Who could have guessed what a bit of ash can do? But then, it was more than just a ‘bit of ash’ when Icelandic volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted in 2010. The eyes of the world were on the tiny frozen country when this volcanic eruption filled the skies with dust and debris. The ensuing ash cloud managed to stop air traffic in our bit of the Northern Hemisphere for over a week.
The now infamous ash cloud has literally put Iceland on the map. This is only the second year this young (geographically speaking) country has welcomed tourists during the winter. The incoming numbers are extraordinary. Along with the desire to see the Northern Lights (it is a good year for this peculiar solar phenomenon), the other attractions high on visitor’s agendas are visiting the Golden Circle (Gullfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir) and going on sea-going expeditions.
The folks who work in this trade are grateful and can hardly believe their luck at this turn of fortune. There are only 320,000 inhabitants in all of Iceland; 180,000 of them live in or around its capital and many of these depend on tourism to make a living. Icelandic life is also very much influenced by the sea and always has been, with fishing being its largest industry.
So the other thing tourists are here to experience is the wild life and, particularly, sea life. Whale watching is another extremely popular activity for visitors.
I am staying on the the harbour, at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. There are multiple jetties just around the corner from my hotel and boats are ready to take sightseers out on Whale Watching Expeditions ad infinitum.
The juxtaposition of enormous whale watching adverts situated right across the road from converted fishing stations, now restaurants, is intriguing; because these restaurants offer Minke whale on their menus. How can two such opposing ways of viewing one animal co-exist? Live side by side?
A young man I met, by chance, at my hotel shared his thoughts on the subject with me. He has grown up in Iceland but also spent time living in Central Europe. He and other Icelanders find it shocking that they are judged for whaling and for eating whale. In their view, Icelanders are very restrained in the number of animals slaughtered. Of about 4,000 whales, a non-endangered species he pointed out, a mere 150 are killed each year. He also explained that they see the whales as potentially destroying their economy and needing to be culled. Iceland’s number one export and industry is fishing and whales eat tons of fish in any given day. So they are in direct competition with Icelanders for resource. I actually can see his point. He then goes on to explain that Icelanders see whales as big dumb beasts, not beautiful animals. This description makes me squirm.
I try to explain that Icelanders, perhaps unfairly, are being ‘tarred with the same brush’ as other countries that break the International Ban on Whaling. That includes Japan and the Faroe Islands.
I have met and spoke with the Head of Public Diplomacy on a trip to the Faroe Islands about three years ago. This person vehemently defended The Grind (the mass killing of entire pods of whales at one time). A pod of whales is driven into a bay by small fishing boats and then harpooned by the fishermen in the boats and the people on shore. “Our people have hunted like this for centuries”, he stated. “How can the rest of the world criticise us when they have killed off their own indigenous animals?”
I understood his argument. In the United States, buffalo herds that roamed the Great Plains in their hundreds of thousands were nearly hunted to extinction. The same was true of the Pacific Coast’s Southern Sea Otters which have still not recovered, as a species, from intensive hunting. In the 1920s, they were thought to be completely extinct.
But the bloody pictures of The Grind are hard to shake and hard to forget. I can’t think of anyone that isn’t repulsed by the photographs that are circulated of an entire bay red with the blood of slaughtered wild animals. It certainly gives pause for thought.
I said goodbye to my new friend, but not before we had a rousing discussion about economics. Iceland has always been isolated, historically, and islanders’ attitudes develop without much influence from the outside world. These people have always been self-sufficient. The rest of the world did not come to their rescue in times of trouble. Now the outside world is arriving en masse, they are finding it a bit difficult to understand our perspective on many issues, particularly whaling.
Perhaps with a bit more discussion and mutual understanding, we will each eventually come to appreciate each other’s viewpoints.
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