23 October 2006

a different kind of whale watch

As some readers might be aware, Iceland has recently resumed commercial whaling. There's been small amounts of whaling for scientific purposes for years, but this decision has opened up the allowance to hunt whales of other species. In true Icelandic fashion, this has become a spectator event, so yesterday morning I went with friend G and two others out to Hvalfjörður to see the recently caught fin whale. I remember driving through the abandoned whaling station at the side of this fjord over a year ago, choosing to take the slow route where most people decide to save the hour and take the tunnel.

Unlike that ghost-town atmosphere last time, yesterday the whaling station was abuzz with activity and cars. Whole families had turned out to observe the massive creature be turned into steaks. By the time we arrived, the skin had been removed and lay in three-foot wide strips on the ground, and off to one side, the lower jaw bone, curved like the prow of a rowboat. I went to touch it, and the resiliant texture was exactly like rubber, with a membrane that was peeling off in thin layers that felt like the outer coating on a decaying old-fashioned raincoat.

There were men crawling all over the partly dismembered whale with long saws on the end of poles and spiked rubber boots, slicing into the side of what was left, and then after a little more work, someone fired up a winch, and they pulled out a filet that was probably 20 feet long. It slithered silently along the plastic floor covering and disappeared into the nearby processing shed.

There's something so honestly matter-of-fact about seeing this kind of thing. It's food, humans eat other animals, and this is what must happen in order to eat it. No ceremony, no apologies. It was also quite surreal to watch men scaling the blubber-encased carcass with their spiked boots, there on that golden-sunny calm Sunday afternoon in yet another spectacular Icelandic setting.

I've had a lot of discussions about whaling with people here these past few days, and while not everyone is for it, the ones that aren't don't point to the inhumanity as their objections. They mention the dubious economic benefit, or the possible loss to the whale-watching industry that's been growing tremenously in recent years. There's been talk of the hypocricy of those who object then going out to dig into a hamburger that's the product of a factory farm in South America where the animals hardly have a life, or the strange emotional connection people have to these mammals, the possible lack of understanding that there are many different species, and not all are endangered. There also seems to be a certain "we do what we like in our waters" component to it, although I find it odd that the whole whaling operation is run by just one guy. And finally, I wonder if it's just another display of what seems to be part of the national character, to do things that might be unpopular or difficult, just to show that it's possible, whether it's harboring Bobby Fischer or driving on a cracked glacier.

Ship sighting: Hvalur 9 was the ship that brought in the whale, and it was tied at the end of the whaling station dock, steaming silently. This boat and its three companions have been tied together down at the harbor for years, until Hvalur 9 was hauled to the dry dock a few months ago and given a complete makeover. Now we know why.


mh said...

Perfect descriptions of the whale harvest/buzz and all of the opinions on the topic. Quite odd the total of circumstances but it was nice to meet. The view from Esja was incredible. We reached the summit right before sunrise.

best regards- mike

ECS said...

Mike! Glad you decided to come out of hiding. As we drove back we all wondered if you'd managed to see anything of the amazing view up there. I bet the sunrise was beautiful though. And next time you come, let me know!

cK said...

Fascinating passage. You could go right up and touch the jaw bone!? That's wild.

Like many, I'm very conflicted about whale hunting because Europeans and early Americans visited so much devastation on them that the various species haven't fully recovered yet.

But it is an engrossing topic, and seems to be a bizarre spectacle. I was out rollicking last night in my Iceland hat and received more than a few comments about whaling. Was I going whaling? Did I support whaling? How could I wear that hat? (Being very inland, we in Minnesota can question these things without guilt!)

sb said...

Oh, here is my oppinion

I'm against whaling, then again I also have been a vegetarian now for over 15 years.
There is absolutely no financial reason why they should be going out again killing. There is still plenty of industry to make $$ of in Iceland, which from what I gather is becoming one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.

tsduff said...

Fascinating information in this post - Wow E! Wow. I applaud you for your coverage! I felt almost as though I was there with you. BTW - did you know your blog is posted on the Icelandic Express ? You are world famous! :-) (And well deservedly so).

ECS said...

CK- what do Icelandic hats have to do with whaling? Has the decision here created discussion all the way over there?
as for the jaw bone, the smell of it clung to my fingers for hours afterwards, and I kept thinking about the eerie scene of all those body parts strewn across the dock in that bright bright morning.

Sirry- I also doubt the value of this and I know that Iceland's made themselves unpopular with several other countries with this move, but at the same time I do wonder why whales are considered so different from other kinds of marine life. If the quota system works for fish and the species they are catching are not endangered, why is it so bad to do? I'm a Libra, so I naturally seem to try to see everyone's perspective, even on tough stuff like this.

Terry- I debated all afternoon on Sunday whether I'd write this or not, since this generally seems to be more of a feel-good blog and seeing this sight was definitely difficult. I had my camera with me but I couldn't bring myself to take photos of the guys sliding around atop the carcass, or the ridged skin pieces. I still feel kind of creeped out by the freakshow Sunday-spectacle thing too.

And the Iceland Express blog... I've noticed referring hits from it recently so I had to check it out. I've got no idea who runs the site but I'm honored that they've added me.

Sarah said...

Hi E - oh yeah, every time I wear my Iceland sweatshirt (which is fairly often) I get numerous comments about the decision to go back to whaling. While I'm not for whaling, as long as endangered species aren't being pushed further into extinction, I can't really argue against it. I still think that Iceland is the most incredible place on earth - the people and the geography are both divine - and whaling will not keep me from returning some day!


ECS said...

Hi Sarah! Good to "see" you again. I like to think about that Iceland shirt making its away around California. I'm not sure you'd love today quite so much though- it's almost black, the clouds are so low, and it's really soggy and grody outside. still, there are always hot-tubs to ease the burden of cold.

Sarah said...

That kind of weather sounds fantastic compared with the 90 degree heat and dry, dry wind conditions we've been having. Iceland, take me away!!!