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

Advice when Driving in Iceland

One of the best ways to see all the amazing scenery we have to offer here in Iceland is to hire a vehicle and head out onto the Icelandic road network for an adventure. It is worth remembering that driving conditions in Iceland can be extremely challenging both in terms of the changeable weather and with regards to the roads themselves. This article is designed to provide you with information on how you can stay safe when driving in Iceland.

1. Check the weather before you set out each day and regularly during the day

The Icelandic Met Office website is the best source of information for the weather. You should bookmark this website on your phone, laptop and tablet and become used to checking it as part of your daily routine when in Iceland.

Website: Icelandic Met Office (English)

Weather warnings, particularly for high winds, rain and snow, are common during the autumn, winter and early spring. If there is a weather warning out for your area of travel on a particular day, please pay attention to the advice on the page. If travel is not advised, don't risk it! There have been incidents where the wind has been strong enough to shatter car windows. Also keep in mind that conditions in Iceland change quickly! Regularly checking out this site during the day will help you avoid any nasty surprises.

You can also use this site to check for the Aurora forecast as well as information on earthquakes currently happening around the country.

2. Check the road conditions before you set out each day and regularly during the day

Another website to have stored when you travel here is www.road.is. This is the most up-to-date source of information on driving conditions on all the roads in Iceland, including the highland and non-paved roads.

Website: The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration

The Iceland map on the homepage is split into the different regions. To check the conditions where you will be travelling on a particularly day just click that part of the map. You will then be taken to a detailed road map of that area which is colour coded - the codes are explained below the map. Definitely don't drive anywhere marked as red! Many of the roads also have webcams. You will see little boxes of information including temperature, wind speed and wind gust (with the little arrow next to it - red arrow is strong gusts). Clicking this box will take you to a page for that road itself. If it has webcams you can check these out to see what the roads look like. This has helped me on a number of occasions in the winter, after heavy snowfall, in being able to plan my journeys to avoid the roads that are in the worst condition.

3. Consider registering your travel plans with Safetravel.is

This is a website with lots of useful information on travelling safely around the country, not just on the roads. On the front page you can register your Travel Plan with the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue. This lets them know where you will be - you can even turn on Trip Monitoring with them for extra safety.

Website: Safetravel.is

They offer an app for iOS and Android which allows you to call the emergency services by pressing a big Red Button, direct from the app. You can also check in your location on the app with the services so that if anything happens they have more information to work with - the last 5 locations are stored and they are happy for you to use it! As they say on their site, you are not disturbing anyone!

There is a lot of other information on this site including useful driving tip videos and information on everything from camping to kayaking. I would highly recommend having a read through this website before you arrive in Iceland or before you set out on your big adventure. It's a great resource.

4. Please don't drive where you are not supposed to

This may sound like obvious advice but there are a lot of tempting side tracks leading off to mysterious looking places. These could be simple farm roads where the worst thing that could happen is the farmer wonders who is driving up to see him/her. Worst case you can end up on a poorly marked track that is not maintained or suitable for the vehicle you have. Even some of the main roads during difficult weather conditions can become extremely difficult to drive on so these smaller tracks and roads are just not worth risking unless you are with an experienced guide.

Similarly, please please PLEASE, don't drive off a road onto areas like beaches or fields, even if you see tracks of other vehicles leading that way. A lot of damage can be done to the wildlife that can take a lifetime to repair. Whilst it may be tempting to have some fun, or drive closer to get that all important photograph, please consider parking somewhere instead and taking a walk. Which leads to...

5. Please don't stop to take photographs on the roads

I know, it's tempting. You round a bend in the road and suddenly the scenery opens up into something spectacular and you just have to take a photograph. Whether you are on Route 1 or a smaller side road, please do not stop your car on the road, or even with part of the car on the road, to get out and take a photograph. I cannot stress how dangerous this is.

Whilst the roads here may seem quiet compared to other countries, there is now much more traffic than there used to be. Sure, as a kid in the 80's here we would be guaranteed not to see another car on Route 1 sometimes for up to an hour. I'll admit back then it was possible to stop and take photos and even have a picnic.

But times have changed! What may seem like a quiet road, with plenty of time to stop for a photo, may suddenly be filled with tour buses or cargo lorries, all of which will have to slow or even stop if you are blocking the roads even a bit. You may wonder what the big deal is with this but unfortunately people have been killed recently when stopping to just take a photo.

I highly recommend finding a safe stopping place, of which we have MANY, a bit further on and pulling off the roads entirely. I mean giving yourself lots of space! Then feel free to pop out and grab that shot. 

I would say that this perhaps is the piece of advice I hope you take the most seriously as it is becoming a problem.

Final Thoughts

I hope this post has been useful. Being prepared for travel on the roads in Iceland is essential and will ensure you have both a safe and enjoyable trip. What I recommend in this article takes all of 5 minutes here and there during the day and will minimise your chances of getting into difficulties.

If you do have problems, the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue are there to help. Please do keep in mind that they are a volunteer organisation and rely solely on donations. So when they are called out to rescue someone who hasn't checked the road conditions, and found themselves stuck in a snow drift, they are often coming to help voluntarily. They are often risking their own safety in these situations. Therefore please consider giving a small donation to the organisation as part of your trip to Iceland. I know they would be extremely grateful.

Website: Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue

My Most Valuable Lesson

I think that it's widely acknowledged that you never stop learning in photography. Every time I pick up a new photography book or read a new article I find myself learning about a new idea, technique or way of thinking which I can perhaps make use of in my own work.

However, there is one thing that I've read which I always come back to and which I think is the most valuable lesson that I have learnt as a photographer.

In David duChemin's book, "The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photographs" he recommends putting other photographers out of your mind because they have already shown us the world the way that they see it. What people want to see is the world the way that you see it.

When I read this for the first time something clicked in my mind. Prior to this I had spent a lot of time looking at the work of photographers I admired and wondering how I could create images as good as they were creating. This invariably led to me spending time trying to imitate a certain style or the type of work of another photographer. The work that came from this was generally unsatisfying to me.

I don't want this to turn into a blog about imitation, as there have been plenty of recent articles and opinions on this recently. I will say that I believe photographers are free to create whatever they wish from whatever inspiration, person or otherwise, they want, providing they enjoy creating those images.

I have tried to create work in a similar style to other photographers. For example, I love Bruce Percy's Iceland images, in particular his "Fjallabak Minimalism" work - I highly recommend taking a look at his 2017 images here and his recent 2018 work here. These images capture Iceland in a way I have not seen before - I look at them and can immediately be transported to those locations and conditions. 

On one trip that I took to Snaefellsnes I was driving in flat light conditions in the snow and I noticed that the only discernible shapes were where the mountains had been blown free of snow leaving areas of bare black rock on a white background. I immediately thought of Bruce's images and wondered if I could create something similar. Stopping the car I got my gear out and captured the following image.


Whilst there is nothing especially wrong with the image, I have never been fully satisfied with it. In thinking about why this may be I looked back at some of the other images I took around the same time, when I was not thinking about anyone else's work but rather focusing on trying to capture what I was seeing and feeling. I've shared a few of these images below. These were taken during the hour or so following the image above.

I get more satisfaction from these images as I can remember what I was trying to capture and convey and what I was feeling and seeing at that moment in time. This is how I saw the area I was in on this day. The conditions were changeable and the landscape felt very bleak and empty. I was no longer thinking "how would so-and-so take an image of this place". 

Therefore, whilst I do think that learning from the work of others can be an important lesson for photographers, for me, it's only been when I have put other's work out of my mind and started to focus on what I would like to show, that I have produced work that I'm most happy with.