Did Icelandic whalers really kill a blue whale?

*Warning - this blog contains an image that you may find upsetting*

They say a week is a long time in politics. Well it also feels a long time in whale conservation!

A great deal has happened since we circulated a press release on July 11 which stated that Icelandic whalers, out hunting fin whales for the first time in three years, appeared to have killed an endangered and strictly protected blue whale (or possibly a rare blue/fin hybrid).

Blue whale
Blue whale

For those of you not familiar with this story, here’s the sequence of events.

Just before midnight on Saturday, 7th July, the Hvalur hf. fin whaling company landed its 22nd catch of the season at the whaling station at Hvalfjörður, Iceland. The whale hauled up the slipway caught the attention of Arne Feuerhahn, a German conservationist documenting the hunt, as he was strikingly different in appearance to a fin whale.

Arne asked us to help him identify the whale from the images he had taken from his vantage point outside the whaling station. I emailed the images to blue whale experts around the globe, asking for their thoughts – they came back pretty unanimous: ‘Whale 22’ was definitely not a fin whale, and on the basis of various physical characteristics (including his overall mottled blue/grey skin, dark belly and baleen and mottled underside of his tail fluke), most likely a blue whale or a blue whale/fin whale hybrid. I have to agree. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time around many blue whales off Sri Lanka and this whale certainly - and tragically - looks very much like a blue.

Blue whale killed by Icelandic whalers
Blue whale killed by Icelandic whalers

At that point, with this situation looking increasingly serious, we went to the press.

So what’s happened since then?

That same morning, we contacted the Director General of MAST, the Icelandic veterinary authority, and Gisli Vikingsson, marine biologist at the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI), raising our strong belief that this whale could well be a blue whale and asking for immediate testing to confirm the species involved. We also made sure that this issue was on the radars of the International Whaling Commission (the body that regulates whaling), DEFRA and CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Iceland kills both fin and minke whales under a much disputed ‘reservation’ (loophole) to the global ban on commercial whaling but they are forbidden to hunt blue whales.

Our press release was picked up by the BBC, the Daily Mirror and a host of other outlets. Questions were even asked of Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, during a NATO meeting.

And then came the further push we needed: the scientists themselves approached the authorities, demanding early testing to confirm whether a blue whale had indeed been taken and citing Icelandic legislation which provides for the whaling boats to be grounded if an alleged illegal kill has taken place.

Their intervention was much appreciated. It attracted a great deal of media attention and has certainly upped the pace of this investigation. Throughout, the whalers and the authorities have clung stubbornly to the official line, namely that the whale in question is a hybrid (and therefore, they say, not a big issue and an ‘allowable’ - if somewhat unfortunate - mistake). They originally said that they wouldn’t test samples from this whale until the autumn, but growing pressure has forced a U-turn and our hope is that DNA testing will now take place within days. Importantly, too, the massive media interest and the knowledge that the world is watching seems to have reinvigorated the desire of the prime minister to tackle the growing problem of whaling, as she recognises it is damaging her country’s image.

Why does it matter whether this whale is a blue or a hybrid?

Blue whales are internationally protected. The IWC banned the hunting of blues as far back as 1966 and whilst Spanish whalers killed a blue whale in 1978, most countries have respected this ban and blue whales, rightly, have an iconic status.

Killing a blue whale is illegal - even within Iceland, there would be strict penalties and massive damage to the country in PR terms.

This incident raises further disturbing questions: if the whalers can’t tell a blue whale (or a hybrid that looks darned like a blue whale) in the water, how can they claim their hunts are well-managed and sustainable? Surely this demonstrates that their whaling is out of control?

WDC has always said that there is no humane way to kill a whale at sea. Many whales do not die instantly and may suffer for a considerable time in terror and agony before succumbing to a second harpoon or rifle bullet.  Reaching up to 33m, the blue whale is the largest creature on Earth - the largest ever to have lived - imagine how much it takes to kill a creature that big?

And whilst the whalers dismiss hybrid whales as ‘anomalies of nature’, they are actually very rare and therefore, important to science. Five blue/fin hybrids have been identified by researchers since 1986 around Iceland.  Four of these are already dead: killed by Icelandic whalers. One has become famous and is very popular with whale watchers off Husavik and was identified as a hybrid using non-lethal methods.

What happens next?

Massive pressure from scientists, the media and the public have already ensured that the genetic testing of Whale 22 will be fast-tracked. We also need the results to be fair and transparent.

Join the protest this Friday!

If you are in central London this Friday, 20 July at 1pm, you can join a peaceful protest outside the Icelandic embassy in Knightsbridge. I will be there!