Updated on May 24, 2019
Updated on May 24, 2019
By Erica Cirino, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla ‘Launchpad’ Fellow”
I’m standing on the bow of a creaking wooden schooner called Ópal, looking out over the Greenland Sea for signs of life here at the quiet edge of the Arctic Circle. Save for the crews I see aboard the occasional industrial fishing vessels that move through these cold waters like hulking steel seafaring tanks, we’re the only humans in sight. But it’s not people I’m looking for.
In Iceland, as in many other parts of the world, whales are victims of the human takeover of the oceans: They get entangled in our fishing gear, they consume large quantities of plastic objects and fragments, they are struck by our ships and they are disoriented by manmade sonar sounds. But in Iceland, there are two species of whale facing yet another threat: whaling. Despite an international ban on whaling, Iceland continues to harpoon minke whales to serve to tourists as a restaurant gimmick, and kills endangered fin whales to export to Japan.
Today Ópal is filled with a mixed crew of scientists, sailors, artists and photojournalists working on various projects designed to better help them understand ecological problems in Icelandic waters. We’re hosted by a nonprofit organization called Ocean Missions Iceland, which was borne out of the idea of a few employees at whale-watching company North Sailing. “Our goal is to discourage tourists from supporting the whaling industry by offering them opportunities for at-sea ecotourism and the chance to participate in important citizen science projects in fields such as wildlife and plastic pollution,” says Ocean Missions co-founder Belén Garcia Ovide.
At first the weather is calm but over the course of the trip, the old ship often struggles to keep her nose pointed north and on course. A bitter headwind and rough waves send her bucking like a wild horse that resists taming. It’s a less-than-smooth ride for our crew as we cruise around the enormous frozen gob of volcanic rock that is Iceland, from Reykjavík to Húsavík. We’re all finding it challenging to stay balanced, focused and dry on deck as enormous waves clap together around our ship. As we cruise closer to the rocky coast of a fjord, the seas come alive!
Kittiwakes, fulmars and gannets glide and dip through the air that catches our sails while killer whales plunge through white-capped waves. The expansive, wrinkly back of sperm whale floats resting just at the sea’s surface, a submerged black iceberg. A large flock of eiders bobs up and down in the shallows. Two oystercatchers skitter across a pebbly beach, looking for mussels. A few ravens peck at a cod skeleton nestled in the sand. The hulking fishing vessel bobbing nearby spools in the more than one hundred kilometers of line it had sitting in the sea, where it hooked thousands of wriggling gray-green cod.
Our captain, Heimir, is standing at the wheel and points at Ópal’s fish finder. There’s a thin red-orange stripe along the top of the display, and a thicker yellow-green stripe a few fingers down: An enormous amount of forage fish, probably capelin—small prey for larger marine animals—are feeding on plankton at the surface, while a cloud of hungry cod loom beneath. When the cod-fishing boats come in and pull out the cod, they remove a large part of the Icelandic ecosystem. So do the other fishing boats, especially those that take the capelin for grinding up into farmed fish and pet feed, or squeezing into fish-oil supplements for humans. Every organism in the ocean plays a role in the way the ecosystem as a whole works. Take away the krill eaten by the forage fish, and you have no big fish or filter-feeding whales. Take away the big fish and you have no toothed whales. Remove too many bricks from a home’s façade, and the whole thing will come crumbling down.
According to many fisheries experts, Iceland has a fishing industry that’s relatively well-regulated and well-managed, compared with the rest of Europe and especially with the rest of the world. Scientific research dictates fishing seasons in Iceland, and regulators are known for setting tight quotas and even outright prohibitions on catching species in decline. By most measures, that’s a solid, well-managed fishery.
But we must ask ourselves, says Ovide: “Well-managed, for whom? When fishing vessels are pulling food straight from the mouths of hungry wild fish, you begin to question the extent to which we humans are exploiting the seas.” What’s more, marine mammals are constantly getting snagged on the lobster pots and longlines deployed in the Greenland Sea, often leading to lethal outcomes. It’s pretty clear that Iceland is not an easy place to live if you’re a marine animal.
Like some other sea-based human cultures, “Most Icelanders don’t see the ocean as a whole, they see it as a refrigerator for taking fish and whales,” says Ovide. This means putting human desires above all other living beings’ needs. “It’s not like the whales will necessarily start eating something else if they run out of krill or fish,” she adds. “We have the luxury of choice and choose to take from the mouths of other animals, instead of considering the alternatives.”
Ópal itself represents an alternative of sorts: When most people visit Iceland, they fall into the same few tourist traps, seeing the same scenic overlooks, going to the same restaurants and the same spas. They also usually don’t hesitate twice before trying a piece of “traditionally caught” minke whale, though deckhand Daniel González questions how much of a tradition eating whale in Iceland’s major cities really is. This can lead to a disconnection between peoples’ perceptions of Iceland as a pristine natural wonderland and the reality—that no place in the world remains untouched by human hands, and is suffering for it.
So instead of eating whales when you visit Iceland, Ovide suggests you join her aboard Ópal–like we did for this pilot trip–for a few days to watch them at home in the sea. She says there is a need for slow tourism and an eco-tourism in Iceland, which could incorporate citizen science projects that contribute to humanity’s understanding of the world and our impact. Sailing is an unpredictable and time-consuming mode of travel, but one associated with low carbon emissions and close contact with nature. According to the Ocean Missions team, that’s a very positive thing. “The slower that people travel, the more they absorb,” says Ovide. “And maybe then we can develop a greater consciousness about the many beings that live on our planet, and how we can live in harmony with them instead of competing against them.”