Choosing whaling -- or the future

Feature story - June 24, 2004
HUSAVIK, Iceland — One day, our ship is docked in Iceland's number one whaling station. The next, the country's number one whale-watching spot. The contrast is striking. Isafjordur, in the stunning west fjords on the northwestern coast, is a sleepy ring of houses, an aging port, and an airstrip clinging to a fjord. Husavik, on the far northern coast of Iceland just on the edge of the arctic circle, is a bustling whale-watching success story.

Esperanza in Isafjordur, Iceland

Husavik was struggling for economic survival. Today, the town enjoys a thriving tourist business.

The reason is whales.

Husavik markets itself as "one of the best spots in the world to watch whales." And indeed, the day before we sailed in, four extremely rare blue whales had been spotted in the crystal blue waters, an unusual addition to the pods of minke, fin, and sei whales that grace these mountainous shores.

There to greet us on the dock was Halldor Bloendal, President of the Icelandic Althing, or Parliament, along with Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, the president of the Icelandic Whale Watching Association, and Athalsteinn Baldursson, the chairman of the food processing division of Iceland's largest union. Bloendal defended his country's whaling policies, stating that people from urban environments simply don't understand whaling because they live too far from nature. The welcoming committee made a gift of a sperm whale vertabra to the captain of the ship.

Marnee Benson, who travelled to Iceland aboard the Esperanza as the winner of our Icelandic Whales Pledge competition, told the dignitary that many of her fellow Americans would love to travel to Iceland to see whales and experience the country's natural beauty, but would not do so while whaling continued.

Marnee won a berth on the Esperanza as the internet activist who recruited the most people to pledge to visit Iceland if the government stops whaling. Nearly 60,000 people have taken the pledge, for a potential value of more than US$60 million to Iceland's economy, as opposed to a whaling programme that earned US$3-US$4 million in its heyday.

Whale watching is one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourist industry worldwide. Iceland got a late start, opening its first whale watching operation in the 1990s. Since then, however, it has seen a 250 percent growth rate, and was estimated to be worth in excess of US$12 million in 2002. If the trends of a few years ago continue, according to a 2002 study by Parsons and Rawles, the industry could be worth US$20 million by 2006.

But will those trends continue? Whale watching may be the economic counterforce to Icelandic whaling, but by continuing to hunt whales, the Icelandic government threatens to destroy the whale watch industry.

Iceland attracts a special brand of nature-loving tourist. Alight at Reykjavik airport and you're likely to see as many backpacks as suitcases. Ads for white water rafting, glacier skiing, scuba diving, geyser hikes, and hot springs camping abound.

According to Mr. Bloendal, in the Icelandic mind, a love of nature is not incompatible with hunting whales.

The same cannot be said of the tourists the whale-watch industry is trying to attract.

A survey of whale-watchers conducted in the summers of 2001 and 2002 demonstrated just how much of the whale-watch market Iceland is either missing already or stands to lose due to its whaling policies. Seventy-nine percent of whale watchers surveyed in Scotland said they would boycott visiting a country that hunts whales. Of those who would visit such a country, 40 percent said they would not go whale-watching in a country which hunted whales.

We have 60,000 pledgers who say they'll visit Iceland if, and only if, the country stops whaling. Many of them have left comments saying that they had cancelled trips they'd already planned.

Earlier this year, the head of Iceland's whale-watching industry, Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, wrote to the Icelandic government that spring bookings for whale watch trips were down tenfold. He wrote an impassioned plea to the government to stop whaling.

Even in Isafjordur, where whaling remains a way of life, we found people open to discussion and agreeing to much of Greenpeace's environmental agenda.

The difficult choice before Isafjordur, as with all of Iceland, is to make the right choice between whaling and the future.

Take action!

Take the pledge to visit Iceland if and only if Iceland stops whaling.

Send a message to Icelandic Prime Minister David Oddsson.

More information

The Stop Icelandic Whaling blog.