Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Nordnatur Day 3: In which I sing every whaling song I can remember

We spent the night at the campground in Húsavík so that we would be ready early in the morning to go whale watching in Skjálfandi Bay, reputedly the best place in Europe to see whales. We went out on the Náttfari, one of the four traditional wooden fishing boats that North Sailing, the first Icelandic whale watching company, operates out of Húsavík.

(I should also note here that it was while out on the boat that I sang all the whaling songs, though just to entertain myself and not for any public audience.)

Even for a well-known whale-watching spot, though, I think we were particularly lucky: in three hours, we saw mother and baby white beaked dolphins and at least two humpback whales that stayed near us for maybe fifteen minutes and were one or two meters from our boat the last time they surfaced, plus some minke whales off in the distance as we were coming back to the dock (although they were really too far away to see without binoculars).

My camera was nothing compared to some of the others in the group, but I did get a few good pictures of the humpbacks:

We all counted on Esko, though, to take the best photos because he had the biggest camera.

And, as it turned out, he did take some excellent pictures both of the whales and of the rest of the trip, which you can find on his Picasa site.

When we got back from seeing the whales, we went to the Whale Museum at the harbor to learn more about the whales in Iceland.

The museum director and founder, Ásbjörn, who has been doing everything to run the place for the past ten years, came to talk with us a bit about the museum and some of the research it runs on the local whale population, and then we heard from two students who have been working at the museum over the summer doing masters research on the whales in the bay.

For me though, the most interesting part of the museum was hearing the Icelandic views on the country’s modern commercial whaling and the historical and economic background on whaling here, which is completely different from the Moby Dick era that I tend to think of as the history of whaling. Hreiðar gave us an overview of whaling in Iceland, mostly from the perspective of the Marine Research Institute (he said that his personal views are fairly moderate – with Icelanders, he usually argues against whaling; with foreigners, he usually argues for it). According to what he told us, minke whales – the main whale that Icelanders are hunting – have never been overharvested (they caught about 4000 from 1945-1989) and may even have a larger population now than in the past because of competitive release as other larger whales were overhunted. He also mentioned that since minke whales are opportunistic feeders that eat fish and crustaceans, the fishermen also think whaling is a good idea, since the whales can eat more than a million tons of fish in a year.

On the other hand, apparently there’s not much to do with the whales once they’re caught since there’s not that much of a demand for whale meat in Iceland and it’s illegal to sell abroad, so whaling will probably never become a major industry here, whereas tourism and whale-watching are increasingly important. The brochure from the whale-watching company we went out with makes a point of saying that “North Sailing opposes whale killing and supports the protection of endangered species,” which I suspect is mostly for foreign tourists who are almost unanimously opposed to whaling, not to mention the fact that whales being hunted are far less likely to be friendly and curious around whale-watching boats. The museum, though it doesn’t make an open statement, includes a whole section on the development of the whale-watching industry around the world and in Iceland and concludes by saying that even though Icelanders have historically used all the natural resources that the ocean provides, “the best use of whales as a natural resource might therefore be to keep them where they are – in the sea.” Ásbjörn’s own opposition to whaling and suspicions about the whaling operations, however, were even more obvious from talking to him – when I asked about the effects of whale hunting on whale watching for tourism and the whales the museum has been researching, he told us that they are fairly certain that it is having an effect, but they haven’t been allowed to place observers on the commercial whaling boats or even been given information about the whales caught, so they don’t have any proof.

Aside from the debate about modern commercial whaling, the museum itself was also very well-done, covering both whale biology and whaling history in Iceland (including, of course, information pertaining to modern commercial whaling). From the biology section, this is a minke whale skeleton, from a whale calf caught in a fishing net in 2000 – they used the meat so it wouldn’t go to waste and then gave the skeleton to the museum.

The museum has quite a lot of whale skeletons, but makes a point of saying that all of skeletons except one are from whales that were stranded or caught as bycatch – and the one exception, the narwhal, was legally hunted by indigenous Greenlanders.

The history of Icelanders’ interaction with whales is as long as there have been people on the island, going back over a thousand years, but the history of Icelandic whaling is nonetheless very short, going back only to the beginning of industrial whaling in the nineteenth century. Before the advent of engine-powered ships strong enough to catch and retrieve “sinker” whales – whales like the minke, sei, and fin whales used for their meat rather than for oil like the bowhead and right whales of American whaling traditions. In 1935, Iceland began “modern” whaling, using powerful ships to pull the whales to stations on shore where the meat was processed and harpoon guns like this one, fired directly from the ship.

Very different from hand-smithed harpoons thrown from a wooden whaleboat.

Despite this relatively recent beginning of whaling in Iceland, whales are still a long-standing part of Icelandic tradition. Icelanders have always been whale-eaters, with the meat from beached whales providing an unexpected boon for the whole town where they washed ashore, such that the word for beached whale, hvalreki, today means “lucky find.” I am also rather fond of this map, which shows the Icelanders’ early knowledge of whales and other sea creatures in the surrounding oceans.

Despite the seemingly fanciful pictures on this map, it shows a rather well-developed understanding of the species found in Icelandic waters, if not quite their exact anatomical features. Some records, though, do provide surprisingly accurate descriptions – a manuscript by Jón the Learned from the 1200s includes a detailed description and drawing of the grey whale, the only written record from the North Atlantic of a species that is now only found in the Pacific Ocean (yet another proof that historical documents can provide essential information for modern scientific studies of past species distributions).

In any case, it’s hard to tell whether the history helps or hurts the Icelandic case for commercial whaling – on the one hand, there is no long-standing tradition of whaling like in Alaska or Greenland or the Faroe Islands, but there is certainly a tradition of using all the resources the ocean can provide, whales included. Most of the people from our Nordnatur group I talked with about this are adamantly against whaling, even the one Norwegian (who turned out not to have heard about Norwegian whaling), but I’m still not sure I know enough to take much of a position. I suspect the economic argument that Iceland will do better by attracting tourists to see the whales than by eating the whale meat is strong enough to keep whaling from being worthwhile, but as for whether it really is possible to hunt the whales without endangering the population, I’m not sure.

Moving on from whales, for our last stop in Húsavík, we went to one of the strangest tourist traps I’ve ever seen – the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yup, a museum about penises. It’s just run by one guy, who apparently collected enough specimens to turn his private collection into a museum – as of this summer, 257 specimens from 90 different species, including specimens from every mammal species found in Iceland except for Homo sapiens (though he has four “legally-certified” letters of donation).

Here’s the penis guy himself (self-titled “Director of the Icelandic Institute of Phallology and Curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum”…try that as a resume builder) who showed us around and shared his rather extensive knowledge of anatomical trivia about phalluses.

And here’s the front of the museum, right on the main road in town, which announces its presence both with both a sign and a phallic sculpture (apparently making some sort of statement about Viagra, though I don’t quite remember what).

No comments: