This Country Just Killed An Incredibly Rare Whale
“You could actually see that something was different with this whale because it was so large."
Arne Feuerhahn couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Late on Saturday night, a whaling ship returned to its port in Hvalfjörður, Iceland, with a large, bluish whale in tow. When the whale was pulled onto land at the whaling station, Feuerhahn saw this whale was different than the fin whales hunters have been targeting these past few weeks. He quickly snapped some photos.
“You could actually see that something was different with this whale because it was so large,” Feuerhahn, founder of Hard to Port, a German organization that documents the Icelandic whale hunts, told The Dodo. “My initial thought was, ‘OK, this might be a really large male fin whale.’ But once it was pulled up the slipway, it looked different. You could see the color was different, and it didn’t have the typical characteristics of a fin whale.”
In late June, an Icelandic company called Hvalur, which is managed by Kristján Loftsson, started its first whale hunt in three years, aiming to kill 238 whales. The hunt immediately raised eyebrows when whalers began targeting fin whales, who are an endangered species.
But this larger whale seemed to be an even rarer animal — experts believe the whale is an endangered juvenile blue whale, or a hybrid mix between a fin whale and a blue whale.
“I had a look at the images once I got home, and then I compared them to all of the other images that I took over the last months of all the other animals … and it definitely is not a pure fin whale,” Feuerhahn said. “The next day I went to a marine scientist in Reykjavik, and I had her check the images, and her immediate response was that it was ... a hybrid whale — a mix between a blue whale and fin whale — or a pure blue whale. That’s when I knew that this was kind of a big thing.”
Blue whales are the largest animals on Earth, and can span over 100 feet in length. Like fin whales, blue whales are an endangered species — but unlike fin whales, blue whales are protected under Icelandic law, making it highly illegal to kill them. Commercial whalers haven’t killed one in over 50 years, though blue whales are commonly struck by boats or entangled in fishing gear.
If the whale is actually a hybrid, it’s equally inexcusable that the hunters killed one, according to Feuerhahn.
“These hybrids are very rare,” Feuerhahn said. “We have confirmation from the Icelandic authorities that there have been five or six documented animals of this kind. One hybrid is known in the northern part of Iceland, which is a quite popular animal because it’s regularly seen on whale watching trips. And all of the others that have been registered were killed by Icelandic whalers.”
Iceland is one of the only countries in the world, along with Japan and Norway, that continue to hunt whales despite the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placing a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. Strangely, there isn’t a strong market for whale meat in Iceland, so most of the meat is sold to tourists or exported to Japan.
Yet exporting blue whale meat (and fin whale meat) would be illegal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international agreement that protects endangered animals and plants. Vanessa Williams-Grey, a senior campaigner at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), explained that it would also be illegal to export meat from hybrid whales.
"We believe they are scientifically important, plus CITES forbids meat from hybrids to be exported to Japan,” Williams-Grey told The Dodo. “So an important question is: What will Loftsson do with this meat (if it's a hybrid) as he exports almost all his fin whale meat to Japan?”
Mark Simmonds, senior marine scientist at Humane Society International (HSI), is another expert who believes the whale is either a young blue whale or a hybrid — and he condemned the whalers’ decision to kill the animal.
“It looks very much as though Iceland has harpooned the first blue whale in over 50 years, and if that’s the case then that’s really horrifying news,” Simmonds said in a statement. “It’s bad enough that Iceland is already killing endangered fin whales, but it beggars belief that this whaling crew couldn't even tell the difference between a fin and blue whale. This terrible incident comes as Japan is rumoured to be planning an attempt to overturn the global moratorium on commercial whaling, and clearly speaks to how utterly inappropriate it is for countries to even contemplate allowing a large-scale return to this grossly inhumane and haphazard industry. Iceland’s whaling is rogue and archaic and should command diplomatic criticism at the highest levels.”
DNA testing is the best way to confirm the whale’s true identity, Feuerhahn explained.
“We believe that we have to wait for the final results,” Feuerhahn said. “I’ve been working with Whale and Dolphin Conservation in UK, and they’ve made the request to the Icelandic authorities to analyze the samples, so we can prove what kind of species or hybrid it is.”
Photos of the whale have since gone viral, and Loftsson spoke up, arguing that the whale in question was not a blue whale at all.
"We have never caught a blue whale in our waters since they were protected," Loftsson told CNN. "We see them in the ocean. When you approach a blue whale, it's so distinct that you leave it alone."
Loftsson added that the whale was either a fin whale or a hybrid, which aren’t protected under Icelandic law, and if the animal was a blue whale, the hunters killed it by accident.
Yet Feuerhahn believes that Loftsson and his company should be held accountable for their actions.
“Obviously, these people are trying to cover this up now, and if this is a blue whale ... this could actually be the tipping point for Kristján Loftsson,” Feuerhahn said. “So I think it’s very important to keep the pressure up now, and to pressure the Icelandic authorities.”
Feuerhahn is encouraged by the international response to this incident, but he believes it should be the Icelandic people themselves who foster change.
“Despite the international rage about this … I believe after working on this for five years now, that this is an Icelandic issue, and it’s most productive and important that Iceland speak out about it,” Feuerhahn said. “That’s why we’ve been working with Icelanders to bring this to [people’s] attention and to oppose this, because we know that many people in Iceland are opposed to the business of Kristján Loftsson.”