Then & now: Iceland, Greenpeace, and whales, Part I

By Rémi Parmentier

Feature story - 25 September, 2003
The recent Rainbow Warrior tour of Iceland was not the first time Greenpeace has tangled, or indeed occasionally tangoed, with Iceland on environmental issues. Rémi Parmentier was onboard the maiden voyage of the original Rainbow Warrior on our first visit to Iceland 25 years ago. In the first of a three part feature Rémi recounts what it was like to be on that first voyage and how it lead to the ban on commercial whaling.

Rémi Parmentier

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 whaling.

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 changed:

· The world has shrunk through what we now call globalisation;

· 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?

Foolish Trip

The 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.

In 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).

It 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.

In 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.