Opinion: Could Iceland’s big case of mistaken identity end whaling?

Home » News » Opinion: Could Iceland’s big case of mistaken identity end whaling?

Perhaps we should spare a thought for the Icelandic whalers who mistakenly harpooned an endangered blue whale last week. Switch off for just a second and, would you believe it, you’ve accidentally speared a jumbo jet-sized blue-coloured whale! Easy mistake to make – right? What to do next? Best bring it in to port so a canny NGO (well done Hard to Port) can release the photos to the world’s press, before the whale is sliced up and added to the mountain of whale meat steadily accumulating because there’s almost no market for it.

Of course there was an instant international outcry and the Icelandic Foreign Ministry clicked in to overdrive taking the matter oh so seriously whilst reiterating its much flaunted record of sustainable fishing and hunting of whales within scientifically defined population parameters, thereby totally missing the point.

And this is the point. Governments are often so slow to gauge, and react to, the views of both the international community and their own people. Whaling is cruel. Denying it is futile because it’s obvious. Using explosive harpoons from a moving boat to hit a  fast moving whale is cruel. The world has, slowly but surely, wound up its whaling infrastructure and consigned it to the history books. Many of the countries that hunted whales now make more money from their past whaling enterprises – through museums, literature, heritage events, films, tourism etc – than Iceland can by selling whale meat.

But much more important than the international context is the fact that the way that people view whales in Iceland has changed dramatically. Much of this change in perspective has come as a result of whale watching. Icelandic whale watching businesses have developed across the country since the 1990s, offering high quality tours to see cetaceans in some of the most stunningly wild places in Europe. Some of those companies, often hiring ex-whalers as skippers, have become ‘pro-life’ activists, campaigning against the killing of whales and presenting the economic argument that whales are worth so much more to Iceland alive than dead.

In many ways, today’s Iceland is a world leader in responsible cetacean tourism and whale-focused education. Day-trippers to Rejkavik and Husavik can take outstanding whale watch trips and still have time to visit a world leading whale museum after lunch. Whale watch tour companies like Elding and tourism associations like Icewhale have publically condemned whaling and campaigned to remove it – both from whale watching sites and from restaurant menus. Plans are even in place for Iceland to host the world’s first sanctuary for beluga whales released from a captive facility in Shanghai. This is progressive and innovative stuff, yet it is being overshadowed by a failing whaling industry that continues to lurk in the shadows.

The fact that a blue whale has now been killed accidentally tells us something important. It tells us that either the whalers lacked experience, or that they pulled the trigger before they took a good look at the whale, raising the possibility that the whale suffered even more before it died. The Icelandic Government is now telling us that the whale was a hybrid Blue x Fin Whale, but again this misses the point. The animal clearly looks like a Blue Whale, as stated by many international scientists and whale experts, so this mistake is unacceptable regardless of the animal’s true identity.

Iceland has reached the point where none of this makes sense. Where the future does not look like the past. A point where tourism (42% of all exports) vastly exceeds fisheries (24% of all exports). Where the combined views of Icelanders and the wider world matter. Iceland is now at a place where whalers have become whale watchers, and whales are increasingly hunted with cameras and not harpoons.

Is this a crossroads for the Icelandic Government? Will it continue to live in the past, or plot a course for a sustainable future? Let’s hope the next few months provide us with some positive answers to these questions.




Dylan Walker is CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance, the world’s largest marine conservation partnership. As a social entrepreneur and marine conservationist, Dylan specializes in collaborative projects and works with grass roots organisations, tourism businesses, and dedicated people worldwide to improve the lives of whales, dolphins, and associated human communities.


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