I have to admit to bitter disappointment when I arrived in Tromsø, northern Norway, a few weeks ago, hoping to see orcas, only to find that I had missed them by a few days. Since 2013, the orcas have been seen really close to shore in the waters around Tromsø and neighbouring Kvaløya islands, towering dorsal fins slicing through the water as orca pods hunt young herring in icy fjords embraced by snow-capped mountains. This year, however, both orcas and herring were mostly centred off the small island of Skjervøy, some 3-4 hours’ northeast of Tromsø and agonisingly close to my arrival, the orcas followed the now-mature herring into the open sea far to the west of Tromsø, too far out for boats to follow.
Sad to miss them? Yes, of course, as I love orcas and spent one of the best summers of my life volunteering at Orcalab, Hanson Island (home to WDC’s orca adoption project). But as a whale conservationist, there’s a part of me that was glad that these glorious whales now had some respite from the seemingly endless attention from boats. Whilst there are undoubtedly some excellent companies operating in the area, others are less responsible. Recent years have seen an escalation of incidents, with numerous examples of over-crowding, skippers pushing their vessels too close or remaining too long around the whales.
In late November, documentary maker, Ken O’Sullivan complained of witnessing ’50-60 boats chasing orcas’. He posted video footage showing eight boats pursuing these whales off Vengsøya island. Around the same time, I received some equally-concerning reports relating to the safety of snorkellers participating in commercial tours. Even in dry suits, these icy Arctic waters can be dangerous. Sea conditions can be extreme and orcas are large and generally fast-moving. A post by Richard Karoliussen to the Hvaler i Nord Facebook page around the same time commented, especially in relation to boats rented by outsiders who appeared at times to be operating without due regard for the safety of people or whales: ’I would say that this phenomenon in Skjervøy and Troms is starting to be out of control. And it is terrible to watch. Some days ago, I came across two snorkellers, 300 metres away from their boat. I barely saw their two black heads in the water, and I could easily have run over them.’ This fear was echoed by a WDC supporter living in Norway who witnessed divers in the semi-darkness, without lights, near a busy harbour mouth and therefore terribly vulnerable to being struck by vessels.
Recently too, came reports of passengers feeding orcas with fish allegedly discarded by nearby fishing boats. In late November 2016, images posted to the Facebook page of a children’s TV show featured a group of children apparently encouraged to provide fish to the whales and reach over from the vessel to pet the whales. It is illegal to feed whales and dolphins in many parts of the world for good reason, as it encourages unnatural behaviour and increases each individual’s risk of injury and death.
Norway’s whales and dolphins have also suffered an ear-bashing from seismic testing for oil and gas, as test sites have often coincided with whale and dolphin habitat. In a blog for WDC in August 2016, biologist Heike Vester of Ocean Sounds reported that ’this year, continuous surveys have blocked the entrance to the Vestfjord with an “acoustic wall”. Rather than whale song, seismic blasts every eight seconds have been the dominant sound source… there has been a significant decline in whale abundance and we suspect that the whales are actively avoiding the area.’ For the first time in almost a decade, massive pods of pilot whales did not enter the fjord, whilst humpbacks, fin whales and orcas were also suspiciously absent.
Worryingly too, the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate which conducts the seismic tests is not required to have trained observers on board, and staff are not obliged to pause their operations even if they encounter marine mammals. The potential ramifications of this policy were evident that same year when a healthy adult Sowerby’s beaked whale stranded and died. Biologists at Ocean Sounds who assisted a veterinarian from Nord University at the necropsy, suspected that this unfortunate whale had crossed the path of a nearby seismic survey vessel. The intense sound from the seismic surveys might have caused acoustic trauma and decompression sickness and, ultimately, a slow and painful death.
These problems are all the more important to resolve in a whaling region such as Norway, where hundreds of minke whales are killed each year. Whale watching – as long as it is responsibly conducted – is an exhilarating experience for watchers, encourages conservation and offers local communities a genuine alternative livelihood to hunting whales. And boy, do minke whales deserve some respite in Norwegian waters!
Last year, whalers hunted 432 minkes (compared to 591 in 2016, and 660 in 2015). This was the lowest figure for over 20 years but still represents a huge number of whales. And whilst last season saw the lowest number of vessels actively whaling for 25 years, the vessels which did go out took a record number of whales per vessel; in other words, fewer boats but each one more efficient in terms of dispatching whales. It is bad enough to know that many whales die in terror and agony, but a further sickener is the knowledge that many of the whales are pregnant females, gifting the whalers a grisly ’two for the price of one’. I’m sure WDC supporters won’t need reminding that these whales are killed under Norway’s self-allocated quota (which has just been raised from 999 to 1,278) which exploits a loophole in the international ban on commercial whaling.
Norway claims its whaling is part of a strong cultural tradition of harvesting from the sea and desperately ignores the modern day reality of consumer disinterest and declining demand for whale meat. And in any case, to borrow a memorable quote from US Olympic skier, Gus Kenworthy, who recently rescued a puppy from shameful conditions in a South Korean dog meat farm: ’culture should never be a scapegoat for cruelty.’
Last July, German campaigners were able to film a Norwegian whaling vessel, the Nystrand, kill a minke whale. According to their footage, the whale did not die instantly and probably suffered a great deal, before being finished off by rifle. The whale’s carcass was then ‘bled out’ and its blubber dumped overboard, in full view of a nearby vessel with young children on board. Surely that is enough to kill any appetite for whale meat stone dead?
Strolling around Tromsø last month, I was struck by how few restaurant menus and billboards boasted whale meat, yet several supermarkets carried a selection of chilled whale meat products. True, it was off-season and as the next whaling season opens in a few months’ time, it is vital that we keep reaching tourists asking them not to support this cruel industry especially since this week’s announcemnt of an increased quota, plus the Norwegian government’s determination to boost demand for whale meat. Remember, too, that Fisheries Minister, Per Sandberg, recently exclaimed “I want to make sure that whaling stays alive!”.
So what is WDC doing to help Norway’s whales and dolphins? We’re working on several fronts simultaneously, including:
- Endorsing Visit Tromsø’s excellent guidelines on whale watching and supporting calls for government regulations
- Asking tourists not to support Norwegian whaling by eating whale meat
- Explaining that eating whale meat often carries serious health risks due to contamination
- Speaking out against commercial whaling at the International Whaling Commission
- Lobbying the EU for a ban on whale meat transits through our ports
- Rebutting the illogical and untrue argument repeatedly made by the Norwegian government and whalers that they need to kill whales in order to protect commercially-valuable fish stocks. Illogical, because at the same time, the government assures us that its whaling is sustainable and not impacting whale stocks: they can’t have it both ways! Untrue, since researchers have mapped fish catches against species which whales are known to eat and have demonstrated unequivocally that there is little overlap with human fisheries because whales largely catch species we don’t target, in areas we don’t fish.
- Strongly condemning seismic testing in marine mammal habitat
Above all, we are passionately promoting the message that healthy oceans and fish stocks are dependent upon healthy whale stocks. Whales are the ‘gardeners’ of the ocean: the rich nutrients released by whales defecating fertilises the ocean and helps sustain fish stocks.