, the Icelandic whale watching industry has seen tremendous growth and much gratitude is owed to this amazing creature that loves to come right up to your boat and give watchers the experience of a lifetime.

On the opposite side are those who prefer to harpoon this slow and friendly creature and drag it to shore to be flensed and then placed into freezer storage – with no significant market to justify the killing.

The relative economic values of these industries, currently on a head-on collision course, are obvious when the two are compared side by side. Compared to whaling, the whale watch industry has gone from literally nothing to becoming a major revenue stream for the Icelandic economy in just two decades. Tourists that are far from cash-strapped pour money into the local economy – currently generating four billion Icelandic króna in foreign exchange – and that money recycles itself over and over. It’s an enormous economic boon.

However, whale watch tour operators are seeing changes in the behaviour of the minke whales which are starting to impact their business. The minke whales are at the very heart of the local whale watching industry, yet they are showing behavioural changes that stem not from the whale watching, but from the brutal kill tactics of the hunters. The minkes are starting to show a loss of trust and rightfully so. They are intelligent creatures and they know they are being picked off, one by one . Murdered in close proximity to one another with vicious harpoons, tipped with explosives. It becomes easy to see why they are starting to shy away from humans. Their trust is being betrayed. 

The economic forces in play will likely be the ultimate decider as to whether the whaling continues. As far as I can see, it‘s not that difficult to reach a decision based upon logic. Let the money speak for itself, as it seems to be a very strong motivator. If this four billion króna revenue stream – from wealthy tourists that love whale watching – dries up, the local Reykjavik economy will soon start circling the drain.