We’ve officially made it to Iceland, our 30th country since this Olmsted Scholar experience began (almost) two years ago. It’s been quite an incredible journey. After leaving our car in Oslo, we booked a late flight into Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Our first day, we took a tour with Elding Whale Watching, the oldest company of its kind in the city. We changed our 10.00 reservation to 14.00 after suffering an unexpectedly acute case of jet lag and the weather was nearly perfect. We had clear skies and although it was a bit (a lot!) brisk, the whale guide commented it was the most active the dolphins and whales had been in some time. We lucked out! Unfortunately, our second day in Iceland turned out to be pretty crappy weather-wise. In order to make up for this, we took the bus (which Bobby was amazed was equipped with wifi) to the Blue Lagoon, where the water is warm, no matter the temperature outside.
Before we took our whale watching tour, we took a little walk around town. Reykjavik is not a very large city, so its very easy to see a lot in just a little bit of time.
Our whale watching tour lasted about three hours. We began the tour in Faxaflói (Faxa) Bay, where we saw a couple minke whales feeding not far from the shore. Although there are several types of whales found near Reykjavik, the minke is the most common. Unlike the dolphins, which we ran into a little later in the day, the minke whales rarely ever show their tails so it’s a little difficult to get a sense of how big they are. Their average adult length is between 23-24 feet, although they have been known to reach 35 feet long.
On the way out of the harbor, we saw a ton of jelly fish. I’m glad I wasn’t swimming in this:
We came for the whales and stayed for the dolphins. We witnessed a large pod (probably around 10-12) of white-beaked dolphins feeding in Faxaflói, including a baby calf. White-beaked dolphins range in length from about 8 to 10 feet and weigh from 400 to 780 pounds. According to marine scientists, white-beaked dolphins are acrobatic and social animals. We definitely agree with this, as we witnessed many flips on our whale watching tour. They frequently ride on the bow-wave of high-speed boats and are so muscular they can jump clear of the sea’s surface. The white-beaked dolphin is a social feeder and is often observed hunting for food with killer, fin, and humpback whales, although we didn’t see any other species on our trip.
Elding Whale Company also does whale research and had several researchers aboard. Their goal is to survey the whale population numbers, learn about the different species surrounding Reykjavik, and teach the public about issues facing marine life. According to our guide, there is a persistently serious problem with whale hunting at the global level. There are three countries where whale hunting is legal: Japan, Norway, and Iceland. This season, whale hunters are killing fin whales and minke whales (the species we saw on our trip) to sell their meat. Just yesterday, during our trip, there were boats hunting two minke whales just outside of the protected waters of Faxaflói Bay.
Japan is the number one consumer of whale meat, although not all of the whales are killed for human food. Our guide pointed out that fin whales are specifically being hunted in Iceland to sell to Japan for dog food. What’s even worse is that there are hundreds of thousands of pounds of fin whale meat in freezers in Iceland because they can’t get rid of it fast enough. Why do they need to hunt even more? Activists around the globe are trying to stop the hunting of whales. In Germany, it is illegal to ship whale meat through its ports and just last month, a group from Greenpeace pointed out a shipping container with whale meat in Hamburg’s port. Although its destination was Japan, the German authorities sent the meat back to Iceland and fined the company heavily for violating the law. As I’m writing this, the port authority stopped another shipping container in The Netherlands (another country that bans whale meat shipments), again destined for Japan.
In Iceland, there are over 100 restaurants that sell whale meat on their menus. They mark it as “local, traditional food,” although a recent survey of Icelanders stated that less than 5% of the population eat the meat. How does it sell then? The answer is simple: tourists. Elding Whale Watching company stressed that the public can help by not eating whale meat and by only supporting restaurants with the “Whale Friendly” sticker in the front door, so that’s what we intend to do!
On a lighter note, we had the pleasure of visiting the famous Blue Lagoon. About 25 miles from Reykjavik, in Grindavík, you can find the Blue Lagoon in the middle of a large lava field. It is a man-made lagoon which is fed by the water output from the nearby geothermal power plant. Although most people come for pure pleasure of bathing in the geothermal waters, the Blue Lagoon is also known for its “healing powers” for diseases like psoriasis. The lagoon is rich in both sulfur and silica and around the edges of the pool, you can lather your body with the minerals from the mud pots. The 6 million liters of water in the bathing area reaches 37–39 °C (98–102 °F) and the entire area is replenished every 40 hours.