Sustainable Whale Watching: Balancing Tourism and Conservation in Iceland

Whales have long captured our imaginations with their immense size, gracefulness, and intelligence. But their survival has been threatened by human activities such as whaling, climate change, and pollution.

Fortunately, a shift towards responsible and sustainable practices is emerging, especially in the Icelandic whale watching industry.

Iceland has a long and complex relationship with whales, including a history of commercial whaling that only recently came under scrutiny. However, with the rise of whale watching, the Icelandic people are beginning to see the value of these majestic creatures alive and thriving in their natural habitats.

In this blog post, we will explore the history of whaling in Iceland, the development of sustainable whale watching, and the future of whale conservation in Iceland.

Take a look at our infographic:

sustainable whale watching in iceland

History of Whaling in Iceland

Whaling has been a part of Iceland’s history for centuries. Spear-drift hunting was the first method used for whaling as early as the 12th century. However, commercial whaling practices were introduced in the late 19th century by other countries. Icelanders had mixed opinions about the whaling industry.

Some welcomed the added earnings from taxes, duties, and levies, while others complained that whaling ruined their herring fishery. In response to these concerns, in 1886, a ban on whaling was enacted from May to October in herring fishing areas and Icelandic territorial waters. Despite the limited ban, most whaling was conducted outside of the prohibited areas and continued unaffected.

Start of Whale Watching in Iceland

Whale watching has come a long way since its humble beginnings in Iceland in the 1950s. Today, it is a significant contributor to Iceland’s economy, and the industry has evolved into a sustainable and ethical practice. In recent years, Iceland, like many coastal countries, has recognized the value of its cetacean resources due to the growing whale watching industry.

Here are some fascinating whale watching facts: The first whale watching trip in Iceland took place in 1991. The success rate for whale watching tours during the summer months, from April to mid-October, is 90% or higher. It’s worth noting that 20% of all tourists visiting Iceland participate in whale watching tours.

What is Responsible Whale Watching?

As whale watching has grown in popularity, concerns have emerged about the potential impact of whale watching vessels on the welfare of marine animals. In response, the Code of Conduct for Responsible Whale Watching was signed on February 20, 2015, following an operators’ workshop in Reykjavík.

The code is based on the previous work of non-governmental organizations, guidelines, codes of conduct, and general rules from whale watching operations worldwide. The aim of responsible whale watching is to promote a “whale-friendly” approach and encourage people to appreciate these magnificent creatures rather than exploit them.

By adhering to responsible whale watching practices, we can minimize the disturbance to the animals while still enjoying their beauty and majesty.

“Meet us, Don’t Eat Us’ Campaign Gains Momentum

The “Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us” campaign is a joint project between the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the Icelandic Whale Watching Association (Ice Whale).

Launched in Reykjavik in the summer of 2011, the campaign aims to inform and educate Icelanders and tourists about the consumption of whale meat in Iceland, and eventually, win their support to end commercial whaling.

Since its inception, the campaign has gained momentum, with 500 volunteers from 30 countries participating in the project, which mainly runs through the summer months in Reykjavik.

The volunteers work to raise awareness and educate the public about the negative impact of commercial whaling on the environment and the importance of preserving these magnificent creatures.

The campaign’s name, “Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us,” is a play on words that highlights the importance of responsible whale watching practices, which allow people to encounter and appreciate whales in their natural habitat without harming them.

The campaign emphasizes the economic benefits of sustainable whale watching and promotes the idea that whale watching can be a viable alternative to whaling.

Through education and awareness-raising efforts, the “Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us” campaign aims to shift public opinion in Iceland and beyond, and ultimately bring an end to commercial whaling.

Is the end of commercial whaling finally here?

In recent years, the debate around the future of commercial whaling in Iceland has been ongoing. However, there is hope that the end of commercial whaling may finally be in sight.

In July 2022, the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries & Agriculture, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, announced new animal welfare rules and surveillance requirements for the killing of whales in Iceland.

These changes are based on Article 21 of Iceland’s Animal Welfare Act, which previously excluded marine mammals.

The announcement comes after years of pressure from both domestic and international organizations, who have been working to end commercial whaling in Iceland. According to Svavarsdóttir, “there are few justifications to authorize the whale hunt beyond 2024, when current quotas expire.”

While this news is certainly a positive step towards ending commercial whaling in Iceland, there is still work to be done. The whaling industry remains an important part of the Icelandic economy, and there are those who will resist any efforts to curtail it.

However, with the continued support of organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Ice Whale, as well as increased awareness and education about the importance of whale conservation, it is hoped that commercial whaling in Iceland will soon become a thing of the past.

What does the future hold?

Looking to the future, it seems that Iceland is taking important steps towards more sustainable and ethical practices in relation to its whales.

The decision to implement new animal welfare rules and surveillance requirements for the killing of whales, along with the acknowledgement from the Icelandic Minister of Fisheries & Agriculture that there are few justifications to continue whaling beyond 2024, gives hope for the future of these magnificent creatures.

However, the fight for responsible whale watching and ending commercial whaling is far from over. It is crucial that education and awareness campaigns continue to inform and educate the public about the importance of protecting whales and their habitats.

The Meet Us, Don’t Eat Us campaign and the emergence of whale-friendly restaurants in Iceland are positive steps in this direction.

The future of whale watching and conservation in Iceland ultimately depends on a collective effort from individuals, businesses, and policymakers to prioritize the well-being of these incredible animals and their natural environment.