Tourists and hunters in dual quest for Iceland's whales
Whaling is a practice that divides the small country, with some seeking to preserve the whales at all costs and others arguing that whaling is a traditional and cultural right.Tourists bundled up in heavy parkas board a whale-watching boat docked in Reykjavik's port, excited at the thought of glimpsing the mighty animal. Across the harbour, whalers prepare their ships for the hunting season.
"It's quite strange to have these two boats in front of each other," said Angela Walk, a 37-year-old tour guide for one of the nine Icelandic companies that offers whale-spotting tours off the coast of the island in the middle of the North Atlantic.
Walk, a native of Germany who settled in Iceland 12 years ago, said her company is against whaling.
"We try to convince them to stop,” she said. “It's not good for Iceland's image."
But whaling presents a paradox for the country: whales are a precious resource both for the tourism industry, which wants to protect the animals, and for whalers who want to hunt them in what they say is a traditional and cultural right.
A practice renewed
Every day during summer's peak season, thousands of tourists spend 45 euros (60 dollars) each in the hopes of sighting a minke whale, or, if they're lucky, the more imposing fin whale.
This burly redhead is the captain of the boat named "H" for "Hvalur" -- or whale in Icelandic -- which is also the name of the company. It is the only whaling company in Iceland licensed to hunt fin whales.
Olafsson said that after spending two decades docked in port due to Iceland's suspension of whaling, his 51-meter (167-foot) ship was very ready to set sail with its 15 crew members on June 2 -- a day after the hunt officially began on Monday, June 1.
"Mondays are unlucky," he said, citing local superstition.
To whale, or not to whale?
Three years ago when Iceland, a country of 320,000 people, announced it was resuming commercial whaling it set a quota of nine fin whales and 40 minke whales.
In January of this year, the government sharply increased the quota to 150 fin whales and up to 150 minkes per year for the next five years, a move that sparked an international outcry.
Fisheries Minister Steingrimur Sigfusson, whose left-wing government inherited the quotas when it came to power in February, said Iceland was reconsidering the levels and may revise the numbers later this year.
Whaling is a "complex" issue, he said, but "the majority of Icelanders see it as a natural thing ... we are a nation of farmers and fishermen."
The pro-whaling camp says the quotas are needed to maintain the balance of the ocean's ecosystem, and to protect fish stocks, since a whale devours several tonnes of fish a day.
Olafsson insists that the whaling industry is strictly regulated: "We don't hunt whales smaller than 20 meters (65 feet), nor mothers with calves."
"We don't want to hurt the animal because we want the meat to be healthy," Olafsson said.
Meanwhile, on board the whale-watching boat, captain Roland Buchholz steers with one hand, his other hand clutching binoculars that slowly scan the horizon.
"I'm looking at birds,” he said. “It's the only way to know where food is, and probably whales."
Suddenly, a minke whale surfaces, breaking the water for a fleeting moment, to the delight of tourists -- who have mixed reactions to the whale hunt.
"We are very much against whaling,” said 50-year-old Martin Holway of Britain, who travelled to Iceland with his wife for a whale-watching tour. “There's no scientific reason to justify it. It's simply for making money."
Steve Feye, a 54-year-old from Boston, was more understanding.
"It's cultural and a question of tradition," he said. "The whale show, with the whales coming up and down, is beautiful. But I can understand that whaling is also important for Icelandic people, especially during the economic crisis.”
The head of Iceland's conservative Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson, said whaling easily becomes an "emotional issue."
"It's a question of sovereignty to do whatever we want with our resources," he said. "We are following the rules of the game ... in concert with experts and scientists who set the quotas.”
According to Angela Walk, a large majority of Iceland's whale meat is eaten by tourists "out of curiosity."
Iceland and Norway are the only two countries in the world that authorise commercial whaling. Japan officially hunts whales for scientific purposes, a practice that opponents contest. The whale meat is later sold for consumption.