It was very strange for me to read in the newspaper, three or
four weeks ago, that Greenpeace was going to send the Rainbow
Warrior to Iceland because that country was about to resume
A Different World
Twenty five years ago, in 1978, I was a crew member on the
original Rainbow Warrior's first voyage to Iceland to confront the
whalers. Twenty five years is a very long time, the span of a
generation. And in those twenty five years, everything has
· The world has shrunk through what we now call
· The environmental crisis has exploded in ways that were hard
to envisage in 1978, even for the sort of environmental
missionaries we were at the time;
· Activist NGOs have bloomed all over the world to address all
sorts of societal issues which conventional politicians appear to
be unable or unwilling to tackle - using the sort of approaches and
tactics that we were pioneering at the time;
· Nowadays, information - including images and films - circulate
worldwide in real time from a Greenpeace ship in the high seas,
whereas in 1978, even fax machines did not exist. We relied on a
World War II-style short wave radio, and boxes of still photos and
16 mm film footage had to be sent for processing to a lab in London
or Paris before we knew (often several weeks after the action) if
there was anything worth showing in them.
Everything has changed. Yet, strangely, Greenpeace and Iceland
continue to argue over commercial whaling! How come? How did they -
how did we -- get stuck?
first voyage of the Rainbow Warrior was a defining moment for
thousands - probably millions - of people throughout Europe and the
world; it was not the first Greenpeace anti-whaling expedition
(Greenpeace in Canada had initiated the first one with a chartered
fishing boat in 1975) but the Rainbow Warrior voyage was a moment
that triggered unprecedented public pressure on the International
Whaling Commission to declare a moratorium on commercial whaling
(which it would do relatively quickly, in 1982 - just four years
after that first voyage of the Rainbow Warrior).
Greenpeace critics say that Greenpeace picks "soft and sexy"
issues that are "easy to sell" to the public, and the Greenpeace
campaign against whaling is often used as a prime example. But,
whereas it is true that in 1978 whaling was already a popular issue
in the Western United States (because Californians had "adopted"
the gray whales that migrate along their coast very close to the
shore from Mexico to Alaska every year) and Western Canada (whose
island waters were also populated by whales), in Europe and the
rest of the world it was - at best - a very, very, marginal issue.
The truth is not so much Greenpeace picking "sexy" issues, as our
critics say, but that - once Greenpeace had picked up an issue -
sufficient attention was drawn to it in a creative way to change
the public's perception of it, and to make it popular. In 1978
whaling was only an emerging issue in most of the world, and it was
at the time a real challenge to turn it into a mainstream one.
Pretty much like, today, the issue of shark finning which a number
of environmentalists are rightly trying to highlight as an
environmental and animal rights issue.
Winning the War, Losing the Battle of Iceland
Whereas the first Rainbow Warrior campaign led public opinion in
most countries to demand a cessation of whaling, for the Icelanders
the emergence of Greenpeace's whale campaign meant the opposite.
Still today, Iceland is a very small and tight community; and of
course it was even more so in 1978. The entire country had no more
than 220,000 inhabitants, and very few visitors from abroad. In
addition, only a few months after a cod war which saw opposing
Icelandic and British vessels (and their coast guards) fighting
over fish stocks, the arrival of the British flagged Rainbow
Warrior - however peaceful and transnational in essence - was
perceived by many Icelanders as an offence and an aggression
against the country.
addition, the whaling station at Hvalfjordur ("the fjord of the
whales" in Icelandic), north of Reykjavik was one of the few
accessible tourist attractions, and a good place for Reykjavik
students to get a summer job. So, many people of all ages who were
leading figures in the country (i.e. anyone having gone to
university, that is all lawyers, members of Parliament,
businessmen, journalists, etc) had either worked at some stage of
their lives in the whaling station, or had had close friends and
relatives who had. And of course, with the export of whale meat to
Japan, the whaling company, Hvalur hf, was a good business.
A similar pattern was also probably occurring in the west and
north of Iceland, where the hunt of the smaller minke whales was
taking place - the very same that the Icelandic government has now
put up for grabs. But in 1978, and in 1979, we never went after
those smaller boats. Our target was the fleet of four large whale
catchers operating out of Hvalfjordur, killing several hundreds of
large Fin, Sei and Sperm whales (mostly for export to Japan) in the
large area of water that separates Iceland from Greenland. There
were several reasons for going after these large boats: the Minke
whale catchers were quite small compared to Hvalur's and we wanted
to look like David, not Goliath; also the Hvalur boats were hunting
large whale species that were (rightly) thought to be more
endangered; and they belonged to a corporation doing business with
Japan, and very influential within Iceland.
The Greenpeace campaign in Iceland started at a time when we
were obviously still at the beginning of the learning curve. We did
very little before-hand to explain to the Icelanders who we were
and what we were up to. It was only at the very last minute that
Allan Thornton (who was running Greenpeace in the UK at the time)
and I went to Reykjavik to announce that we would be there with the
Rainbow Warrior less than a month later. Even if we had thought of
being more educational, we probably could not have done it because
we were broke and the entire operation was run on a shoe string.
What we got, at least initially, was a defensive reaction and some
hearty laughter. Most of these sea-savvy people knew how fast the
whale catchers could go, and how skilled were their crew. The truth
is that Allan and I looked like dedicated environmentalists, but
not like crafty old sea dogs. If it was going to be a chase, the
Icelanders knew where to place their bets.
But there was something more to it, which shows that - despite
our innocence - we weren't totally unsophisticated. There was a
logic in the overall geopolitics of commercial whaling for going
directly after Iceland, and not - say -- after Japan and the Soviet
Union. Of course these other two countries were by far catching
many more whales with their fleets of factory-ships and catchers in
the Antarctic and the North Pacific, but the countries with
medium-scale coastal whaling like Iceland were - with their votes -
preventing the International Whaling Commission (IWC) from agreeing
a moratorium on commercial whaling which required a three-quarter
majority vote in favour. The idea was to split the whalers; by
putting pressure on countries with fewer vested interests than
Japan and the Soviet Union, we thought perhaps we could get at
least a moratorium on pelagic whaling (whaling on the high seas,
with factory ships, by far the largest share).
certainly sounded like a wild idea at the time, and it was hard to
get any Whaling Commission delegates to sit down with us at all,
much less take this proposal seriously. It didn't help matters that
the most presentable of us looked like second-year Berkeley
University students, and the worst of us looked like dope-smoking
hippies stuffed into ill-fitting suits. However, a year later, in
July 1979, something amazing happened. The delegate from Panama
(who happened to be a whale-loving individual taking an activist
approach to his job), in a surprise move, proposed in plenary that
the International Whaling Commission vote on the moratorium in two
sequences: first pelagic/factory ship whaling that was only
practiced by Japan and the Soviet Union, and second coastal whaling
practiced by a myriad of countries including Iceland. There was a
real political earthquake. The whaling block cracked for the first
time. There followed a long series of hectic closed-door meetings
with the Japanese representatives shouting and arm twisting. But in
the end, the coastal whaling countries voted against Japan and the
USSR. They hoped that the public fury over commercial whaling would
dry up and go away once the moratorium pushed the issue off the
public agenda. But they also hoped that the inability of Japan and
the USSR to catch large whales in Antarctica and the North Pacific
would send the value of their own whale meat sky-high.
just a few hours that day, the high seas were declared off-limits
to factory whaling ships - except for the smaller Minke whales; the
International Whaling Commission had experienced the largest single
catch-quota reduction of its entire history. It wasn't all
Greenpeace's doing of course, but there is no question we had
created a wave that helped set the right political mood.
We thought the fight to save the whales was practically over. We
couldn't have been more wrong.
This is Part I of a three-part series. You can read Part II here.
You can read Part III here.
Rémi Parmentier was a crew member on
the first voyage of the Rainbow Warrior, which took Greenpeace to
Iceland to confront commercial whaling there for the first time in
1978. He has worked for Greenpeace in different capacities for 27
years, specialising in international environmental policy and
treaties. Recently he formed with Kelly Rigg, another Greenpeace
veteran, The Varda
Group for Environment and Sustainability. The views expressed
in this article are Rémi's; they do not necessarily reflect all
aspects of Greenpeace's current policy.