BBC Radio 6 music guru Marc Riley muses on his love affair with Iceland and whale watching

A pod of whales swimming off Iceland. Image courtesy Marc Riley.My first trip to Iceland came in 1982.

If memory serves it was a very, very different place then.

Tourism was in its infancy and all the beer was alcohol-free...which would be perhaps understandable if mind-bending spirits weren’t freely available…which they were.

My reason for being there was because I was a member of Manchester band The Fall and we’d been asked to go over to play two nights at Hotel Borg. This we did. It was pretty chaotic and wild…and great.

My first memories of flying over the terrain must have been similar to that of the first man on the moon. The weird lava landscape and ragged rocks looked other-worldly. We did some of the touristy things. One of us was asked for a fight by a 6’7” fisherman and we recorded what was probably the best Fall record I appeared on whilst there.

It was a short, eventful trip.

My second trip was a disastrous 17-hour whale watching trip from Manchester with my wife and two young daughters. It started with a hot chocolate disaster at the airport and ended with a fruitless exhausting day behind us.

No whales. No food (veggie options not available). No joy.

It was on my third trip to Iceland with my mate and naturalist Mark Carwardine that the true beauty of the place hit me. We went over for a long weekend. The weather was largely great, there were whales and dolphins, we had a laugh...and I was taken around all the points of interest by Mark.

It was on that trip that I fell in love with the place. It could perhaps be my favourite place on Earth... if it weren't for ‘the obvious’.

On the first night of our stay Mark took me down to the jetty where Elding, one of several whale watching tour operators, are based. I couldn’t wait for the morning and our jaunt out to sea. It was then that Mark also introduced me to the Hvalur whaling fleet.

If I’m honest I felt physically sick when I saw the huge whaling boats.

The thought of countless hundreds of cetaceans being harpooned from these vessels brought a wave of gloom over me...despair...and an even bigger wave of anger.

It was all the more poignant to juxtapose these contemptible slaughterhouses with (just a few yards away) lots of whale watching boats and various ticket booths, offering people from all over the world the chance to see these same cetaceans and wonder at their beauty and grace.

Kristjan Loftsson’s whaling concern is a blight on an otherwise beautiful, amazing, breathtaking country.

I constantly wait for some good news regarding the end of his whaling...but it has yet to come. He continues to shunt his ‘wares’ around the oceans...despite the repulsion felt throughout the civilised world...

The opposite side of the coin though is the brilliant work carried out by the likes of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) whose Meet Us Don’t Eat Us campaign, run in conjunction with local whale watching coalition IceWhale, really touched me.

Young volunteers from around the world (some dressed as whales) roaming the streets of Reykjavik asking tourists (whose curiosity makes them responsible for a significant portion of the whale meat sold in Iceland) not to try the meat and to choose ‘whale friendly’ restaurants that do not serve it.

They also encourage tourists to sign a postcard addressed to the Icelandic government asking them to bring an end to the shameful whaling. What a fantastic idea...and what fantastic kids. It was great to hear also that although IFAW’s Meet Us Don’t Eat Us campaign is specifically aimed at informing tourists, more and more the volunteers are finding that it is local people – Icelanders themselves – who are stopping to talk to them, offer their support and ask if they too can sign postcards to show that many Icelanders do not support whaling. This is a very positive sign for the future.

More on Whale Friendly Tourism is the Way Forward and Whale Watching’s Growing Economic Impact in Commercial Whaling Countries

Another organisation I have a lot of time for is Discover the World with whom my wife and I went to Grundarfjordur, in the west of Iceland, earlier this year on their Orcas and Aurora package. Again alongside our guide for the weekend Mark Carwardine! It was a fantastic experience. The lights didn't appear which was only a slight the orcas did. We had four separate trips out to sea.

On each of these trips we found ourselves in the company of killer whales, lots of them and against the most spectacular backdrop.

It was incredible.

Opinion is split on whether one should choose Iceland as a holiday destination or not...If it is wise to fuel an economy that houses within it the whaling trade.

My opinion (for what it’s worth) is that the more money brought into the Icelandic economy from whale watching - as opposed to killing - the sooner the authorities will come down hard on the Hvalur concern and shut it down once and for all.

So in short…I’ll be back!


For more information on IFAW's efforts to protect whales around the world, visit our campaigns page.

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation