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Tourists, hunters in quest for Iceland's whales

AFP  Apr 29, 2009

REYKJAVIK — Tourists bundled up in heavy parkas board a whale-watching boat docked in Reykjavik's port, excited at the thought of glimpsing the mighty animal. Across the harbour, whalers prepare their ships for the hunting season.

"It's quite strange to have these two boats in front of each other," says Angela Walk, a 37-year-old tourist guide for one of nine Icelandic companies that offers whale-spotting tours off the coast of this island in the middle of the North Atlantic.

Walk, a native of Germany who settled in Iceland 12 years ago, says her company "is against whaling."

"We try to convince them to stop. It's not good for Iceland's image."

But whaling presents a paradox for the country: it's a precious resource both for the tourism industry, which wants to protect the animals, and whalers who want to hunt them in what they say is a traditional and cultural right.

Every day during summer's peak season, thousands of tourists spend 45 euros (60 dollars) each in the hopes of sighting a minke whale, or, if they're lucky, the more imposing fin whale.

"On a 60-tonne fin whale, 50 percent is blubber and 50 percent is meat," explains Olafur Olafsson, a 59-year-old fisherman and whaler who has worked at sea since the age of 14.

This burly redhead is the captain of the boat named "H", for "Hvalur" or whale in Icelandic which is also the name of the company. It is the only whaling company in Iceland licensed to hunt fin whales.

Olafsson says that after spending two decades docked in port due to Iceland's suspension of whaling, his 51-meter (167-foot) ship will soon be ready to set sail with its 15 crew on June 2 -- a day after the hunt officially begins on Monday, June 1.

"Mondays are unlucky," he says, citing local superstition.

Three years ago when Iceland, a country of 320,000 people, announced it was resuming commercial whaling it set a quota of nine fin whales and 40 minke whales.

In January of this year, the government sharply increased the quota to 150 fin whales and up to 150 minkes per year for the next five years, a move that sparked an international outcry.

Fisheries Minister Steingrimur Sigfusson, whose left-wing government inherited the quotas when it came to power in February, said Iceland was reconsidering the levels and may revise the numbers later this year.

He told AFP whaling was a "complex" issue, but "the majority of Icelanders see it as a natural thing ... We are a nation of farmers and fishermen."

The pro-whaling camp says the quotas are needed to maintain the balance of the ocean's ecosystem, and to protect fish stocks, since a whale devours several tonnes of fish a day.

Olafsson insists that the whaling industry is strictly regulated: "We don't hunt whales smaller than 20 meters (65 feet), nor mothers with calves."

And in 99 percent of cases, the whale is killed immediately, on the first try, with a harpoon that fires off two explosive charges within a fraction of a second.

"We don't want to hurt the animal because we want the meat to be healthy," Olafsson said.

Meanwhile, on board the whale-watching boat, captain Roland Buchholz steers with one hand, his other hand clutching binoculars that slowly scan the horizon.

"I'm looking at birds. It's the only way to know where food is, and probably whales."

Suddenly, a minke whale surfaces, breaking the water for a fleeting moment, to the delight of tourists -- who have mixed reactions to the whale hunt.

"We are very much against whaling. There's no scientific reason to justify it. It's simply for making money," says 50-year-old Martin Holway of Britain, who travelled to Iceland with his wife for a whale-watching tour.

Steve Feye, a 54-year-old from Boston, was meanwhile more understanding.

"It's cultural and a question of tradition."

"The whale show, with the whales coming up and down, is beautiful. But I can understand that whaling is also important for Icelandic people, especially during the economic crisis," he said.

The head of Iceland's conservative Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson, said whaling easily becomes an "emotional issue."

"It's a question of sovereignty to do whatever we want with our resources," he told AFP.

"We are following the rules of the game ... in concert with experts and scientists who set the quotas," he said.

And, he asks, why can't tourism and whaling co-exist?

According to Angela Walk, a large majority of Iceland's whale meat is eaten by tourists, "out of curiosity".

Iceland and Norway are the only two countries in the world that authorise commercial whaling. Japan officially hunts whales for scientific purposes, which are contested by opponents, and the whale meat is sold for consumption.

Tourists, hunters in quest for Iceland's whales
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