Whale steak barbecue greets Rainbow Warrior

Talking and listening in Iceland

Feature story - September 9, 2003
Our flagship, The Rainbow Warrior, has begun to break the ice, so to speak, with the people of Iceland, in creating a dialogue about the government's plan to resume commercial whaling.

Minke whale steaks barbecued in peaceful protest against Greenpeace in Iceland

Polls have shown up to 80% of the Icelandic population in favour of whaling before the arrival of the Greenpeace ship on Thursday last week. But Greenpeace surprised many by not rushing directly out to confront whaling ships, and instead choosing to dialogue, and to make an offer to the government to promote nature tourism as an alternative to whaling.

Over the weekend, an Icelandic State Radio and Television poll asking if the government should accept that offer yielded an encouraging majority "yes" response.

Iceland has been an increasingly popular tourist magnet, and a burgeoning Whale watching industry has taken hold. More than 277,000 people visited Iceland in 2001. That's almost more than the entire population of the island. It's estimated that in that year, one third of those visitors went whale-watching. According to ENN, a dozen firms have sprung up in Iceland over the past decade, generating around US$8.5 million in revenue in 2001. Commercial whaling brought in US$3 million to US$4 million annually between 1986 and 1989, when commercial hunts were stopped.

But Iceland isn't welcoming Greenpeace with open arms quite yet. "Once we had eggs thrown at us, and when they ran out of eggs, they threw red peppers" said Erika Augustinsson. "Then on Friday we had some boys arranging a whale meat barbecue at the quay side in Reykjavik, just in front of us.

Friday evening they showed up with a portable barbecue, the next day they turned up with a bigger barbecue. So Frode, our whale campaigner, walked up and invited everyone onboard and was met with a suspicious gaze.

One hour later all of the boys asked if they could join the ship to sail around Iceland. So we are making some new friends on our path."

The Rainbow Warrior will make a call in the port of Isafjordur on the North side of the island shortly, continuing in its efforts to listen to the people of Iceland, and to explain why we believe the government should give up whaling forever. "It's important that we talk to people one to one, to get them beyond the perception that some have of us as terrorists, or culturally naive, or anti-Icelandic. We're none of those things. We've never used violence, we've never rammed or sunk a whaling ship. We ourselves are from many cultures, and have learned to work out our differences with respect. And when it comes to hating Iceland, Iceland is actually a model nation environmentally in many respects, and a strong ally to Greenpeace internationally on several issues -- from ocean pollution to fisheries management to climate change -- that whaling needs to be seen as the anomaly it is" said Frode Pleym, a Norwegian whale activist aboard the ship. "We think Iceland will benefit more from positioning themselves as the "Land of the Whale" and bringing tourists over to watch living whales, rather than hunting them."

13,000 activists so far have also written to Iceland's ambassadors to the US, Germany, and the UK asking them to reconsider. An appeal to cyberactivists and supporters asking them to express an interest in visiting Iceland if the government stops whaling has been generating nearly 1000 responses a day. We intend to keep the Icelandic tourist industry, which opposes whaling, apprised of the number of would-be tourists which want to visit their shores.

The High North Alliance, a pro-whaling lobby group which has been an outspoken critic of Greenpeace described the offer as "Mafia Tactics" in a Reuter's report. "Balderdash" said Erika Augustinsson, "I think most Icelanders appreciate our right to express our view and seek to convince others, even when they disagree. We generally find that when people have all the facts, they make the right choice. That's not Mafia tactics, it's democracy."