Iceland’s connection to the sea is obvious. It’s an island after all and is in the middle of rich fishing waters that boasts cod, salmon, monkfish, char, halibut, and whales. Salted cod was the country’s main export for decades and its importance continues today, even rating a Saltfish Museum in the capital, Reykjavik. On our grandparent/grandchild trip to Iceland, two boat rides were included, one for bird watching and the other for whales -– both successful.
The bird watching excursion explored the islands of Breidafjordur, while trolling a fishing net behind the boat on the bottom of the fjord. For years, the Atlantic Puffin has been a favorite bird, thanks to its “cuteness” factor from the bright orange beak. Sixty percent of its global population nest in Iceland, making the country the perfect observation site. We saw them on cliffs where they nest. Even with the captain moving the boat as close as possible, a larger camera than mine was needed to capture a clear image of these diminutive birds. I didn’t need my own photo as the puffin is the unofficial national bird of Iceland and it was featured in all the gift stores on t-shirts, glasses, postcards and thousands of stuffed animals.
After the puffin sightings, the captain sent us to the rear of the boat to witness the unveiling of the wonders captured by the fishing net. As the net opened onto a cleaning table, beautiful shells, sea urchins, and crabs tumbled out. Inside many of the shells were fresh scallops, cracked open and eaten in the sushi manner with ginger vinaigrette or soy sauce. Even my grandson gobbled them up. I have never turned down scallops, but I had to call a halt to the seemingly endless supply.
Despite visiting many countries offering whale outings, I hadn’t tried one before Iceland. As seems obligatory, no whale sightings were guaranteed on this trip. But on a surprisingly clear sunny day, we motored out of the bay around Reykajavik, with its skyline disappearing on the horizon and in less than 30 minutes, the first whale was spotted on the starboard side. Seeing whales can be like falling stars. By the time you look, they’re gone. Luckily for us, it was a feast of whale watching that morning, causing the captain to exclaim that he had never seen so many. These were primarily minke whales, a smaller species. While we didn’t experience the full breach of a whale leaping out of the water, we witnessed many heads and tales with views of a full whale under water. We were literally surrounded by them.
Iceland is one of only three countries that hasn’t agreed to stop whale hunting, an industry for centuries and made famous by the novel, “Moby Dick.” Japan and Norway also allow it. After hearing a presentation onboard, my politically aware grandson signed a petition to outlaw whale hunting. It seemed obvious to stop the practice as whale meat is not easily sold and there is no longer the need for whale blubber to light oil lamps as in the 1800s. Since then, I’ve discovered the ban on whale hunting is more complicated than it seems.
Whale hunting in the 1800s and even into the 1900s began to deplete the supply of whales. Japan was late in the hunt but began in earnest after WWII to feed its starving population. The population of larger whales such as the humpback declined precipitously, and limits were put in place by the International Whaling Commission. Today, the limit for Minke whales is apparently 1000 whales worldwide, not a significant number considering the 500,000 minke whales alive today. Norwegian whalers argue that whaling is good for the environment as whales eat most fishes in large quantities, meaning the stock of cod, halibut, etc. are diminished when whales are left unchecked. Also, thousands of whales are killed in other ways such as plastic in the water and commercial fishing nets. And the biggest surprise is that whale meat tastes like beef, not the ubiquitous chicken. It’s still hard to argue for whale hunting, especially as they are hunted with a harpoon hosting a grenade on the end.
The sea is never far away in Iceland and it provides beautiful views, healthy foods, and an important contrast to the volcanoes inland. The Icelandic people love their ocean and all it has to offer. They should be proud.