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A summer of hope and heartbreak for whales in Icelandic waters

Luke McMillan

Luke McMillan

Luke is WDC's Head of hunting and captivity.

Now that the 2023 whaling season in Iceland has ended, it’s time to reflect on the whirlwind of events that unfolded for the fin whales in Icelandic waters. We have been at the forefront of efforts to end the slaughter, and this season was a rollercoaster of emotions, with moments of hope that an end to whaling was in sight, and heartache as 25 sentient beings fell victim to the harpoons.


It all began in May when the Icelandic government released a report that exposed the inhumane methods employed in Icelandic whale hunts. Our partner, Hard To Port, supplied the harrowing pictures that led to this report, which revealed that some whales take up to two hours to die after being shot with grenade-tipped harpoons. The findings exposed huge amounts of cruelty associated with the hunts and served as a turning point, shining a spotlight on the blatant disregard for animal welfare laws.

No whale should suffer like this ©  Hard to Port
No whale should suffer like this © Hard to Port

United against whaling

In response to these distressing revelations, we joined forces with our partners and the anti-whaling community in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. We took to the streets to demonstrate our unity and determination, urging the Icelandic government to finally end whaling. We laid whale bones to rest in the city centre and adorned them with 148 roses, each rose signifying a fin whale who lost his or her life in last year's hunts.

Banner and activists

For the first time ever, the majority of Icelanders are now against hunting - a huge success.

This event, filled with art, dance, poetry, and music, conveyed the anti-whaling sentiment that, for the first time ever,  the majority of Iceland's population shared. It was amazing to see so many people speaking up for the fin whales, even renowned singer and songwriter Bjork, whom I had the opportunity to personally thank for her support and for championing our cause. The atmosphere in Reykjavik made it evident that the pressure to end the hunts was mounting.


Fin whale

Can you help stop the slaughter of these incredible beings?

A moment in history

The release of the expert report left the Icelandic government in a tricky situation but, in June, history was made when Iceland's Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, took the courageous step of suspending planned whale hunts, on the grounds that they break Iceland’s animal welfare laws. This suspension marked a monumental shift in the political landscape. After decades of campaigning and a lot of hard work behind the scenes, this really looked like it could have been the end of whaling in Iceland.

3 fin whales
Wild and free, as they should be.

We are proud to report that our supporters played a crucial role by providing substantial funding to the legal team advocating for this suspension. I had the privilege of meeting Katrín Oddsdóttir, the lawyer legally challenging the whaling in Iceland, and she expressed her sincere gratitude that WDC and our supporters were able to support her efforts. Together, we saved the lives of around 120 fin whales whilst the hunts were suspended this summer.

Kattrin Oddsdottir holding t-shirt saying Save the whale. Save the world.
Kattrin Oddsdottir sharing our important message.

An anxious wait

Whilst the suspension was in place, our commitment didn't waver. We continued our on-the-ground advocacy, closely monitoring the situation and engaging with government ministers, trade unions, and whalers during their deliberations on the suspension. This gave us the chance to understand the human impact of our campaign and have meaningful discussions with whalers to convey our stance.

While we awaited a decision on whether the suspension would become permanent, Kristján Loftsson, the managing director of the whaling company Hvalur hf, made controversial claims regarding whaling's impact on Iceland's climate goals, arguing that whales release substantial amounts of carbon dioxide and contribute to algae growth through their waste and urine. However, we know these claims are far from the truth. In response, we publicly countered these unfounded assertions, emphasizing the crucial role that whales play in carbon capture and the marine ecosystem.

Heartbreaking news

Naturally, our hearts sank as the temporary suspension was lifted, and whaling resumed in Iceland on September 1. The harpoon ships were permitted to leave the harbour under new, stricter regulations and increased monitoring aimed at improving the welfare standards. However, this is not guaranteed –and so this is a hugely disappointing decision and a massive step backwards.

Icelandic hunting vessels in port
The shortened hunting season began on September 1

The resumption of whaling for one of the harpoon ships was short-lived.  Only one week after they returned to sea and claimed the lives of 11 fin whales, one vessel, Hvalur 8, had its license suspended once again. Onboard observers witnessed a distressing scene: a fin whale endured over 30 agonizing minutes after being struck by one harpoon before the crew fired a second harpoon, ultimately ending the whale's life. This was one of the main welfare issues that brought about the original suspension of the hunts by the government earlier in the summer, and so nothing appears to have changed. This prolonged suffering serves as undeniable proof that such a brutal practice cannot be carried out humanely.

Fin-whale shot-twice
There is no humane way to kill whales at sea © Hard To Port

The brutality didn't end there. On September 22, the whalers returned to port with another victim, but this time, she wasn't alone. Documented by our partners at Hard To Port, the whalers had not only taken the life of a female adult whale but also the life of her four-metre-long unborn calf - a life taken even before it had begun.

Uncertainty lies ahead

The ships are now back in port, harpoon guns taken down, and the hunting season has come to an end, leaving us with mixed emotions. While the suspension was a monumental achievement and many whales were saved as a result, we are deeply saddened that 25 sentient and intelligent, fin whales were not.

Whaling ship Hvalur 9 returning to the port with two dead fin whales
The whaling season is over © Hard to Port

The future of whaling in Iceland hangs in the balance as Hvalur hf's license, the only company currently holding one, is set to expire in December 2023. We can assure you that we will continue engaging with the government and our partners on the ground to expose the cruelty and show that hunting whales at sea can never take place humanely. While there have been challenges, we will keep fighting until this cruel killing comes to an end.

We won’t stop fighting

Our commitment to stop the slaughter remains as we prepare extensive reports on the necessity of ending whaling, focusing on animal welfare and environmental security concerns. We have been publicly supporting a new bill which has been offered to the government seeking to end whaling in Iceland, and we will continue to fund legal efforts to prevent whaling ships from leaving harbour in June 2024.

Fin whale head
We need a healthy ocean and a healthy ocean needs whales.

We want to say a massive thank you to all our supporters. Your contributions made this temporary suspension possible, and the lives of approximately 120 fin whales were saved because of you. Together we can make sure no fin whale ever has to face a harpoon in Icelandic waters again.

Please help us today with a donation

If you are able to help, every gift, whether large or small, will help us stop whaling for good.