Treasured UK celebrity Bill Oddie visits with tourists, birds and whales in Iceland

Treasured UK celebrity Bill Oddie.I lost Bill Oddie three times in between getting out of the plane and reaching the baggage hall.  I was beginning to find out what it's like travelling with one of the UK's treasured celebrities known for his long career in comedy, TV and wildlife conservation. 

Each time I went back to find him, there he was talking to admiring wellwishers. 

"Bill we loved the Goodies", "Mr Oddie, I just want to say I think your wildlife programmes are great" or just plain, "Bill Oddie! Can I have my photo taken with you?"

Bill and I arrived in Iceland on Monday this week. We came to have a look at two International Fund for Animal Welfare projects here.

The first was Meet Us Don't Eat Us, our project aimed at tourists asking them not to eat whale meat. The second was on board our state of the art sailing research vessel, Song of the Whale - from where I'm writing this now.

We were accompanied by a camera crew and presenter from BBC TV's One Show who were joining us to make a short film of our trip for their extremely popular show. 

The film is scheduled to go out shortly.

Tuesday morning, Bill, the camera team, me and our trusty volunteers, wearing their two-metre tall whale costumes, started wandering around the Old Harbour in Reykjavik talking to tourists to this lovely country about how eating whale meat directly contributes to the number of whales killed. 

Over the summer we have routinely met tourists who think that whaling is a culturally traditional Icelandic activity; that everyone in Iceland eats whale meat and that if they try a little piece, it won't make a difference to the number of whales killed. 

Sadly, the truth is that Icelandic commercial whaling only began in 1948; less than 5% of Icelanders regularly eat whale meat and, up to this year, around 40% of the whale meat in Iceland was eaten by tourists. 

Bill was great with the tourists and the camera crew filmed him explaining the situation to them. The tourists were delighted to meet Bill and only too keen to fill in and sign the IFAW pledge cards that said they were opposed to whaling and would not eat whale meat.

Bill was particularly struck by the stark contradiction in the harbour between the colourful presence of brightly painted whale watching vessels and the brooding dark presence of two whaling vessels - and in the background restaurants advertising 'whale steaks'...  

"That's crazy", he said. 

IFAW's second season of Meet Us Don't Eat Us is drawing to a close and over 15,000 tourists will have signed our pledge to not eat whale meat. 

Our hope is that tourists start seeing the connection between their actions and the whaling that they so obviously detest.

If that happens then we hope the bottom will fall out of the local whale meat market and it will become uneconomical to continue. By this time last year, the local whaling association had killed around 50 minke whales. This year, the national Icelandic newspaper, Morgunbladid, reported that they had only killed 29. The season is not quite over yet but we are hopeful that Meet Us Don't Eat Us is really having an impact on the whale meat market.

After spending time talking to tourists Bill, me and the TV crew were given a lift by our friends at the Elding whale watching company in the Old Harbour to IFAW's research vessel, Song of the Whale

The boat is spending the summer months in Iceland this year undertaking research into the interactions between minke whales and the whale watching boats that come out to see them five or six times a day. 

IFAW has always said that the best way of taking advantage of the fact that you are lucky enough to be visited by whales is to organise responsible whale watching. 

We are also very proud that IFAW research from around 20 years ago led to the creation of the now thriving Icelandic whale watching industry. However, we are very keen to ensure that all whale watching is "responsible" and that whales do not suffer because of it - hence this research project in the waters 10 miles off Reykjavik.

The background into any marine research is that - sad but true - mankind probably knows much more about what happens on the surface of the moon than it does about what happens on the seabed and in the water above it. 

To find out if whales are disturbed by whale watchers, you first need to know what their normal behaviour is. So Song of the Whale is using all the tricks of its trade to track whales continuously for periods when they are both in the vicinity of whale watching boats and when the boats have gone or the whales have left the whale watching area. 

This gives the scientists on board the opportunity to compare the same animals' behaviour before, during and after being near whale watching boats. Clever stuff...

We were transferred from the Elding boat to Song of the Whale in a small inflatable craft and Bill nimbly stepped on board IFAW's 21-metre sailing vessel for the first time. "Marvellous", he said, "hello everybody, where are the birds and whales?" 

He wasn't to be disappointed. 

As the TV crew filmed a tour of the boat's state of the art hydrophones, computer room and laser visual systems the whale watching boats around us were left behind as we tracked our first minke whale into the distance. 

Fulmars, red-necked phalaropes, gannets, guillemots and the occasional puffin kept us company as we quietly made our way in the perfectly calm waters of the vast Faxafloi bay. 

White beaked dolphins popped up for a look at us and harbour porpoises had the occasional peep. And still we tracked our lone minke, carefully observing its behaviour.   

By the end of the research, hundreds of hours of invaluable data will have been gathered. That day alone, more than 400 photographs were taken. 

Most of the data will be new and unique baseline information about minke whale habits. We will also be in a position to compare their behaviour around the whale watching boats. 

Over the years, I've been whale watching out of Reykjavik countless times and I'm glad to say that the operators have always looked pretty responsible to me. 

One of the reasons is that their customers are more and more informed and expect them to act responsibly - so the operators know it is in their interests as well as in the whales' interests to make sure that they don't upset the whales.

Once our data has been compiled and peer reviewed we will pass on whatever advice we can to the operators.

The BBC crew, happy with their filming, left us around 5pm and we picked up another minke whale and followed her until about 9pm when she joined a couple of other whales and was impossible to track anymore as you couldn't really be sure about which whale was which. 

As the northern latitude sun sank into the horizon at around 10.30pm we made our way towards land and dropped anchor about a mile off coast and settled in for the night. 

After a long day, a gently rocking bunk and the sound of the sea gently lapping the hull soon sent me off to sleep.

More great weather today - Faxafloi is once again dead calm and the low cloud makes the sea look silver - perfect conditions for tracking minkes, and we're already on one, heading for the whale watching area..the Song of the Whale and her dedicated team are in their element.

-- RM

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