Spotlight Iceland: New generation of students better understands whales

There are 23 types of whales found in Icelandic waters and whale watching has become a positive alternative to whaling.Thorshavn is the name of the capital of the Faroe Islands.

Small and remote enough with only 15,000 habitants, the Icelandic Thorshavn, closer to the Arctic Circle, has just 400 souls and is 636 kms away from the capital Reykjavík.

Driving there gives you the feeling that you are alone in the world.

Everything is white, covered with thick snow and the January sun barely manages to cast a soft orange glow from behind the mountains. You have little chance to pay attention to the spectacular natural beauty of this isolated place though; the icy road demands your full attention for hours upon end.

I have given more than 160 school talks for IFAW in Iceland since 2004 but never before have I been to the most remote north east villages such as Thorshavn.

It´s the proximity to waters rich in fish that keeps people there.

Accompanying me is Huld Haflidadottir from the Húsavík Whale Museum and University Centre.

The primary school has 60 students (including Bakkafjordur village) and we are meeting all 20 students, 12-15 years old. On the way I wonder how they will digest my animal welfare message.

Everything in this village is about hunting, their survival depends on it.

“Any questions?” I ask after our 50-minute talk is finished.

I have been taking them on a slideshow tour to Africa, Bosnia Herzegovina and around Iceland, introducing them to various IFAW projects and our philosophy to look for positive solutions that benefit both animals and humans.

I spend a lot of the time talking about some of the 23 types of whales found in Icelandic waters and how whale watching has become a positive alternative to whaling.

A girl raises her hand and asks why do whales strand?

I explain the different theories on this issue and the students tell how they all witnessed the efforts of the local rescue team when three orcas stranded last year near their own village.

The girl tells us they did manage to drag one orca back out to sea but it came back to shore and died with the others on the beach.

“Why?” the girl asked. “Why did it swim back into the beach?”

I wish I could explain it to her better but in fact this is one of the strange mysteries about whales.

When we drove back from Thorshavn I thought how much has in fact changed when it comes to attitudes in Iceland during just a few years of IFAW´s active work in the country in close cooperation with like-minded locals.

None of the teenagers said that whales should be hunted like some would have done before.

They all showed interest in whales and nature.

They had all been somewhat personally involved in a rescue attempt which moved every soul in this place and left none of them untouched. In other school talks after Thorshavn it was the same story; not a single negative comment about the whales such as “We have to kill them because they eat all the fish”.

The 420 students in the nine schools we visited seemed to understand that whales are not bad for fish. In fact there are strong indications they have a positive impact on fish stocks.

They also showed interest in whale watching but no interest at all in commercial whaling.

If those teenagers in northern Iceland from towns, farms and fishing villages were governing Iceland there would be no more whaling.

One day they will be able to make these decisions!


For more information about IFAW efforts to protect whales around the world, visit our campaign 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