This is not how Saturday evenings are meant to be spent. Whilst most of Europe basks in a heatwave, I stand shivering on a remote hillside just above the Hvalur whaling station at Hvalfjörður, an hour’s drive north-east of Reykjavik. This is a starkly beautiful landscape, the fjord framed by dark hills, fulmars cackling and wheeling low over the water, all this contrasting vividly with the pitiful spectacle unfolding only metres away from my vantage point.
In front of us, 100 metres from shore, the Hvalur 8 is moored to the landing stage, its grim work done. At first, slight turbulence in the water below is the only sign that something is happening, but quickly the all-but submerged body of a fin whale is revealed, hauled inexorably towards the landing stage. As the carcass continues its obscene progress up the slipway, it is clear that this is a small whale – a male and, at around 12 metres, only a juvenile at that. Fully winched, we can clearly see the gaping entry wounds from the harpoon. No time is lost, there is a flurry of activity and the flensing irons are wielded.
This bit is surreal – we move closer to stand at the perimeter fence, standing next to maybe 50 people, presumably the crew’s families, all of us scant metres from the flensing process. Babies ride high on shoulders and children press closer to watch as this little whale is cut open, a sudden torrent of blood and entrails.
Loftsson’s crew work with ruthless efficiency and precision, hacking off the fluke and within minutes stripping back the whale’s skin as if peeling a grotesque banana. The blubber beneath is bridal white.
Amidst the spectacle, one thought circles constantly in my mind: What a waste, what a senseless waste. This animal’s fate is almost certainly to join its comrades, languishing for years in freezers both in Iceland and Japan.
Only last week, six containers of several-year-old fin whale meat, bound for Japan, were impounded at the port of Hamburg and are now en route back to Iceland. Whaler Kristjan Loftsson declares that the return is ‘not the end of the world’ but with reduced demand and fewer transportation options, the time has come to recognise that this is trade is dead in the water.