HÚSAVÍK, Iceland – This tiny town on Iceland’s north coast is surrounded by snow-capped mountain ranges and has become the country’s “whale capital”. Whale watching is their elixir of life.
“It is probably the most popular activity for visitors at home and abroad,” said Heimir Hardarson, North Sailing captain.
As one of the pioneers of whale watching in Iceland, Hardarson took humans out to sea for nearly 30 years to experience close encounters with some of the largest animals in the world.
“Very mystical creatures,” he said, “float around in their weightlessness.”
One recent morning, Hardarson took a handful of visitors on his boat, which normally holds 90 passengers, to spot humpback and fin whales in Skjalfandi Bay.
Visitor numbers were hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But the global slowdown has actually been good for the whales as human interference has decreased. The environmental noise in the world’s oceans from cruise ships, sonar and structures is far below.
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“Overall, I think the pandemic has been largely positive for whales,” said Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist and biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
He studies how the calmer oceans have affected whales by measuring their stress levels with hormone samples. According to Friedlaender, animals use acoustics like Wallieder to communicate with each other and find food. Ambient noise can impair communication and other important life functions
“The thought is that as human activity decreases and the environment is noisy, the stress hormone levels in these animals will go down,” he said.
According to Friedlaender, stress affects whales in a similar way to how it affects humans and changes their behavior and physical and mental performance. Stress can also lead to long-term changes that affect a whale’s overall health and reproductive ability.
“The animal may not reproduce as often as usual,” he said. “If it doesn’t multiply as often, the population will not have the ability to grow that quickly or to maintain its population growth.”
The pandemic has had an even more tangible impact on the whale population off Iceland’s coast: it has helped accelerate the end of commercial whale hunting.
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Iceland is one of only three countries in the world where commercial whaling is still allowed. The other two are Japan and Norway. Last year two Icelandic whaling companies stopped hunting for health reasons. Operators told local media that social distancing regulations would make normal on-board processing impossible.
“I will never hunt whales again, I will stop forever,” Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of the minke whale fishing company IP-Utgerd, told the news agency Agence France-Presse last year. And the demand has continued to fall.
“It is no longer necessary to hunt the whales. They don’t need to be eaten, ”said Eva Björk Káradóttir, director of the Húsavík Whale Museum. “The young generation born after 2000 don’t really do that.”
In fact, much of the demand for whale meat in Iceland came from tourists who wanted to try it during their visits, she said. Icelanders have re-examined their relationship with whales over the past few decades.
“I think tourism started and we started just attracting people from all over the world. We got a new perspective, and it was during that time that we really realized that our land is beautiful, our water is good and that people are interested in whales, ”she said.
Hardarson, the captain of the whale-watching boat, said people stopped eating whale meat for a number of reasons, including realizing that there is no point killing an animal that can live for almost a century. And he highlighted another simple reason.
“You are much more alive than dead,” he said. “I think there will be no commercial whaling in the future. I can’t see any reason why there should be. “
He acknowledged animals are also affected by whale watching tours, but said the experience helps motivate people to protect them.
“There are also whale-related threats and something you need to be aware of in order to try not to overload or overuse the resource this way,” he said. “We are very concerned about this, so we try to keep the speed low and minimize our carbon footprint.”
His hope now is that as tourism grows, as Iceland allows vaccinated visitors to enter the country without being quarantined, whale watching will again be big business, helping to support the animals and the whole city .