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Look - but please don't touch

Libby Brooks on one man's fight to persuade Icelanders to give up their whale steaks

5th June 2003

The Guardian

Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson confesses that his heart still gives an extra beat when he sees a whale. "They're so majestic. You're scanning the horizon and then without any warning one slides out of the water right beside you. They are mystical. Their sheer size and grace lightens the heart. I've seen people cry when they see their first whale."

The 45-year-old former electrician may appear an unlikely champion of these huge mammals, hailing as he does from a nation that still prefers it's whales well flensed and evenly grilled. Only last week, Stefan Asmundsson, the Icelandic whaling commissioner, confirmed that his country is planning to restart slaughtering whales with a two-year scientific study that will lead to a recommencement of full-scale commercial whaling. "In Iceland," he notes, "a whale lover is not seen as a favourable person."

For eight years Bjorgvinsson has dedicated himself to changing Iceland's attitude to whales, involving politicians, scientists and business leaders in his crusade, and transforming a remote fishing village into Europe's most visited whale-watching destination. His work has been recognised by the United Nations and by Time magazine, which two weeks ago honoured him at its European Heroes award ceremony.

On a micro level, Bjorgvinsson's story exemplifies the need for conservationists to fathom the economics as well as the ethics of their cause. "Surveys have found that up to 90% of the population wants to resume whaling so I am fighting the whole nation with this little war of mine," he says demurely. "In Iceland the thinking on conservation is still far behind other European countries. The attitude is informed by Greenpeace tactics during the whaling era, when they attacked Iceland's interests abroad, and encouraged people to boycott Iceland's products and tourism. Even today Greenpeace is considered a terrorist group in the country.” Iceland is a hunting-minded nation, he says. "They have not been brought up with the idea that you can enjoy animals as well as kill them. Whenever politicians or scientists are talking about it they say that we have to utilise whales like any other natural resource. So the only way we can win this battle is by emphasising the economic value of whales."

The impetus must come from within, though. "When you have an outside organisation campaigning, Icelanders tend to go the other way. The people are very proud. I remember the debate that you had in this country about preserving the English sausage. It's a similar thing."

In 1997, after developing a passion for whales late in life, Bjorgvinsson threw in his well-paid job as a fire safety consultant in Reykjavik and moved with his family to Husavik, a depressed seaside town in north-east Iceland. There he set about establishing a network of companies to organise whale-watching trips, and setting up a marine wildlife education centre. "When I set up the first whale watching workshop [to train interested parties] I was a laughing stock. I tried to get a representative from the parliament or the tourist council to open it and nobody wanted to do it. It took a lot of work to convince people."

Three companies evolved from that meeting. In the first year they took 2,200 people out to the whale feeding grounds round the northern coast. Last year they took more than 62,000.

The Whale Centre in Husavik, northeast Iceland, began as a makeshift exhibition in a local hotel. A year later some funding from the town council enabled Bjorgvinsson to buy an old baiting shed by the pier. The fishermen didn't think much of their new neighbour. Then, last June, a parliamentary subsidy coupled with the booming tourist trade established the two-storey, purpose-built educational centre that now dominates the seafront. The centre is non-profit-making, and allows children in free during the winter. "The kids are the future, and they love whales," he says. "I love seeing their jaws drop when I tell them that the blue whale's tongue is the same weight as an elephant."

The whales around Husavik have become used to an audience, he says. "We have very curious whales. They know the sound of the engine and come up to inspect the guests of the boat. Some we know by name because they've been turning up year after year.” The area is host to 14 types of whale, and is recognised as one of the best places in the world to spot blue whales.

Bjorgvinsson is desperate to encourage further research into his beloved mammals. He offers those involved in the academic study of whales free access to trips, and encourages all the whale-watching companies to log the whales they see and photograph them. But the scientific community does not share his enthusiasm. "The manager of the Marine Research Institute used to be head of the government's whaling department," he says.

"The scientists are now saying that they need to start killing minke whales to study what they are eating. We have also been offering the scientists facilities aboard the boat to sweep the area where the whales are feeding regularly to see what's there so they don't need to kill them. But they say these are highly debatably research methods and they have to kill them. And it's very difficult to argue with scientists especially when you're an electrician like me. I'm always ruled out as someone who doesn't know about whales. But I do feel that some of them have turned from being scientists into politicians."

The pro-whaling lobby in Iceland is highly vocal and enjoys support in politics and industry. "I have to focus on controlling my feelings and my temper so that I always make my arguments on an economic basis and never to allow myself to express feelings. If I say that I am fighting this battle because I love the whales so much that would be suicide.” He slices across his throat with a long tanned finger.

Meanwhile, ecotourism in Iceland is booming. The fastest growing sector of the economy, it brings in double the annual revenue generated by whaling in the 1980s, before the global moratorium was introduced. And in Husavik, the younger generation no longer need head for the capital to find a job.

Bjorgvinsson is bemused by the situation he finds himself in. "If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would be sitting here today chatting about whales I would have thought it absurd. But after I got hooked on whales there has been no return."

"It's a privilege to take people out on the water and show them whales," he adds, "because I know how much they appreciate it. My little museum is changing a lot of things because it's very educational."

He ponders. "I think someone has sent me on this crusade. I know that I am on the winning side but it will take a lot of time. The thing to keep in mind is to be consistent and patient. Follow your heart, that is the key. Dreams can come true."