HÚSAVÍK, Iceland – Surrounded by snow-capped mountain ranges, this small town on Iceland’s north coast has become the country’s ‘whale capital’ – whale watching is its cornerstone.
“It’s probably the most popular activity for visitors, foreign and domestic,” said Heimir Hardarson, captain of North Sailing.
As one of the pioneers of whale watching in Iceland, Hardarson has taken people to ocean waters for almost 30 years to experience a close encounter with some of the world’s largest animals.
“Very mystical creatures,” he says, “floating in their weightlessness. “
Recently, Hardarson took a handful of visitors to his boat which usually holds 90 passengers to spot humpback and fin whales in Skjalfandi Bay.
The number of visitors has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. But the global slowdown has actually been good for whales, as human interference has diminished. Ambient noise in the world’s oceans from cruise ships, sonar and construction is on the decline.
For more on this story, watch TODAY this morning at 8 a.m.ET.
“I think, overall, the pandemic has been largely positive for whales,” said Ari Friedlaender, marine ecologist and biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
He is studying how calmer oceans affected whales by measuring their stress levels through hormone samples. Friedlaender said animals use acoustics such as whale songs to communicate with each other and locate food. Noise in the environment can interfere with these communications and other critical vital functions
“The idea is that when you decrease human activity and the noisy environment, we’re going to see a decrease in the stress hormone levels of these animals,” he said.
Friedlaender said stress affects whales the same way it impacts humans, altering their behavior and their ability to perform physically and mentally. Stress can also lead to long-term changes affecting a whale’s overall health and its ability to reproduce.
“The animal may not reproduce as often as it would otherwise,” he said. “If it does not reproduce as frequently, the population does not have the opportunity to grow as quickly, nor to maintain its population growth.”
The pandemic has had an even more tangible impact on the whale population off the coast of Iceland: it has helped hasten the end of commercial whaling.
Download the NBC News app for comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus outbreak
Iceland is one of only three countries in the world to still allow commercial whaling, the other two being Japan and Norway, and last year two Icelandic whaling companies halted their hunting operations due to health restrictions. Operators told local media that social distancing regulations would make usual on-board treatment impossible.
“I will never go whaling again, I am stopping for good,” Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, managing director of the minke IP-Utgerd whaling company, told the Agence France-Presse news agency. Last year. And demand continued to decline.
“It is no longer necessary to hunt whales. You don’t have to eat them, ”said Eva Björk Káradóttir, director of the Húsavík Whale Museum. “The younger generation born after 2000 doesn’t really do it.”
In fact, much of the demand for whale meat in Iceland came from tourists who wanted to try it on their visits, she said. Icelanders have reexamined their relationship with whales over the past decades.
“I think tourism has started and we have started to attract people from all over the world. We got a new perspective, and it was just then that we really realized that our land is beautiful, our water is good and also that people are interested in whales, ”she said. .
Hardarson, the captain of the whale watching boat, said people had stopped eating whale meat for several reasons, including realizing that it was foolish to kill an animal that can live for almost a century. And he also pointed out another simple reason.
“They are worth a lot more alive than dead,” he said. “I think there will be no commercial whaling, and in the future. I don’t see any reason why there should be.
He acknowledged that animals are also affected by whale watching tours, but said the experience helps motivate people to protect them.
“There are threats also related to whale watching and you have to keep something in mind to try not to stress too much or put too much pressure on the resource in this way,” he said. . “We’re very concerned about this, so we’re trying to keep up the speed and we’re trying to minimize our carbon footprint.”
He now hopes that with the growth of tourism, as Iceland allows vaccinated visitors to enter the country without having to be quarantined, whale watching will again be big business, helping to support animals. and the whole city.