First Whalefest adds new dimension to Iceland's hugely successful whale watching industry

Orca sighting at Grundarfjörður, on the north side of the Snaefellsnes peninsular in Iceland.“I don’t think anyone has ever been too hot on the boat”, was my answer to the question of how much to wear. We were in the small Icelandic town of Grundarfjörður and about to head out to sea to look for orcas in the middle of winter.

Discover the World, a British tour operator, had heard about the arrival of the orcas three years ago. Gisli Olafsson, a local wildlife tours operator and hotel owner had seen an opportunity and this was now the second year of whale watching trips and the first Whalefest.

Huge amounts of herring had come to overwinter in the area and the orcas had soon followed. On one day we had about 10 different groups of orcas around the boat, and on another day, the whales were so close to the harbour that you could watch them from the back door of our hotel.

It was good the orcas were close to shore as gale-force winds raged with face-stinging rain. Several cameras succumbed to the extreme conditions, slowly dying, one electronic function at a time.

It was, after all, winter in Iceland.

Grundarfjörður, which is on the north side of the Snaefellsnes peninsular, is normally pretty much deserted in winter, except for the locals. This completely new dimension to Iceland’s hugely successful whale watching industry, with some 70 visitors for the Whalefest, filled every spare bed in the town.

During Whalefest, Asbjorn Bjorgvinnsson spoke of the growth of whale watching and the world-class whale museum that he established in Husavik.

Erich Hoyt, author of the 1981 book, The Whale Called Killer, spoke of his experiences with orcas around the world over three decades.

I spoke about threats to whales and the ways we have learned to study live animals without harming or disturbing them, using the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) research vessel Song of the Whale and the techniques that have been developed over two decades and three voyages to Iceland.

Others spoke of the orcas in Iceland and how they are being studied.

However, it isn’t all good news.

Elding is a Reykjavik-based whale watching company. Maria Bjork Gunnarsdottir spoke of how Elding takes people to see minke whales in Faxafloi, the large bay just outside the harbour - the very same whales that are being targeted by whalers.

The expansion of the minke whaling industry is being supported not by Icelanders but by tourists.

Sigursteinn Masson, IFAW’s representative in Iceland, spoke thoughtfully of this problem and IFAW’s “Meet Us Don’t Eat Us” campaign – aimed not at Icelanders but at tourists who eat whale meat in the mistaken belief that it is a part of Icelandic culture and tradition.

On our return to Reykjavik we were taken aback by the number of tourist restaurants now offering whale meat.

It is a recent phenomenon.

Just across the pier from Elding’s whale watching base, two sinister black whaling ships are moored.

They haven’t caught fin whales for two years now, but it remains to be seen whether fin whaling is over for good, or whether it will restart in 2013 to provide still more meat for a dwindling Japanese market.

And in another part of Reykjavik a meeting concluded that reviewed the results of Iceland’s ‘scientific whaling’ programme. ‘Scientific whaling’ has an incredibly poor reputation and is seen as just another way of allowing commercial whaling despite the moratorium.

Little more than 101 things to do with a dead whale, it is unable to address the key things that we need to know about whales.

Three hours’ drive away in Grundarfjörður we are seeing the future for Iceland, while in Reykjavik, the whaling past is still alive – just.

--VP

Let officials know you support the call for a sanctuary in Faxafloi to protect the minke whales.

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