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(tranquil ambient music) (accordion music) (turbulent orchestral music) (dark ambient music) (rolling wind) - [Voiceover] Situated between Greenland's frozen wasteland and the bustle of modern Europe, lies a country whose name is quite deceiving. Kissing the Arctic Circle with a latitude of 66 degrees North, this beautiful island nation cannot simply be defined by ice. Roaring waterfalls, ancient glaciers, endless fields of moss-covered rock and violently explosive volcanoes make this country one of our planet's most prized natural gems. Northern lights dance across the sky and illuminate the dark hours of winter, while six-hour sunsets provide stunning light displays during the long summer days. Arctic foxes tip-toe across snowy fields.
Sheep graze along grassy hills. Pure-bred horses roam vast, uninhabited spaces, and puffins nest in the jagged cliffs. This mystical environment makes it easy to understand why fairy tales of trolls, witches, and giants play such a prominent role in Icelandic culture. But there is one kind of giant in Iceland that has existed much longer than any of the written legends.
(dark ambient music) (whale singing) There are 23 different species of whales that are known to visit the surrounding waters of Iceland each year. Whether they migrate to the region to mate or feed, these majestic marine mammals travel across our globe’s vast, open oceans to spend time in this area. (whale singing) The humpback whale, the fin whale, and the minke whale are among the various species that can be seen and appreciated in Iceland. Ironically enough, it is these prehistoric giants who are this country’s biggest controversy.
- [Voiceover] The history of whaling is one of the worst examples of exploitation of a natural resource. The country that's peaceful enough to not need an army, is defying global law and slaughtering whales for commercial gain. - I didn't care a bit about whales when I started this.
I mean, I didn't know anything about whales. I had never seen a whale alive in the sea. But, when I started studying this and watching them, and learned how incredibly peaceful, sustainable creatures they are… they fascinated me more and more. - I was studying a lot of biology, studying lots of stuff about Darwin and the evolution of animals.
When I saw the first whale brought in, I just kind of started thinking about, like, this animal is so much bigger than us that we need 14 people, and a harpoon and a grenade and a huge ship to kill it. It doesn't really make sense. It's not natural for us to kill it. - When I was growing up, before 1986, we used to go to Hvalfjordur, me and my family in the summer. It was quite the scene when they caught a whale and dragged it up and started chopping it up. And this is my father, Arni, and my grandfather, Loftur, they are two of the founders of the company, Hvalur.
And my older sister, she worked in the kitchen. And some of my family members have been either working as crew members on the boat or in the office and things like that. So, obviously, it was just part of our life.
The argument that whales are intelligent creatures, I mean, I understand that people use that as an argument, but, for me, that's not that important. I think what is more important is that, whales, they roam the sea freely. They don't belong to anyone, and, after 20 years whaling, we just laid it behind. This is part of our past.
(dark ambient music) - [Voiceover] The Icelandic government has granted permission to hunt two different species of whale for commercial purposes. The fin whale and the minke whale. The fin whale is the second largest animal on the planet, growing to lengths of 85 feet long and weighing up to 74 tons.
This impressive cetacean's anatomy is streamlined for speed and despite its massive size, can reach up to 23 miles per hour. The minke whale is the smallest species of baleen whale, ranging from 25 to 30 feet and weighing anywhere from 6 to 11 tons. The minke is also known to be one of the most curious whales. Swimming very close to boats and regularly exposing their heads out of the water... making them a fairly easy target.
But as easy as the target may seem, the technique of how to humanely kill a whale is a controversial topic. Today, whalers use explosive, grenade-tipped harpoons to kill the minke and fin whales they set out to sea for. The metal rod is fired from a high-powered cannon from the bow of the ship as the whale emerges from the water to exhale.
When the mechanism enters the whale, multiple prongs expand, releasing the pin in the bomb. Due to their enormous size, fin whales are dragged along the side of the ship, while the smaller minke whale is hoisted aboard the whaling boat. This is bomb. bomb (tense music) - We control the boat up there. When we are on the minke hunting, you open the boat here and we take the minke inside the boat.
The heads may be outside and the tail, the tail are around here. The harpoon go here in the front and they go inside here, stay like this. This is the bomb, this one is ready.
Just put the bomb in the front, and then shoot. (gunshot) (ambient music) (portentous acoustic guitar music) - I mean, commercial whaling dates back to 1604, and it's quite well-documented in Iceland, who came first and everybody after that. The Basques were the first to do whaling in Iceland. So for almost 400 years, we have foreign whaling and a lot of opposition to that for a long time. But Icelandic commercial whaling is a fairly new phenomenon. So, all this talk about that being so traditional, is not really the fact.
- My family has been involved in whaling for decades, ever since my grandfather established the company Hvalur in 1947. And it started on a big scale after the second World War. I cannot agree with the argument that it is a tradition, because it's commercial whaling. It's not like it's Aboriginal subsistence whaling.
It's not like we're helping some rural communities to survive, it's totally different. So the traditional aspect, it's becoming a little bit ridiculous. - [Voiceover] Founded in 1948 by two ambitious businessmen, Hvalur is the only company in Iceland to continue hunting the world's second largest animal. - My father was at the board of Hvalur. And after my father passed away, I have become a shareholder in the company. - [Voiceover] Kristjan Loftsson, son of Hvalur founder, has inherited the highly controversial company and is considered the face of Icelandic whaling.
- My view on Kristjan Loftsson is like, that he's a businessman who has a lot of money and this whaling thing is really important to him because his father used to do it, too. And it's just a tradition in his family, and he just wants to keep that tradition going. - [Voiceover] But Loftsson is not alone.
Politicians within the Icelandic government show support for whaling, despite a seemingly declining market for the meat. In 2013, a high-powered official told the Reykjavik Grapevine, "We maintain that it's the right of Icelanders" "to hunt whales." "We don't answer this question of what we gain from it."
(triumphant music) Icelanders are proud people. And national sentiment plays a large role in supporting whaling. - [Voiceover] A city of tents for 30,000 citizens of Iceland. They have gathered out in the historic site outside the capital of Reykjavik where the world's oldest parliament first met for a two-day ceremony marking the proclamation of Iceland as a republic.
- [Sigursteinn] In Iceland's history, we were under foreign powers until 1944. For Icelanders, their independence is a holy thing. Somehow, they see this whaling as a matter of independence. - So, compared to other countries, we're kind of like a teenager just getting independent, and we want to make our own decisions.
We don't want other countries telling us what to do. We're stubborn in the sense of changing things. (sombre orchestral music) - An argument that we hear a lot here in Iceland is that we should catch whales because they eat so much seafood; that we're competitors when it comes to our fishing stocks. But, I think that is not a valid argument.
- We estimated that these 12 species would consume annually, around six million tons. - [Voiceover] Kristjan Loftsson is also the chairman of HB Grandi, one of the largest fisheries in Iceland, supplying seafood across the globe. As a large stockholder, he has a financial interest in supporting the argument that whales eat too much fish. This offers a perfect opportunity to benefit both of his businesses, because Loftsson benefits from each whale killed and every fish caught.
By purchasing HB Grandi products, consumers are supporting Loftsson's whale hunting. - Well, all the fin whale meat is exported. There is no domestic market for fin whale meat. - The market in Japan for whale meat in general, not only fin whale meat, has been shrinking very fast in the last few years.
Young people are not eating it. You don't find whale meat in Tokyo and the big cities in Japan. - It's just so crazy to catch whales in Icelandic waters, chop them down, freeze them, and ship the frozen meat over half the planet to Japan; and in Japan, they have difficulty selling their own meat. I mean, they have more meat than they can sell themselves. - [Voiceover] From 2009 to 2014, Kristjan Loftsson and the Hvalur company killed 544 endangered fin whales. Unable to sell the majority of his stock pile, the meat remains in freezer facilities.
A surplus of product means a cheaper product. Loftsson understands this simple business concept and has become creative in trying to rid his meat from his freezers. - When I learned also that some of our meat is being canned as pet food, it made me realize how wrong this is. - [Voiceover] Besides incorporating whale meat into luxury dog food, Iceland's whaling king has helped produce a whale beer, and even uses whale blubber to fuel his whaling ships, considering it an eco-friendly bio-fuel. (forlorn ambient music) (ominous music) While fin whale meat remains unavailable to Icelandic citizens, they are offered another species of whale that they can eat… The minke whale.
- We have minke whale meat on the market. Though, most of it just ends up in the restaurant as a novelty for tourists. - So, this is a dying business and the minke whalers said from the start that if they would not find international markets, they would stop.
So, now I think it's time for them to stop. (solemn ambient music) - [Voiceover] Mankind has struggled determining accurate whale populations throughout history. In Iceland, it's up to Gisli Vikingsson and the Marine Research Institute to decide the quotas on how many whales are killed each year.
Their incredible size, lengthy migration routes, and the depth at which they dive makes tracking their numbers extremely difficult. - [Voiceover] But the IUCN, the world's primary authority for the conservation status of all species, disagrees. This international union created a red list to classify each species' extinction risk.
- [Voiceover] Iceland's government is actually defying a global law implemented by the International Whaling Commission, or IWC, in 1982. The law became effective in 1986 and officially restricted all countries from hunting whales for commercial gain. - I was kind of surprised. I thought that whaling was part of our past. That was something that we hadn't done for 20 years, so why start again? - And there is this idea that the whaling is strongly linked to our independence and if we give it up, we will be giving up our right as a sovereign country to make decisions about how to utilize natural resources. - So, we don't really care about what other countries tell us.
We just really want to do our tradition and our thing. - The United States' view on Iceland is that they should be a member, we support their membership. We do not support their membership with a privileged condition that no other member has.
- We are deeply disappointed with the Icelandic government's continued authorization of the hunting of fin and minke whales. We believe the continued authorization in fin whaling activities in particular damages Iceland's reputation as a conservation nation and a model of sustainability. - Well, this morning we decided to walk out of this meeting.
Not to take any further part in this meeting. The reason for that is that yesterday, there were numerous illegal acts committed in this room. - [Voiceover] International outrage towards Iceland's disregard for the IWC's ban on whaling has continued to grow for decades, damaging the small nation's reputation.
(audience applauding) (dramatic music) - The international community is against whaling and there is a lot of pressure from conservation groups, from environmentalists and animal welfare groups. - We want the commercialization of whaling to stop. We have to draw a line in the sand demanding a zero-take of whales. - We've just held a Save the Whales rally to deliver more than 53,000 petitions calling on our government to save the whales, not whaling.
- Greenpeace is protesting against the shipment of six containers of whale meat that are loaded on this vessel, The Cosco Pride, via European ports, from Iceland to Japan. - [Voiceover] But Loftsson and his business have felt the effects of the world's resistance. - All European ports seem to be closed for fin whale meat being exported to Japan, making all export very, very difficult. - [Voiceover] These export difficulties were exemplified in 2013 when a large shipment of Loftsson's product, due for Japan, was denied at two major European ports. After realizing that the containers deceivingly marked as fish were actually full of whale meat, Loftsson's shipment was sent back to Iceland. - So, it's a mystery in a way and a puzzle, what drives Mr. Loftsson.
Certainly not profiting from the fin whaling. So it's a big question of course, why he continues. - [Voiceover] Even Hvalur shareholders have been left in the dark regarding the company's objectives. - It was hard to get information. The shareholders, they were not informed and there was no business plan, we did not have any clue how much had already been sold, how much it was going to cost to start whaling again. I mean, it's quite costly.
You need the fuel for the ship, salary, the transportation, marketing, storage. - So how sustainable is this whole business? I mean, how does it profit the people, the business and the environment? I just have serious doubts about it. (sullen string music) - Tourism is growing so much. I mean, if you would compare the streets of Reykjavik today and ten years ago, it's a different city. And, of course, alongside tourism growing, are all tourist activities growing as well. And whale watching is a good example of that.
- [Voiceover] Ironically enough, one of the only countries that continues hunting whales, has now been deemed the whale watching capital of Europe. 2013 marked the year that tourism surpassed fishing to become the tiny county's largest export. And with 25% of all tourists going whale watching, it has become obvious which industry benefits Iceland the most. - [Voiceover] There's another one, one o'clock! There's another minke at one o'clock.
Diving, one o'clock heading to the right. - [Voiceover] Nine o'clock? That's the other at nine o'clock as well. And the other one, nine o'clock.
And this is a deep dive at two o'clock. If you look at the ship, the big ship sailing, it goes in that direction, the whale that's coming up. - For a long time, people doing whale watching here believed that it could co-exist with the whaling. And they didn't even see any immoral things.
- So, the more you can show how this cannot co-exist, then the more you can show how much more important, economically, image-wise so-forth, the whale watching is. The greater impact it has. - So we've been fighting to get some sanctuary for the whales and for the whale watching. The minister of the fishery decided in 2009 to put a line 12 miles from Reykjavik and where the whalers could not cross.
So they had to stay out of the area. - And that is the main reason why whale watching's very important in this. If you have several whale watching companies around the country, then you make the whalers very unwelcome in those areas. - [Voiceover] But appreciating these marine mammals in their natural habitat is not enough for the abounding tourists.
Many whale watchers decide that they would like to see what a whale looks like… on their dinner plate. - In an isolated poll on board of a whale watching boat, almost half of the people going whale watching, they would taste whale meat in Iceland or they had tasted whale meat in Iceland. - Many restaurants are offering whale meat so that's just to attract tourists to come to their place and eating whale meat.
- Never. My friends would never go to a restaurant and eat whale. Not, like they would never say, "Hey, let's go get whale tonight." - I think it's mostly a novelty for tourists. They come here, they go whale watching, then go to a restaurant and taste some whale meat, but I doubt that they're going to repeat it. - Like, if you're not brought up with it, you would never go and get a steak out of the store and barbecue at home.
- People coming to the boat and sometimes telling me, "I ate it yesterday and I want to see it today," and also, "I want to see it before I eat it." - Tourism is increasing very much in Iceland. We're having about 800,000 tourists this summer. Next year we might get up to one million. So you can imagine if 40% of the tourists are eating whale meat, what sort of a disaster situation we would have here.
- When you find out that those who come and they say they're against whaling, are really contributing to it, then you have a problem on your hands. (forlorn piano music) - [Voiceover] In the spring of 2013, the minister of fisheries implemented a whale watching sanctuary. But the line was later repealed when the minister's term ended halfway through the whaling season. - So, for the first time in 10 years there was no whaling for this period of three months in Faxafloi bay. And it seems to everybody in the whale watching that it had very positive effects on the minke whales. - [Voiceover] And another one, that's eleven! Wow.
We still have some here, very close. - They started being more curious about the boats, the came closer, they were not afraid of the boats as they seemed to be before. (whale singing) (sombre string music) (whale singing) - [Voiceover] Facing a tarnished reputation, and a massive influx of whale watching tourism, Iceland's residents have to decide if they still support whaling in the modern age. - Uh, I'm on both sides.
Because I like the whale watching industry and... I see a lot of opportunities there. And also, this is a very old heritage here in Iceland, fishing whales, so, it's a tradition. - If we have the market to sell the product, then it's okay for me.
- [Voiceover] What may seem like an archaic and outdated practice to many around the world, the majority of Icelandic residents do continue to support whaling. - I was actually surprised that 60% of Icelanders still support whaling. I don't know their arguments, on what grounds. Probably because they think that it brings profits, that we're actually... getting some foreign currency and they are not realizing that the selling is not that good. - It really matters if you ask, "Are you for or against Icelandic whaling?" Or if you ask, "Are you for or against the whaling?" There is a difference.
As soon as we have 'Icelandic' there, what you hear is, "Are you for or against Iceland?" So, this has been one of the problems, that people have made a direct link between being Icelandic and supporting the whaling. - I had no idea there were so many whales here, and I had no idea there were so many different species and kinds of whales. - Yeah, my views have absolutely changed.
I think my viewpoints changed the day that I went and saw the first whale brought in and cut up. That was probably the day that it changed for me. Dramatically. - I hope that this will be the last season.
The last season of harvesting fin whales... but there are a lot of people that are telling me that this is going to continue. - There is a huge difference in attitude in the possibilities we have to discuss this issue. Having 58 whale-friendly restaurants at the moment here. Nobody would have expected that. - Whale-friendly.
- So I think the whaling will, yeah, definitely get less and less, especially because more and more countries are banning it and it's getting more difficult to transport it. - [Voiceover] But not everyone agrees on what the future of whaling holds for Iceland. A few of the most vocal whale hunting advocates are calling for permission to even slaughter the beloved humpback whale.
(whale singing) - If Mr. Loftsson continues his fin whaling, and that he is granted a quota for next year, it will be very damaging for Iceland. - I had not heard any good, valid argument for whaling from the company directors, I have to confess that. Hvalur was established to harvest whales. That's what they do and since they can do it, they do it.
- [Voiceover] Speculation about whether the whale hunts would continue came to an abrupt halt on December 18th, 2013 after the Marine Research Institute granted new whaling quotas for 2014 through 2018. The whaling permit allows 1145 minke whales and 770 endangered fin whales to be killed over the five year span. Four months later, Kristjan Loftsson's Hvalur company transported 2,000 tons of endangered fin whale meat from Iceland to Japan.
Instead of cutting through the Suez Canal, the shortest route to Japan, Iceland's whaling king slithered all the way down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope. The expensive and desperate move meant the cargo ship had to travel an extra 7,000 kilometers. - It's just totally ridiculous. It's unnecessary, it's uneconomical and it's just inhuman. - It demonstrates Iceland's complete senselessness toward its obligations on an international level regarding whales. (woeful acoustic guitar music) (dark ambient music)