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Humpback whale playing with kelp

Why do humpback whales wear seaweed wigs?

Alison Wood Ali is WDC's education projects coordinator. She is the editor of Splash! and KIDZONE,...
Japanese whaling ship

WDC in Japan – Part 5: The meaning of whaling

Katrin Matthes Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany...
Risso's dolphins off the Isle of Lewis, Scotland

Unravelling the mysteries of Risso’s dolphins – WDC in action

Nicola Hodgins Nicola is WDC's cetacean science coordinator. She leads our long-term Risso's dolphin research...
Save the whale save the world on a tv in a meeting room.

Saving whales in boardrooms and on boats

Abbie Cheesman Abbie is WDC's head of strategic partnerships. She works with leading businesses to...
Outcomes of COP28

Outcomes for whales and dolphins from COP28

Ed Goodall Ed is WDC's head of intergovernmental engagement. He meets with world leaders to...
Taiji's cove with boats rounding up dolphins to be slaughtered or sold to aquraiums

WDC in Japan – Part 4: A journey to Taiji’s killing cove

Katrin Matthes Katrin is WDC's communications and campaigns officer for policy & communication in Germany...
Blue whale at surface

Creating a safe haven for whales and dolphins in the Southern Ocean

Emma Eastcott Emma is WDC's head of safe seas. She helps ensure whales and dolphins...
We're at COP28 to Save the Whale, Save the World.

We’re at COP28 to save the whale, save the world

Ed Goodall Ed is WDC's head of intergovernmental engagement. He meets with world leaders to...
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Port River dolphins

New report reveals 100,000 dolphins and small whales hunted every year

When you hear the words ‘dolphin hunts’ it’s likely that you think of Japan or...

Minke whale hunts stop in Iceland

Iceland’s commercial hunt of minke whales has ended for this year. The common minke whale is the...

Japan set to resume commercial whaling

Reports from Japan suggest that the government they will formally propose plans to resume commercial...

End the whale hunts! Icelandic fin whaler isolated as public mood shifts

Here’s a sight I hoped never again to witness. A boat being scrubbed and repainted...

Australian Government to block Japanese whaling proposal

Japanese Government officials have reportedly confirmed that they will propose the resumption of commercial whaling...

Did Icelandic whalers really kill a blue whale?

*Warning - this blog contains an image that you may find upsetting* They say a...

Icelandic whalers breach international law and kill iconic, protected whale by mistake

Icelandic whalers out hunting fin whales for the first time in three years appear to...

Pregnant whales once again a target for Japanese whalers

Figures from Japan's whaling expedition to Antarctica during the 2017/18 austral summer have revealed that...

Doubts remain after Icelandic Marine Institute claims slaughtered whale was a hybrid not a blue

Experts remain sceptical of initial test results issued by the Icelandic Marine Institute, which indicate...

Icelandic fin whale hunting to resume

Iceland’s only fin whaling company, Hvalur hf,  announced today that it will resume fin whaling...

Norway increases whaling quota despite declining demand

Norway's government has announced an increase in the number of minke whales that can be...

Norway's whaling season begins

April 1st saw the start of the whaling season in Norway. Despite a widely-accepted international moratorium...

SOS alert for whales off Norway!

I have to admit to bitter disappointment when I arrived in Tromsø, northern Norway, a few weeks ago, hoping to see orcas, only to find that I had missed them by a few days.  Since 2013, the orcas have been seen really close to shore in the waters around Tromsø and neighbouring Kvaløya islands, towering dorsal fins slicing through the water as orca pods hunt young herring in icy fjords embraced by snow-capped mountains. This year, however, both orcas and herring were mostly centred off the small island of Skjervøy, some 3-4 hours’ northeast of Tromsø and agonisingly close to my arrival, the orcas followed the now-mature herring into the open sea far to the west of Tromsø, too far out for boats to follow.

Sad to miss them? Yes, of course, as I love orcas and spent one of the best summers of my life volunteering at Orcalab, Hanson Island (home to WDC’s orca adoption project). But as a whale conservationist, there’s a part of me that was glad that these glorious whales now had some respite from the seemingly endless attention from boats. Whilst there are undoubtedly some excellent companies operating in the area, others are less responsible.  Recent years have seen an escalation of incidents, with numerous examples of over-crowding, skippers pushing their vessels too close or remaining too long around the whales.

In late November, documentary maker, Ken O’Sullivan complained of witnessing ’50-60 boats chasing orcas’.  He posted video footage showing eight boats pursuing these whales off Vengsøya island.  Around the same time, I received some equally-concerning reports relating to the safety of snorkellers participating in commercial tours.  Even in dry suits, these icy Arctic waters can be dangerous.  Sea conditions can be extreme and orcas are large and generally fast-moving.  A post by Richard Karoliussen to the Hvaler i Nord Facebook page around the same time commented, especially in relation to boats rented by outsiders who appeared at times to be operating without due regard for the safety of people or whales: ’I would say that this phenomenon in Skjervøy and Troms is starting to be out of control.  And it is terrible to watch.  Some days ago, I came across two snorkellers, 300 metres away from their boat.  I barely saw their two black heads in the water, and I could easily have run over them.’  This fear was echoed by a WDC supporter living in Norway who witnessed divers in the semi-darkness, without lights, near a busy harbour mouth and therefore terribly vulnerable to being struck by vessels.

Orca whale watching near Tromso Norway Nov. 2017 © @ken.osullivanLahinch.

Recently too, came reports of passengers feeding orcas with fish allegedly discarded by nearby fishing boats. In late November 2016, images posted to the Facebook page of a children’s TV show featured a group of children apparently encouraged to provide fish to the whales and reach over from the vessel to pet the whales. It  is illegal to feed whales and dolphins in many parts of the world for good reason, as it encourages unnatural behaviour and increases each individual’s risk of injury and death.

Norway’s whales and dolphins have also suffered an ear-bashing from seismic testing for oil and gas, as test sites have often coincided with whale and dolphin habitat.  In a blog for WDC in August 2016, biologist Heike Vester of Ocean Sounds reported that ’this year, continuous surveys have blocked the entrance to the Vestfjord with an “acoustic wall”. Rather than whale song, seismic blasts every eight seconds have been the dominant sound source… there has been a significant decline in whale abundance and we suspect that the whales are actively avoiding the area.’  For the first time in almost a decade, massive pods of pilot whales did not enter the fjord, whilst humpbacks, fin whales and orcas were also suspiciously absent.

Worryingly too, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate which conducts the seismic tests is not required to have trained observers on board, and staff are not obliged to pause their operations even if they encounter marine mammals. The potential ramifications of this policy were evident that same year when a healthy adult Sowerby’s beaked whale stranded and died.  Biologists at Ocean Sounds who assisted a veterinarian from Nord University at the necropsy, suspected that this unfortunate whale had crossed the path of a nearby seismic survey vessel. The intense sound from the seismic surveys might have caused acoustic trauma and decompression sickness and, ultimately, a slow and painful death.  

These problems are all the more important to resolve in a whaling region such as Norway, where hundreds of minke whales are killed each year.  Whale watching – as long as it is responsibly conducted – is an exhilarating experience for watchers, encourages conservation and offers local communities a genuine alternative livelihood to hunting whales.  And boy, do minke whales deserve some respite in Norwegian waters!

Last year, whalers hunted 432 minkes (compared to 591 in 2016, and 660 in 2015). This was the lowest figure for over 20 years but still represents a huge number of whales.  And whilst last season saw the lowest number of vessels actively whaling for 25 years, the vessels which did go out took a record number of whales per vessel; in other words, fewer boats but each one more efficient in terms of dispatching whales.  It is bad enough to know that many whales die in terror and agony, but a further sickener is the knowledge that many of the whales are pregnant females, gifting the whalers a grisly ’two for the price of one’.  I’m sure WDC supporters won’t need reminding that these whales are killed under Norway’s self-allocated quota (which has just been raised from 999 to 1,278) which exploits a loophole in the international ban on commercial whaling.

Norway claims its whaling is part of a strong cultural tradition of harvesting from the sea and desperately ignores the modern day reality of consumer disinterest and declining demand for whale meat.  And in any case, to borrow a memorable quote from US Olympic skier, Gus Kenworthy, who recently rescued a puppy from shameful conditions in a South Korean dog meat farm: ’culture should never be a scapegoat for cruelty.’

Last July, German campaigners were able to film a Norwegian whaling vessel, the Nystrand, kill a minke whale.  According to their footage, the whale did not die instantly and probably suffered a great deal, before being finished off by rifle. The whale’s carcass was then ‘bled out’ and its blubber dumped overboard, in full view of a nearby vessel with young children on board. Surely that is enough to kill any appetite for whale meat stone dead?

Strolling around Tromsø last month, I was struck by how few restaurant menus and billboards boasted whale meat, yet several supermarkets carried a selection of chilled whale meat products.  True, it was off-season and as the next whaling season opens in a few months’ time, it is vital that we keep reaching tourists asking them not to support this cruel industry especially since this week’s announcemnt of an increased quota, plus the Norwegian government’s determination to boost demand for whale meat. Remember, too, that Fisheries Minister, Per Sandberg, recently exclaimed “I want to make sure that whaling stays alive!”.

So what is WDC doing to help Norway’s whales and dolphins?  We’re working on several fronts simultaneously, including:

  • Endorsing Visit Tromsø’s excellent guidelines on whale watching and supporting calls for government regulations
  • Asking tourists not to support Norwegian whaling by eating whale meat
  • Explaining that eating whale meat often carries serious health risks due to contamination
  • Speaking out against commercial whaling at the International Whaling Commission
  • Lobbying the EU for a ban on whale meat transits through our ports
  • Rebutting the illogical and untrue argument repeatedly made by the Norwegian government and whalers that they need to kill whales in order to protect commercially-valuable fish stocks. Illogical, because at the same time, the government assures us that its whaling is sustainable and not impacting whale stocks: they can’t have it both ways! Untrue, since researchers have mapped fish catches against species which whales are known to eat and have demonstrated unequivocally that there is little overlap with human fisheries because whales largely catch species we don’t target, in areas we don’t fish.
  • Strongly condemning seismic testing in marine mammal habitat

Above all, we are passionately promoting the message that healthy oceans and fish stocks are dependent upon healthy whale stocks.  Whales are the ‘gardeners’ of the ocean: the rich nutrients released by whales defecating fertilises the ocean and helps sustain fish stocks.

Please make a donation to support our efforts to end whaling in Norway.