“Iceland – a breathtaking country, tarnished by whaling”
Thanks to the stunning success of the men’s football team, the eyes of the world are on Iceland right now. And we see nothing but joy, pride and unity. But Iceland, like anywhere, has its issues and tensions – a major one being the coexistence of whale-watching as a tourist activity and whale-hunting as a commercial activity.
Iceland Monitor was lucky enough this weekend to meet British celebrity Marc Riley, on his eighth visit to Iceland. Fans of British post-punk will remember Marc from his days in legendary Mancunian band The Fall, and British radio listeners will know him as one of the voices of BBC 6 Music.
Marc has been visiting Iceland since 1982 and is as passionate about whale-watching in Iceland as he is passionate about seeing the country’s commercial whaling operations banned.
“Whaling is economically unviable, sickening, and morally wrong,” he says in no uncertain terms.
We met Marc at the offices of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) at Reykjavik Harbour, just before he was planning to set off for yet another exciting whale-watching trip.
“I love Iceland – the country, the nature, the people,” he says. “I always have. This could be my favourite place on earth – if it weren’t for whaling.”
One by one, Marc and the IFAW team carefully dismantle the various arguments traditionally put forward in support of commercial whaling in Iceland.
“It is not economically viable. It is not a historical tradition. Whale meat is not part of a traditional Icelandic diet. There is no way of knowing how sustainable whaling in Iceland is. It does damage Iceland’s international reputation.”
Whales die a slow, painful death when they are harpooned, say activists. Photo: Þorvaldur Örn Kristmundsson
Crucially, it is the tourist market which seems to be fuelling demand for whale hunting in Iceland. Many restaurants around the country – particularly in the capital, Reykjavik – serve whale meat and many people try the dish, supposedly as part of their ‘Iceland experience’.
While the issue of actually banning whaling is one for the Icelandic government and society, Marc sees the development of eco-tourism – in the form of whale-watching – as a major antidote to Iceland’s “sickening” whale meat industry.
Restaurants are gradually signing up the to 'Whale Friendly Restaurants' scheme. Photo: Screenshot Icewhale.is
“Over 350,000 people are expected to go on whale-watching trips this year – that’s more than the entire population of Iceland,” Marc explains. “Iceland is no zoo. Here, we can see these majestic animals in their true habitat.”
“The juxtaposition of these boats chugging out of port to take people to see live whales, just across the way from whaling boats armed with harpoons waiting to inflict a slow, painful, cruel death on the very same creatures is heartbreaking,” says Marc, visibly moved.
While hunting of certain species of whale in Iceland remains a reality, there is a trend towards tourists beginning to value the eco-tourism side of things over the chance of a whale-meat steak on their plate.
“Many whale-watching companies and guides are now ending their boat tours with specific messages to their visitors not to then go off and eat whale,” says IFAW’s Clare Sterling. “And IFAW is part of a campaign to accredit ‘Whale Friendly Restaurants’ in Iceland. If you see our sticker on the door, that means there are absolutely no whale-meat products on the menu.”
Marc’s message is a positive one. “Don’t boycott Iceland – there are so many wonderful things to see and do here, including whale-watching. But please, please, don’t be the tourists that the whaling companies are killing the whales for.”
Marc has written a blog piece setting out more of his thoughts on the issue and his personal experiences in more detail. You can read it here.