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

Seeking sanctuary – Iceland’s complex relationship with whales

Hayley is WDC's engagement officer, specialising in creating brilliant content for our website and publications.

Iceland is an incredible island full of contrasts – from fiery volcanos to icy glaciers, thundering waterfalls to cavernous rift valleys. Amidst all the wonder, one sobering paradox looms: while the seas are home to populations of wild whales, docked in the port two lone, harpoon-equipped whaling ships threaten these amazing beings.  

Two members of the WDC team, Sally Ward and Bianca Cisternino, accompanied by our supporters Hat Films, ventured to the land of ice and fire and witnessed these stark contrasts firsthand. Hat Films are part of The Yogscast Group and were representing Jingle Jam, the world's biggest gaming charity event that has been supporting WDC for more than seven years, so this trip was an opportunity to show them the harsh reality of the cruelty we are working to end and a glimpse of a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free.

Sally and Bianca arriving in Vestmannaeyjar
Bianca Cisternino (left) is our bycatch coordinator, and Sally Ward (right) is our digital partnerships manager.

First, let's hear from Bianca about one of the contradictions they encountered...

Whaling VS whale watching

When we arrived, there was a buzz in the air. After years of campaigning, whaling had been suspended for the summer. We made our way to the docks where the two Hvalur hf. whaling ships were awaiting the decision on whether they could resume hunting. We’d conjured a picture in our minds of these murderous vessels, responsible for the slaughter of over 150 endangered fin whales every year. But when we saw them, they were ordinary-looking ships, but with a space for the deadly harpoons. The contrast between their unassuming appearance and the harm they inflict was unsettling.

Fin whale

Can you help to stop whaling in Iceland?

Ironically, they were positioned directly across from the whale watching boats. Iceland’s contradictions and internal battle could not have been more apparent. To the left were the ships used to slaughter whales, and to the right were whale watching vessels that take you to you enjoy the magical beauty of whales and dolphins.

Whale watching in Húsavík

How could vessels with such contrasting roles be in such close proximity?

The morning of our whale watching tour Sally and I were giddy with excitement. WDC are long-time partners with Elding Whale Watching in Iceland who practice responsible whale watching and we were thrilled to be heading out on a trip with them.

Bianca and Sally on Elding whale watching tour
Bianca elated to see whales and dolphins in the wild

It was incredible to see the magnificent beings we work tirelessly to protect, in their natural habitat.

It was an overwhelming sight - minke whales surrounded us, lunge feeding exposing their bright pink bellies, and blowing the iconic broccoli-scented breath that gave them the nickname stinky-minke. We were uninvited guests in the whales’ world, and we felt privileged to see them. Then to our delight, white-beaked dolphins appeared riding the waves alongside our boat! We basked in the joy of seeing whales and dolphins our whole ride back to port, only to be confronted with the whaling ships once again.

Minke whale breaching

We were so fortunate to spot minke whales (left) and white-beaked dolphins (right)!

It was heartbreaking to go from seeing these majestic creatures thrive to encountering the terrors that await them from whaling. After our visit on 31 August, the suspension was lifted, and whaling resumed in Iceland. Twenty-five majestic, intelligent, and sentient fin whales fell victim to the two ships. The future of whaling in Iceland now 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 keep fighting until this cruel killing comes to an end.

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

Whaling to welfare

Despite Iceland’s history of whaling, there’s a brighter side to the country that champions whale protection and leads the way in ending captivity. Iceland is now home to the world's first sanctuary for captive whales. The SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary is situated on the island of Vestmannaeyjar, off its southern coast. As a partner, we are proud to have supported The Sea Life Trust with this trailblazing project and were eager to visit and observe the positive impact it’s had on two beluga whales, Little Grey and Little White, who arrived at the sanctuary after leaving behind a life performing tricks in shows at a captive facility in China.

Here’s Sally to tell you more …

Little Grey and Little White - formerly captive beluga whales
Little Grey at the SEA LIFE Trust Beluga Whale Sanctuary

Little Grey and Little White are the first beluga whales to be rescued from captivity and moved to the sanctuary.

Our visit was a magical experience. As we approached Vestmannaeyjar, the breathtaking view of the sanctuary bay unfolded - a natural ocean bay surrounded by sheer cliffs and seabirds flying overhead. Sanctuaries like this offer a more natural environment where formerly captive whales or dolphins can roam freely and encounter the natural flora and fauna of the ocean without being made to perform for human entertainment. I felt an enormous sense of pride knowing that we, along with our supporters, including Hat Films and the Jingle Jam community, helped bring this essential facility to life.


Klettsvik Bay, Vestmannaeyjar
Klettsvik Bay, in Vestmannaeyjar, provides a more natural sub-Arctic environment for these amazing whales to call home.

At the sanctuary’s visitors centre, we explored the puffin rescue facility before being taken to the indoor care pool to meet the enchanting Little White and inquisitive Little Grey. This area is strictly out of bounds to the public, so it was a real privilege. Little Grey was receiving treatment for stomach ulcers, which is why they were in the care pool and not the ocean bay at the time. Being in the presence of these two extraordinary whales was surreal. They are huge, pristinely white and so noisy! They were both so curious and when you looked into their eyes, you could just see how intelligent they are - looking back at you and assessing you.

It’s hard to believe that beings as emotional, sentient and social as these two girls are kept for most of their lives in tiny tanks for human entertainment. Whales should be wild and free in the ocean – because they have the right. They are also our allies in our fight against the climate crisis.

Little Grey (left) Little White (right)
More than 300 beluga whales are still held in captivity today.

Our time in Iceland left us with a mix of emotions. Seeing the vessels that inflict so much harm filled us with sadness but knowing that, together, we saved approximately 120 whales this summer during the suspension, provided a glimmer of hope. Iceland’s support as a valuable ally in our mission to end captivity and the knowledge that the majority of the Icelandic public now opposes whaling has filled us with optimism that they will put a stop to fin whale hunting for good. Until then, we will continue engaging with the government and our partners on the ground to make sure whales no longer have to face the horrors of a harpoon.

This year’s Jingle Jam event will be supporting our work to end whaling for good. If you’re a streamer, content creator or gamer you can join WDC this festive season to help us protect these amazing creatures through games. Sign up here.

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