Witnessing Whaling in Iceland

I have decided to write a post about my recent experience where I witnessed part of the whaling process first hand. I will provide some background and information on the subject along with some photos that I took but I first want to be clear on my own personal views on whaling: I am against it in any form.

I believe that it is unnecessary, stemming from a time of poverty when food was in short supply and whales provided a lot of meat. The meat from the Fin whale hunt (which is the main focus of this post) is not consumed domestically and the company which hunts claims it doesn't even make a profit from sending it to Japan (where it was rejected in 2015 for being contaminated). 

I believe it is cruel. Harpooning a whale is not a quick death and scientific progress in recent decades shows whales to be extremely intelligent creatures. I believe that a certain level of humanity should be given to these animals but they are still hunted in the same way as they always have been.

I think it is hypocritical of Iceland, or any government, to authorise whaling whilst at the same time promoting tourism to Iceland, in part by advertising the opportunity for tourists to experience a whale watching tour. It's even worse when you hear that these whale watching boats are actually sometimes passing by the whale hunting boats. How this contradiction can even exist is beyond me. 

Disclaimer: Some of the images below may be distressing to some and I have posted them at the bottom of this post

Earlier this week I saw another article posted about Hvalur, the last whaling company in Iceland to hunt the endangered Fin whale. The article reported how the company had caught and landed a second Blue/Fin hybrid whale. The article is here. If true, this would be the second time the company had caught one of these whales this year. Icelandic law states this is legal, although the hunting of Blue whales is forbidden. 

Throughout this summer, Hvalur has been out hunting whales about 150 nautical miles off the West coast of Iceland. So far to date (Thursday August 30th 2018) they have hunted 109 Fin whales, 14 of them pregnant females, and 2 hybrid Blue/Fin whales. They have 2 boats that travel out on hunting trips for between 24 and 36 hours and in the last week they have been out almost 24/7 in the better weather. Each boat can catch 2 whales per trip. The whales are harpooned, killed and tied to the side of the ships and brought back to the whaling station in Hvalfjörður around 70km outside of Reykjavík. Here they are processed into meat and waste, the meat being sent allegedly for consumption in Japan. 

The last time the company hunted in 2015, the meat was sent to Japan only to be rejected by the authorities for being too contaminated with pollutants. Apparently the owner of the company, Kristján Loftsson, has stated that this "red tape" is the reason he did not hunt again in 2016-2017. He has also defended the practice of hunting pregnant females by saying that he firstly cannot tell if they are pregnant and that there would be something seriously wrong anyway if they were not catching some pregnant whales. There was a very interesting article about him recently in the New York Times which I encourage you to read here: Meet Iceland’s Whaling Magnate. He Makes No Apologies.

After the recent article I wanted to go and see if I could see anything at the whaling station for myself. Below is a map of the location of the station.


It is around a 1 hour drive from Reykjavík - you take a right turn before the tunnel under the fjord and follow the road all the way around beautiful Hvalfjörður. 

I wasn't sure what to expect. As I came to where the station is I saw what seemed to be an area for parking outside the fence, just above it. Having missed it initially, I turned around and parked up next to another car (the occupant is someone I'll come back to).

There is a fence with warnings along it but the view down to the station is unrestricted. I had an initial walk along the fence to where I could see lots of plastic boxes clearly filled with various whale parts. I would later learn that these were just the waste products. 

As I walked further I could then see a group of men working next to some sort of steaming pit. I slowly realised that they were finished up the processing of the last whale to be caught. The pit perhaps had boiling water or some sort of acid to strip the remaining bones. Some of the group were above cutting the bones clean with knives, others were dragging bits around. The thing that struck me most was the lack of any care in what they were doing. They were hacking away at what was left, dragging up bits of carcass, laughing and joking. It shocked me if I'm honest. I found it surreal, especially with the loudspeakers in the station blaring out Eminem's "The Way I Am". I won't be able to hear that song again without it reminding me of this.

I spent a good 10 minutes just observing and took a couple of iPhone snaps before deciding I would get my DSLR from the car to try and document something. As I passed the other vehicle I waved at the occupant who had been sitting there. I wasn't sure if she if she was part of the whaling company but it turned out she was with the Sea Shepherd UK organisation. She had been waiting to see if I was from the whaling company too!

I grabbed my camera and walked back with Brigitte who was able to provide me with information on what we were seeing. On arriving back at the viewing spot (the worst one in Iceland?) we could see some new activity. The boxes of whale "waste" were now being lifted by a forklift and dumped into two round holes. There were dozens of boxes which must have contained tonnes of this. Then the forklift started to bring over boxes with whale bones and ribs in and began dumping them into the holes too.

Whilst all this was going on the crew by the pit were waving and laughing up at us. Brigitte informed me that this was normal and they were pretty jovial. They seemed to think it was amusing that we were up there but left us to it. Well almost. A van did come up from the compound and parked up behind our vehicles for about 5 minutes, perhaps to record our vehicle information. If it was an attempt to intimidate it didn't really work and I don't think it was. We weren't doing any harm.

The pit crew, as I will now call them, had started up a chainsaw and were now cutting the massive spine bones down into smaller chunks. Some of these were put into containers with lids and sent to a separate storage pile, for reasons we don't know. Some of the other pieces were carried, with great hilarity by some of the crew who were pretending to be strongmen I think, to the holes where they were then dumped. One of the crew then thought it would be fun to do a handstand on one of the closed boxes which I unfortunately was unable to photograph in time.

It turns out I was witnessing the final clean up part of a fast moving and efficient operation. It had taken them only a matter of hours to drag the dead whale up to the processing area and in essence make it disappear. The team finished off everything by hosing the area down. And that was it! An 80 tonne whale taken apart in the space of a few hours.

Off to our left were the two remaining whaling boats in the fleet named Hvalur 8 and 9 by the Sea Shepherd group. As the clean up was finishing, they both made ready and set off to sea, starting the process all over again. Brigitte went off to record this for Sea Shepherd causing another round of laughter from below. We watched the boats sail painfully slowly out into the fjord.

Brigitte says that Sea Shepherd UK have had a group of volunteers in Iceland over the summer observing what has been going on. They would now watch for the return of the boats in around 24-36 hours, waiting for them to appear at the mouth of the fjord. They would then have about an hour to get back to the whaling station to document them bringing the whales in.

After about an hour or so watching, it was time for me to leave. Brigitte and I agreed to remain in contact as I wanted to go back to see them bring the whales to shore. In fact it would be around 30 hours later, at about 1 o'clock this morning before they would return, again with 4 more Fin whales. Unfortunately I was not able to go back today and by the time I would have arrived it sounds like they were already finishing up anyway. I fully intend to be there for one of the next landings, if they manage to do any more. Thankfully the weather looks poor for the coming days so I am hoping this delays their attempts to venture out significantly, perhaps until the season ends in a couple of weeks. We can only hope.

Closing thoughts

This has been a longer post than I had intended and light on images until the end. However, seeing only a part of the whaling process in person has effected me more than I thought it would. It is painful to watch videos of harpooning on YouTube or footage of grieving whales on something like BBC's Blue Planet. It's another experience entirely to see first hand a group of men taking a whale to pieces over the course of a few hours. For me the saddest part was seeing the boats departing. Their painfully slow progress out of the fjord was almost like torture. More so knowing that out at sea 4 innocent whales were happily feeding, oblivious to what was about to creep up and kill them the next day. To hear that 4 more were indeed caught made this moment all the more painful.

As I drove home that evening under a beautiful sunset, I actually passed the boats again at the mouth of the fjord sailing out to hunt. Off to their left were 2 large cruise ships full of tourists undoubtedly wanting to come and experience all the amazing things Iceland has to offer. Unfortunately, they were unaware that just across the water from them were 2 boats heading off to do some of the very worst things Iceland is known for. 

I will be heading back to Hvalfjörður to try and document whales being brought to shore. I actually hope that they are unable to hunt any more this season so I don't have to.

Thank you to Brigitte at Sea Shepherd UK for the information and keeping me up to date on what was happening. I have never met someone from a group like this before but her compassion for these creatures was clear for all to see. She had paid her own way to come out and try to do her part in documenting the process. You can support Sea Shepherd here: 

Sea Shepherd UK

You can also stay updated via their Facebook page where they have been going live with updates on the whaling regularly. Be warned, the footage is pretty distressing.

Facebook Sea Shepherd

If you feel compelled to help then they suggest the following, which I have done also:

"Please email or write polite letters voicing your support for Iceland's whale watching industry and the establishment of a national whale sanctuary in Iceland's territorial waters:

Katrín Jakobsdóttir
Prime Minister of Iceland
The Prime Minister's Office
Stjornarradshusid vid Laekjartorg
101 Reykjavik, Iceland
E-mail: postur@for.is

Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson
Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources
Skuggasund 1
101, Reykjavik, Iceland
E-mail: postur@environment.is

Icelandic Tourism Board
Geirsgata 9
101 Reykjavík, Iceland
E-mail: upplysingar@ferdamalastofa.is"

Ok, here are some of my images...you can click to view them larger

The whaling station with boxes of waste product visible by the steam and next to the holes where they'll be dumped

All that remains of an 80 tonne whale that had been swimming around 24 hours earlier

The crew cutting up what remains of the whale. You can just see the chainsaw top left

"Spineless" - pieces of whale spine are loaded into boxes. 

The whale ribs are discarded into the holes, a forklift required to lift them all

The waste remains are also discarded into these holes. I was surprised by how much was being thrown away

The remaining boat preparing to leave, the harpoon gun visible on the front

The first boat leaving to hunt

The second boat close behind

The saddest moment for me, seeing them depart to hunt 4 more whales