Cetacean Conversation

We live in a world riddled with challenges and controversies. In particular, wildlife is facing problems like never before in human history. Often, the first step to solving these problems is to talk about them.

Back in July, we held an event aimed at celebrating our love for whales and were joined by Húsavík’s whale-watching community. During the evening, one thing became clear: people wanted to talk. Yes, they wanted to celebrate whales and the love they bring us all, but they also wanted to discuss the threats that whales- indeed, the entire natural world- face. They wanted to make a difference and were willing to listen to other viewpoints.

Last week, responding to this desire for discussion, we held a Cetacean Conversation- an evening of six short debates concerning a range of topics. We wanted to provide an open platform for people to share their opinions and listen to others. We also wanted to search for direction- which are the most important issues to tackle and how can we go about tackling them? With excellent turnout and endless enthusiasm from those who attended, we hope we have taken the first steps towards this.

For each topic, we had a five-minute introduction from a knowledgeable speaker, followed by a 15-minute discussion. To decide which topics to debate, we created a poll of a long list of contentious issues for those attending the event to choose from. In general, the most popular theme centred around whale watching in Skjálfandi Bay- its potential impacts on whales, its sustainability and its future. Therefore, the first half of the evening focused on just that.

[Due to the controversial nature of these topics, we are not including the names of specific individuals.]

1. Are whales affected by whale watching in Skjálfandi Bay?

Clearly, the Whale Wise team was eager to debate this topic- after all, this is the focus of our research plan in Iceland. From short- to long-term effects, are whales disturbed and is there anything we can do about it?

After a few minutes, it was clear that the audience could debate this topic alone for an entire day. Most of those in attendance seemed to agree with one point: whales are likely affected by whale-watching vessels in Skjálfandi Bay. If a whale is surrounded by 7-8 vessels (a sight witnessed by both guides and researchers), disturbance seems very possible. Nobody knows the scale of this disturbance, but we are all keen to do something about it. Whilst this prevailing view is somewhat sad, it is also heartening to work with an industry which contains so many passionate people, dedicated to making their activities benefit all.

Despite this agreement, minimising this impact will be a major task. Perhaps the research centre should conduct impact assessments more regularly, lending greater scientific backing to the code of conduct by IceWhale. Perhaps IceWhale can play a more active role, enforcing strict accreditation of responsible whale watching. Perhaps whale watching companies can change marketing, reducing pressure on captains to produce perfect encounters. Marketing of up-close experiences may lead to tourists demanding more and not fully appreciating the importance of the code of conduct currently in place by Ice Whale. Perhaps we can improve cooperation between companies to minimise the number of boats encircling a single whale. As part of this, we may reconsider who makes the decisions about when to approach or leave a whale. It is currently the captain but, in other whale watching areas, it is often the guide. Whatever happens, whatever changes are made, all companies must agree to the changes.

The audience also highlighted that we cannot place too much blame on the companies, who still face the economic pressure of making profit. It is unfair to expect them to fully compromise their finances. In addition, this debate was attended mostly by guides, and we should not expect them to bear the full burden of these issues.

2. How necessary is whale watching for marine conservation?

In this debate, we discussed the role played by whale watching in encouraging marine conservation efforts, balanced against the potential negative impacts mentioned above. Whale watching is often labelled as eco-friendly, carbon-neutral and beneficial for marine conservation- but does it live up to this reputation?

The ensuing discussion was a fairly seamless continuation of the previous debate, with the prevailing opinion that whale watching is important for protection of marine life. From a conservation point of view, its greatest asset is a platform for guides to promote positive change as guardians of the sea, ambassadors of the ocean. It allows the public to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat and engages the unengaged.

We also discussed the potential of this industry to expand its conservation benefits. For example, perhaps whale watching can contribute to whale rescue by raising awareness and providing trained crew. In fact, Iceland has plans to implement a nation-wide stranding response- perhaps the whale-watching industry can play its part in this. Another interesting idea involved encouraging companies to invest a proportion of their profits into marine conservation initiatives. Perhaps there could even be a tax to offset carbon footprint, even if voluntary.

Related to this topic, we also discussed a future partnership between researchers and companies. Scientists are often mistrusted by others, and this might be improved if they actually conduct research on the behalf of their sceptics. For example, in the case of whale-watching companies, what are the optimal vessel types and movement patterns for whale watching? In this way, companies have a vested interest in cooperating with researchers. This is a promising avenue but care must be taken- if researchers have an incentive for their research (e.g. access to research vessels), science can easily become corrupt.

3. Should tourists be brought onto the same boat on quiet days?

This issue has been raised by several members of the whale-watching community, and is seen as a potential method of reducing vessel numbers in whale watching encounters. However, these initiatives may impact several groups:

  • Tourists would need to be more flexible in terms of departure time, boat type and the number of tourists on boats.
  • Companies could save money in terms of fuel and staff, but such plans would require more effort and logistical planning.
  • Staff members may have a less stressful schedule, but also lower income due to cancelled trips.

This was generally seen as a good idea by the audience, but the consensus was that it is all dependent on company management. There was also some discussion as to the scale of money being saved. The money saved may be insignificant, especially when balanced by additional logistics. Further, companies may prefer to always be out on the water, to maintain their market presence.

On a larger scale, this discussion dived into a potential re-evaluation of the tourism model. Instead of encouraging short-term gain, we should be thinking of the long-term sustainability of our activities. In this way, reducing the number of trips per day (whilst not compromising tourism numbers) is naturally linked to companies trying to be more eco-friendly. Perhaps such strategies require enforcement with legislation- in certain countries, for example, the number of vessels or encounters per day is limited.

Following this discussion of whale watching, and a break with some fantastic music by Trina, we delved into wider issues, still related to local activities in Húsavík and other communities across the world.

4. Could Húsavík go plastic-free?

This next topic deviates from the whale-watching theme, but remains local and relevant to nature. First, we addressed the fundamental question: why do we use so much plastic? Plastic is an incredible material and has some major benefits- it can improve food quality, aid transportation of goods and reduce food waste. However, as is now widely known, plastic is detrimental to our environment- especially our oceans- and communities are taking steps to curb its use. Other towns in Iceland have claimed to be ‘plastic-free’, such as Akureyri, Hafnarfjörður and Stykkishólmur, with campaigns tackling plastic bag usage. Húsavík tried to implement similar initiatives in 2017, but has been unsuccessful so far. Nevertheless, there is a bright future: from 1st of September 2019, all shops in Iceland must charge for plastic bags.

Although these are crucial steps towards becoming plastic-free, shopping bags are only a small fraction of our plastic waste. In the oceans, most plastic waste is derived from the fishing industry. This raises alarming questions: are campaigns, such as switching plastic straws for metal counterparts, just a fad of environmental awareness? Will such campaigns incite the lifestyle change necessary to end single-use plastic?

In Iceland, the issue is further compounded by the challenge of recycling. Most of Iceland’s plastic recycling is simply exported to other countries. Furthermore, plastic can only be recycled a few times in its life. Therefore, perhaps we need to focus on reducing and re-using instead of recycling. However, we should acknowledge the particular difficulty of this issue in Húsavík. As small community which relies on imported goods, a zero-waste lifestyle is hard to follow here.

Furthermore, perhaps we should be more concerned with the activities of large companies and corporations, instead of shaming citizens- especially if they don’t have the financial means to make more environmentally friendly choices. Large companies have the financial backing and means to change their practices, and yet usually choose the cheaper, easier way. Consumers can play their part by supporting those companies that make the change. For example, glass milk bottles are making a major comeback in the U.K.

By the end of this conversation, the audience seemed positive that Húsavík could, and indeed would, become plastic-free in the near future.

5. Should we allow tourism in the Arctic to grow?

The Arctic is possibly Earth’s most fragile region, in terms of both humans and wildlife. Whilst part of the Arctic consists of richer areas (primarily Scandinavian), the majority of its land area is home to poor, heavily subsidised communities, with a general lack of access to jobs and education. These areas are particularly susceptible to potential over-use of natural resources in the future. With small populations and large territories, these resources may have seemed almost infinite until recently. Now, combined with potential influx of tourists in the future (due to an increasingly accessible Arctic), natural resources are at risk. Examples can also be found in Iceland- the Greenland shark, a delicacy in Icelandic culture, is now commonly eaten by tourists, despite very little knowledge on population numbers.

Tourism requires four key components: transport, housing, food and leisure activities. To accommodate these needs in the high Arctic, infrastructure will need to change dramatically, perhaps associated with a rise in the cost of living.

As tourism booms in the Arctic, should we be taking steps to limit its activities? For example, the Arctic is arguably unequipped to deal with emergency situations and accidents. In addition, even tourism’s economic benefits may come at a cost, namely an over-reliance on industry. Many consider Iceland to be over-reliant on the money of tourists and fear collapse in the near future, which would lead to recession and job losses. Perhaps, then, some sort of regulation is necessary, such as quotas to reduce the number of tourists in national parks. Further, we should encourage investment in local companies instead of foreign ones, to ensure that money is circulated within the economy. Related to this, we ought to make an effort to hire more local guides, who will further invest in a local economy.

6. Is it justified to harm whales for science?

This topic was chosen for its controversial nature, and the discussion proved to be just that. Before starting the conversation, it was stressed that arguments require backing up with fact, data, science and numbers- especially when policy decision are being made- instead of just focusing on opinions and feelings, although these are important when dealing with ethics.

The discussion of this topic started with support for captivity. Much of the knowledge we have gained in marine mammal science has come from captive studies- to understand basic biology and to guide policy decision making on behalf of wild animals. For example, to deal with noise pollution, we must first know what an animal hears, their hearing thresholds and how much noise can cause harm. Perhaps this can only be achieved with controlled experiments and audiograms. Another example may be dealing with ship strikes- we need to know the existence and location of an animal’s visual blind spots, in order to design appropriate shipping routes.

However, most of the audience seemed to think that keeping cetaceans captive was not justified. First, do we need to know every single fact about an animal, prioritising our own need for information over its well-being? In the case of ship strikes, instead of being concerned with blind spots, perhaps we can simply reduce the speed of boats as a precaution. Is this extra information worth the animal suffering? Further, we discussed the potential of obtaining information from alternative strategies, although the technology for these alternates may not yet be fully available.

The fundamental difference between those who support or disagree with cetacean captivity was the opinion that we do not treat whales as equal to humans when we keep them in captivity. We don’t keep a group of humans in a cage just for knowledge, so why have this conversation about whales at all?

Diving into docos

Our original intention was to screen Whale Wisdom- a documentary about the intelligence of whales- after the debates. Due to some lengthy discussions (no bad thing, it shows the passion of the audience!), we unfortunately ran out of time. However, this allowed us to organise another evening of events, called ‘Diving into Docos’, focused around interesting wildlife films.

Paula’s documentaries

The evening started off with two interesting and unusual documentaries, suggested by Paula (a guide from Salka). Both focused on whaling but had rather different messages.

The first, Les Hommes de la Baleine, documented the lives of the last aboriginal sperm whalers in the Azores. Produced by Mario Ruspoli, this film was truly neutral in style, yet effectively captured the gruesome and tough lives of these whalers. Whilst most of the audience was staunchly against whaling, you could nevertheless appreciate the respect these whalers had for their targets, spending up to 20 hours in constant battle with these leviathans.

The second, Vive la baleine, was produced by Chris Marker, a revolutionary experimental cinematographer, and uses whaling iconography to construct a visual love letter to whales. Whilst disturbing due to the images used, it was both inspiring and thought-provoking. The damage we have wrought cannot be undone, but its memory can shape the future for the better.

Beaked whales in the Canary Islands

Breaking up the two documentary sessions was a presentation by Crístel Reyes Suárez on her research into beaked whales in the Canary Islands. In particular, she described some incredible new behaviours of Blainville’s beaked whales, providing insights into their social lives. The audience was fortunate to see some never-seen-before footage of social interactions, which will be shown to the wider scientific community shortly.

Whale Wisdom

Produced by Wild Logic and Terra Mater Studios. With stunning footage and narrated by David Attenborough, marine biologist and filmmaker Rick Rosenthal explores the intelligence of cetaceans, visiting populations across the world to reveal their complex lives. From orcas to humpbacks to sperm whales, we see how cetaceans learn, teach, solve problems and care for each other. The Whale Museum is proud to screen the Iceland premiere and share this story with such a passionate, appreciative audience. This documentary is particularly close to the hearts of the Whale Wise team: Mark Romanov, who collected our 16 blow samples in 2018 and continues to work closely with us, partly filmed and co-produced this stunning documentary. Thank you to the Whale Wisdom team for allowing us access to this fantastic cetacean celebration.

This was the perfect end to a successful series of public events this summer. We celebrated the love of this community for whales and nature in general. We highlighted what we love about whales and the threats they still face. We discussed controversial issues, with the hope of producing solutions in the future. We appreciated, conveyed, and cherished the reason we are all here: whales.

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