With all the talk of whales these past few weeks and the excitement of people seeing these amazing animals just metres from shore, it could be easy to forget the much darker side of man’s interest in these sentient, intelligent mammals. When I arrived in Iceland in January, preparations were underway to celebrate the mid-winter festival of Þorrablót or Thorrablot. This is a tradition dating back to the Vikings and, as it takes place during the coldest and darkest days of the year, the fare is usually smoked or pickled produce from previous seasons. The ‘treats’ typically include Hákarl – putrefied shark, Hrútspungur – ram’s testicles (yes, really!) and Blóðmör or filled sausage/black pudding. A recent addition, apparently, to the Thorrablot menu is Sur Hvalur/Langreydur or pickled fin whale. During my first week here I paid a visit to the local supermarket and found twenty packs of Sur Hvalur/ Langreydur. When I checked again two weeks later all but one had gone. No fin whales have been killed in Iceland since 2011 so this particular Thorrablot menu item is at least three years old. Most meat of the endangered fin whale is for the export market, mainly to Japan; it is usually only minke whale to be found in Iceland’s hotels and restaurants. An alarmingly high percentage (40% in 2010) of this minke whale meat is consumed by international tourists in the mistaken belief that eating whale meat is a part of Icelandic tradition and culture. Put plainly and simply, it’s not! Foreign whalers had tried to operate throughout Iceland in the 19th century but it was not until 1948 that the Icelandic commercial whaling really recommenced with the establishment of the Hvalur H/F company and continued until the whaling moratorium in 1986 and some abortive attempts at scientific whaling for a few years after. There has been a limited minke whale hunt for the domestic market, but in a 2010 poll, less than 5% of Icelanders said they ate whale meat regularly. Furthermore according to the paper by Icelandic scientists Thorvauldur Gunnlaugsson and Gisli Vikingsson and Canadian researcher Daniel Pike, sightings surveys from 2007 indicated that the abundance estimate for the minke whale population in Icelandic waters is now estimated to be between 10,000 – 15,000 animals, only 24% of the estimate published in 2001. As the number of people visiting Iceland is likely to reach 1 million by 2016 there is huge potential for the ethical, responsible traveller to make a real stand and ask their tour operator searching questions as to their policy on whale meat. Travel companies and local guides are key to winning this battle as it is they who ‘introduce’ their clients to establishments that still drive this barbaric practice. One easy way to register your concerns about the trade in whale meat once in Iceland is to visit the local restaurants and hotels and even make a reservation. Once at the table, peruse the menu and, if you see whale meat on the menu, call over the manager and say you have decided against eating there as you can’t support any business that serves whale meat. Then just get up and leave. Just please remember to always be courteous.
But it’s not just the whale meat that’s an issue here. On a rare day off in Reykjavik this past weekend I took a stroll down the main shopping street, Laugavegur. There’s a shop called Kulusuk Art selling fur and ‘gifts’ from Iceland’s nearest neighbour, Greenland. For a small shop it was incredible how much merchandise they actually stocked and I saw seal skin coats, reindeer hide covers and arctic fox stoles. Most of the high ticket items were kept under glass and on closer inspection, in a display cabinet next to the till, the store was offering sperm whale teeth for sale at £400 (€460, $600) and what looked to me like an orca tooth made in to the handle of a dagger for £800. I’m not quite sure who the audience is for these goods as bringing whale products into the USA, for example, is banned and for the EU, depending on species is either banned or needs strict CITES permits.
So as we revel in our sightings of these beautiful creatures or click “like” on another stunning Facebook photograph of whales in their natural environment we must remember that the fight to conserve them must go on in others ways too.