Whales star in Iceland's ecotourism boom

Published 26.10.2017 22:26
Updated 26.10.2017 22:27

Iceland's whales have traditionally ended up as main-course steaks, but times are now changing. As tourists stream to the North Atlantic island, the whales have become the stars of a flourishing ecotourism scene.

"Minke whale at 2 o'clock, about 200 meters out!" shouts Spanish tour guide Alberto Alejandro, microphone in hand as a boat of whale watchers cruises slowly up the coast. The sighting is fleeting: Only the tail fin is visible when the whale resurfaces for air, but it is enough to take the 60 passengers' breath away as they "oooh" and "ahhh" in delight.

"It's one of the things we absolutely wanted to do on our first trip here," says Joachim Holm, a Swedish tourist. "We don't get many opportunities to see live whales." Animal rights activists opposed to whaling argue that whale watching boats disturb the majestic mammals in their natural habitat. Yet, the activists nevertheless concede that it is still better to pester the whales than to slaughter them. In Husavik, a bay in the north of the country, or in the Faxafloi Bay near the capital Reykjavik, more than 355,000 people went whale watching in 2016 in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the animals in the North Atlantic. That is an increase of 30 percent over 2015 and four times more than a decade ago.

Fleets of whale watching boats regularly navigate through Faxafloi Bay, the very same waters where minke whales are hunted. Iceland resumed whaling in 2003, turning its back, along with Norway, on a 1986 international moratorium. Together, whale hunting and whale watching reel in revenues of about 100 million euros ($117 million) a year, in a country where the gross domestic product ticked in at 20 billion euros in 2016. According to the Ice Whale Association, whale watching is believed to bring in around 3 billion kronur ($28.5 million) per year.

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