Monday, 16 June 2014

Iceland - Land of Ice and Fire... and Whales!

Venturing north from the Bay of Biscay our little Morgan heads to the land of ice and fire, and the waters of whales, Iceland. With WCA partner Suzanne Rogers our little Morgan set about exploring this island in the north of the Atlantic. Her tour included a visit to the Blue Lagoon, hot springs and geysirs whose spouts of water remind Morgan of those giant Blue Whales in the Azores. 

An Icelandic geysir

A few overnight stops in wild, rugged, beautiful, mountainous places Morgan and her friends arrive in Husavik, the whale watching capital of Iceland. With many whale watching companies operating here, Morgan was careful to chose a responsible, ethical company and went with North Sailing. There are no laws regulating whale watching here, and guidelines are voluntary. In an increasingly competitive industry not all whale watching companies operate responsibly with some actively chasing whales and getting too close. Sadly our little Morgan even saw some of this behaviour while out on her trip, while her boat kept a distance another boat raced in too close. Still Morgan, onboard a Schooner, was keen to get out there and try to see some whales responsibly. The signs were good, the crew had heard reports the those mighty Blue Whales were in the area and heading out to that bay Morgan and her friends were not disappointed with a group of five or six whales letting them hang out with them! With a lingering trace of snow and ice on mountains behind it was a magic moment for Morgan to meet these giants again. Heading back to shore and they saw a Minke Whale fully breach five times!

Iceland's magical scenery

Subsequent trips out from Husavik encountered more Minke Whales, a Humpback Whale and even many Harbour Porpoise – usually so difficult to see because they are small, fast and don’t show much of their body above water but the sea conditions allowed great viewing of these the smallest species of cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the North Atlantic.

For our little Morgan seeing Minke Whales brings mixed feelings as they are still hunted in Iceland. Indeed in Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital city) the whaling ships share a harbour with the whale watching boats and just a few days previously a German tourist had made international news by chaining himself to a whaling ship in protest against Iceland’s whaling activity. It is difficult not to be concerned that the whales Morgan and her friends saw might not survive the whaling season and to wonder whether getting used to whale watching boats puts them in more danger from the whaling ships. Overall it is considered best to support the whale watching industry to prove that whales are worth more alive than dead. Astoundingly it is the tourists that are driving the demand for whale meat – most of the whale meat consumed in Iceland is by tourists, sometimes the very same people who go whale watching! A campaign by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) called Meet Us Don’t Eat Us aims to raise awareness about the issues regarding eating whales and also to encourage tourists to support whale friendly restaurants. The campaign is very visible not just in Reykjavik but also in Husavik.

Once in Reykjavik our little Morgan couldn’t resist the chance to go whale watching again, and heading out with Elding – a tour company with a firm focus on education and concern for the animals. They also have a whale centre ingeniously created in a converted ship through which tourists must pass to reach the whale watching vessel. It contains cetacean skeletons and information about the animals and their plight. On the trip Morgan once again saw Minke Whales and enjoyed the very informative commentary, which also highlighted environmental issues and the health of the oceans as well as that of individual animals.

Elding's Science Officers

For Morgan one of the best parts of whale watching (apart from seeing whales!) is the other passengers – exchanging tales of previous whale watching trips with fellow whale enthusiasts and being there when some people see a whale in the wild for the very first time. On one trip our little Morgan met the Wildlife Society of Manchester University, a truly passionate group of students and alumni – with such future cetacean advocates the future certainly looks bright.

After ten days amazing days it was time for our little Morgan to plan her next adventure but a little part of her is still happily gazing out to sea looking for whales off the beautiful coast of Iceland.

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