Iceland: A new dawn for whales and dolphins?

Will 2018 be the year that I can finally visit beautiful Iceland purely as a tourist, rather than a campaigner? Maybe it’s not surprising that this fabled ‘land of fire and ice’ should offer visitors a host of contradictions, but the juxtaposition of whale watching and whale hunting in the same waters is surely one of the most logic-defying examples on the planet? Frankly, to me, it feels just plain surreal – not to mention heartbreaking – to be bobbing about on a whale watch boat one day and the next, to stand behind the chain-link fence marking the boundary of the processing station at Hvalfjörður and watch a beautiful fin whale being chopped up only metres away.

So, as another year turns, I thought it would be interesting to look at recent events and try to predict what 2018 may hold for whales and dolphins off Iceland. I’m an optimist, so let’s consider the good portents first.

Viking sculpture
Viking sculpture

No fin whales killed
Last year, as in 2016, no endangered fin whales were hunted.  Ironically, we can mostly thank a highly public spat between Japan and Iceland’s sole fin whaler, Kristján Loftsson, for sparing the lives of over 300 fin whales over those two years. Japan is pretty much Mr Loftsson’s only market, so a fall-out with Japan over what he considers their overly-tough food testing laws (combined with a strong Icelandic krona last year) meant that his whaling vessels remained in dry dock.

Fewer minke whales were killed last year than 2016, 2015 and 2014
In 2017, Iceland’s minke whaling company, IP-Utgerd Ltd., harpooned a total of 17 minke whales. That’s 17 too many, of course, but less than half the total killed in 2016 (46), and fewer also than 2015 (29) and 2014 (24).

Record tourist numbers - but they’re watching whales, rather than eating them
Chief minke whaler, Gunnar Bergmann Jónsson, continually states that whales must be killed in order to meet growing tourist demand. However,  whilst it is true that tourist numbers are rising steadily - with almost 2.2 million people visiting Iceland in 2017, more than six times the Icelandic population - it is also true that a major outreach campaign by WDC and other NGOs has succeeded in substantially reducing the percentage of tourists willing to sample whale meat. In fact, our message thattourist demand is largely driving the hunts - under the mistaken belief that whale meat is a popular and traditional local dish -  has seen the percentage of tourists eating whale meat plummet from 40% in 2009, to 12% by 2016 (Gallup poll, commissioned by the International Fund for Animal Welfare).

Iceland’s new prime minister is an environmentalist
Appointed in late November, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, leader of the Left-Greens, has formed a coalition government with the right-wing Independence Party and the centre-right Progressive party. The Left-Greens will head the Environment Ministry and, whilst it would be naïve to claim that a change of government will definitely bring about an end to whaling (after all, whaling took place under the previous Social Democrat/Left Green coalition), Katrin is an environmentalist and her party will head the Environment Ministry.  She’s also widely regarded asone of the most popular and trusted politicians in Iceland, able to unite the left and right wings of the electorate. Crucially too, she has recently tabled probing questions in parliament about whaling.

Katrin will be mindful of greater awareness amongst the electorate that whaling doesn’t deliver economically and is an albatross around Iceland’s neck in terms of its reputation on the world stage. By contrast, whale watch tourism is booming: one in five tourists currently takes a trip - equating to more whale watchers than Iceland’s population - meaning that live whales are indisputably worth far more than dead ones.

orca watching in Iceland
orca watching in Iceland

Extension of the Faxafloi Bay whale sanctuary
In one of her final acts in office, Iceland’s outgoing Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, signed a regulation enlarging the whale sanctuary in Faxaflói Bay, restoring it to its previous size (before it was reduced in size in 2013 by her pro-whaling predecessor, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson).  Faxafloi Bay, just outside Reykjavik and one of the most popular whale watch locations, is also the area where hundreds of minke whales have been killed in recent years. She also designated the waters off Skjálfandi bay off North Iceland a whale sanctuary. My hope of course - and fortunately all the signs are positive so far - is that these sanctuaries will be retained, if not increased, under the current government.

But, as always in life, along with those heartening moves, there’s sobering things to report too, including:

Past experience tells us never to celebrate too soon
Fin whaling has paused in the past, as it did in 2011 and 2012, only to resume in 2013, so it is important to wait for further news before we know for sure what will happen this year. Confirmation of whether the hunt will proceed usually comes in early spring (it was March last year) so there is certainly no room for complacency at this stage. Fin whaler Loftsson routinely plays a game of cat and mouse with opponents and generally there’s a lot of sabre-rattling before any formal announcement is issued.

Loftsson’s freezers are empty - will he refill them?
Last year, and the year before, Mr Loftsson shipped ‘old’ fin whale meat from the 2015 hunt - which saw a record 155 fin whales killed - to Japan aboard a cargo vessel, the Winter Bay.  These shipments mean that firstly, he has some confidence that his meat still finds a market in Japan and secondly, his freezers are now empty. Whether this is a sign that he will resume the fin whale hunts, or has stopped whaling for the time being at least, remains to be seen. I don’t want to tempt fate, or trigger a knee-jerk response from a whaler who is notorious for enjoying winding up the conservation community, but my hope is that now, in his mid-seventies and with declining demand for whale meat globally, Mr Loftsson will concentrate on the other businesses in his ‘empire’, including seafood giant, HB Grandi.  Long-term supporters will know of WDC’s successful campaign, alongside other NGOs, to alert major supermarkets and consumers to the strong links between HB Grandi and fin whaling: a campaign which has certainly damaged HB Grandi both financially and reputationally. We’re also working hard to close EU ports to whale meat transits. Our campaign has already forced Loftsson to use costlier and more circuitous routes, rendering his activities less profitable.

Whale beer
Whale beer

Huge appetite for ‘exotic’ and gourmet dining experiences
Friends in Iceland have warned that the ongoing popularity of Iceland as a destination for gourmets and those seeking to sample unusual or ‘exotic’ foods poses both a threat and a challenge. Whilst tourists are increasingly aware that, by eating whale, they are helping to perpetuate whaling, there nonetheless remains a strong ‘foodie’ culture in Reykjavik particularly and the appetite for ‘gourmet delicacies’ continues unabated. As tourists come to Iceland in ever-increasing numbers, WDC is working with other NGOs to get the message out as widely as possible

The new Fisheries Minister is pro-whaling
The new fisheries minister, Kristján Þór Júlíusson, supported a dramatic increase in the whaling quotas back in 2009. We need to keep a watchful eye, as he will be responsible for renewing or amending future quotas.

So, it’s a mixed bag and certainly we need to be alert and keep up the pressure, not only in terms of reaching tourists and informing consumers about the links between fin whaling and HB Grandi seafood, but also in terms of getting the message across at the upcoming meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the body that regulates whaling, that commercial whaling in Iceland, as elsewhere, must STOP!

Cautious optimism? Yes, but maybe cynical optimism is, for now, the better term. Watch this space!

If you are visiting Iceland, please check out our partner, Alpha Insurance when you book your travel insurance – they give a discount to all WDC supporters.

Please consider making a donation to help us continue our efforts to stop the slaughter once and for all.


When I visited Iceland in 2017 as a tourist, I made a deliberate effort to thank the restaurants I ate at for not serving whale meat. Tourists need to be educated about the consequences of their choices when it comes to whale meat. Whenever possible it would be good for tourist to let the restaurants know they don’t want whale meat and only support those restaurants that don’t serve whale meat.

Both dolphins and whales belong to the cetacean family and are marine animals that reside in the ocean. Some scientists even assert that dolphins are a type of whale, as the two animals have a number of shared characteristics. However, there are distinct differences between whales and dolphins as well that will teach you more about the physical appearance of these marine creatures and how they survive in their environment.

I love anaimals

I love anaimals

n international research team has undertaken the first in-depth investigation of the teeth of captive orca (killer whales) and have found them a sorry state, which raises serious concerns for these majestic mammals' overall health and welfare.

Anyone with a toothache knows how painful and distracting that can be -- in orca which have around 48 large teeth, a sore tooth is likely no less painful or debilitating than for a person. Now, a new international study published in the journal Archives of Oral Biology, found that every individual examined had damaged teeth.

Study first author Professor John Jett of Florida's Stetson University, an ex-orca trainer, says the team investigated 29 orca owned by one company and held in the USA and Spain.

"Every whale had some form of damage to its teeth. We found that the more than 65 per cent possessed moderate to extreme tooth wear in their lower jaws, mostly as a result of chewing concrete and steel tank surfaces."

Additionally, the researchers found that more than 61 per cent of the orca they studied have "been to the dentist" to have their teeth drilled. Officially termed a "modified pulpotomy," a hole is drilled into the tooth to extract the soft pulpy tissue inside.

Call me Ishmael for making conjectures unflattering to humankind, but could Moby Dick have been smarter than captain Ahab? Melville certainly seemed to think so. Moby clipped off one of the captain's legs and then, years later, in a brilliant move of cetacean jujitsu, drowned poor Ahab by towing him into the abyss by the harpoon rope tangled around Ahab's remaining leg. "From Hell's heart I stab at thee!" Gulp. We humans pride ourselves on our big brains. We never seem to tire of bragging about how our supreme intelligence empowers us to lord over all other animals on the planet. Yet the biological facts don't quite square with Homo sapiens' arrogance. The fact is, people do not have the largest brains on the planet, either in absolute size or in proportion to body size. Whales, not people, have the biggest brains of any animal on earth. Just how smart are whales? Why do they have such big brains? Bigger is not always better; maybe the inflated whale brain is not very sophisticated on a cellular level. We're closer to answering such questions now, for a couple of recent papers address them squarely.

Like dolphins and porpoises, whales are believed to have descended from land animals that returned to the water roughly 50 million years ago after living millions of years on land.
Because whales must rise to the surface often to breathe, only one half of their brain sleeps at a time.
Most etymologists believe the word “whale” comes from the High German word hwal, but it is also possible that it derived from the Old English word for “wheel” since the back of a whale rolling at the surface of the water resembles the rim of a large, submerged wheel.
Whales swim by moving their tails up and down in a vertical motion. In contrast, fish move their tails from side to side.
When a blue whale dives into the water, its head is already deeper than most scuba divers dare to go before its tail leaves the surface of the water.

2018 01-27 SB Channel. It was great to be back with the whales and dolphins today…our first whale encounter for several weeks (due to fire, mud, rough seas). Conditions to day were good and Captain Eric and his crew located 3 gray whales and 500 long-beaked common dolphins.

The first sighting was of a juvenile gray whale. It was southbound in the mid-Santa Barbara Channel region and kept on a regular 3-minute “easy watching” breathing cycle.

A little further along, in The Lanes, the dolphins located the Condor Express and we had a great time with them for nearly an hour. As usual, they rode the bow, side waves and stern wake.

The final sighting was a mother gray whale and her calf…a special treat for sure.

You never know what Mother Nature has in store.

Fun Facts about Whales for Kids
There are over 75 species of whale.
Whales are thought to be one of the smartest animals on Earth.
Whales can talk to each other through chirps, squeaks or whale songs.
Dolphins are a type of whale.
Whales are expert divers and swimmers. The sperm whale can dive to a depth of two miles deep and hold its breath for more than two hours!
Whales migrate from cold arctic or Antarctic waters to warmer waters to have babies.

Like other mammals, whales breathe air, are warm-blooded, and produce milk to feed their young. Their adaptations for aquatic life include a streamlined form, nearly hairless skin, and an insulating layer of blubber, which can be as thick as 28 in. (70 cm) in some Arctic species. The forelimbs of whales are modified into flippers, and the hind legs are reduced to internal vestiges. Many species possess a dorsal fin. The tail is flattened into horizontal flukes and is used for propulsion. The head is very large, with a wide mouth and no external neck.

Whales have one or two nostril openings, called blowholes, located far back on the top of the head; the nostril valves close and the lungs compress when the whale dives. Most whales must surface every 3 to 20 min to breathe, but some, like the sperm whale, can remain submerged for more than an hour. Spouting occurs when the whale surfaces and clears water from its blowhole along with any moisture trapped in its air passages. The shape of the spout is characteristic of each type of large whale. Whales have small eyes, designed to withstand great pressures, and most species have good vision. Their hearing is also excellent. Many cetaceans have highly convoluted brains larger than those of humans, and whales are believed to be extremely intelligent.

Most large whales travel in small schools, or pods, but some, like the fin whale, swim alone or in pairs; small cetaceans form schools of up to several thousand individuals. Most large whales are found in open ocean, where they migrate thousands of miles between feeding and breeding grounds. Dolphins frequently live in coastal waters. A few dolphin species are found in tropical rivers. Females of most species give birth to a single calf every two to three years. Gestation periods range from 9.5 to 17 months. The newborn calf is pushed to the surface by the mother or by another adult; it is able to swim almost immediately and is nursed for 6 to 12 months. Some large whales are believed to have lived 100 years or more in the wild.

I visited Iceland last year with my girlfriend where we went on a whale watching tour. I must say it's absolutely spectacular! However, I did notice fishing boats close by - when I asked the tour guide he said they follow us to find the whales and hunt them when we leave. Left me a bit sick to the stomach to be honest :(

Very happy to make a donation to such a good cause. Alex

Such beautiful creatures!